Emmitsburg Council of Churches

Stress or Serenity?

Notes from a Serenity Retreat on Mary's Mountain

Father John J. Lombardi 

Under the gun? Blessed Miguel Pro was literally under the gun, and he said, right before being shot by communists in Mexico, who despised God and his Catholicism: "Viva Christo Rei: Long live Christ the King." He shows us modern day Catholics that we can still be spiritual in extremely stressful situations-if we call on Christ. Beat the heat?--St Lawrence was being burned over a fire by Roman persecutors and, according to sacred lore, he said: "Turn me over; I'm done on that side." Saints like him (or, even their friends who pass on "stories") show us we can transcend our situations-even with humor. All cooped up? A youth whom I visited in jail recently asked me to pray the serenity prayer with him. He hasn't tasted fresh daylight in two months and was hungry for some fresh, spiritual air, so we prayed: "God grant me the courage to change the things I can change; the acceptance of things I cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference." That wisdom will bring serenity! And that guy in jail smiled serenely, freely after the prayer.

Serenity-we all could use a little of that, especially after such "exciting" national elections. Everybody is stressed these days and we as Catholics have the most amount of spiritual weaponry to bring healing-but, are we? So, why then go to the Himalayas for peace when you can make a Mountain Pilgrimage right here in Emmitsburg, to the Grotto? Why go to a guru when you can turn to an accessible spiritual giant like Pope John Paul II-who counsels meditation and Christ-centered Adoration: "Let our adoration never cease." Why take exotic yoga classes when you can learn the art of Christian contemplation with established masters such as Fr Dubay, who was just nearby in Frederick, and gain counsel from his classic work, Fire Within. "Contemplation is a deepening self-communication of the Trinity, a self-communication that we are given to experience." Why get worry beads from the East when you can pick up your own Rosary beads (scented or unscented) and, as Pope John Paul II has counseled, we can meditate on the Life of Jesus thru Mary's eyes of Faith? Are Catholics really responding to the stresses of the world adequately-really tapping into, and using the breadth of holy-helps for this hectic harriedness that seems, now, part of the air we breathe? Colleen Carroll Campbell, in her excellent book, The Young Faithful stresses that more young persons are turning toward traditional forms of religion-Rosary, Eucharistic Adoration, confession, instead of feeding upon fads. Now: Isn't this a turning to classical religion because it is a--or, rather, the best--metaphysical response to distressing times that progressive-liberalists have rejected or neglected? The answer to being stressed out is right under our spiritual noses, within our religion. Religion, by the way, means "to bind together," and Catholicism binds even stressed out souls with God-The-Trinity.

My Dad, who grew up in downtown Baltimore (or, for locals, "Ballmer, hon."), selling papers, then driving a taxicab, and later in sales, would wolf down dinner when we five children were growing up, and then return to work for a few hours, often says regarding folks today getting stressed out-including soccer moms ( a sister) and busied priests (yours truly): "We used to work and work and work, but we never even knew what stress was." Yeah. What gives, Pop?

With Thanksgiving and Christmas approaching, we would do well to pray for and meditate upon serenity so we can fully welcome the Prince of Peace. "Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while." (Mk. 6:31).

Stress, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, is: "A mentally or emotionally disruptive or upsetting condition occurring in response to adverse external influence and capable of affecting physical health…From the Latin- strictus, stringere, 'to draw tight'. "

We all have stress-just get out of bed and you're fair game for today's harried, hectic world. Jesus says: "Things that cause sin will inevitably occur…" (Lk 17:1). Yes, and that includes stressful situations! Now, on the other hand, serenity means: "unaffected by disturbance, calm and unruffled… Latin, sereus- serene, clear." Serenity is a "state or quality of being serene; tranquility." (AHD). Stress tightens; serenity clears. Which one are you choosing?

A school recently asked a priest to deliver some talks on Serenity and Stress management. Did you ever think (as my father probably does often): priests are some of the busiest people in the world, what do they know about serenity?! Well, here goes…

Remote and Proximate Practice: you will achieve a greater stress-free life if you recall and practice this. Remote preparation means intentionally following a spiritual path of Practice and disciplines throughout the year, no matter what (marked "R" below); and Proximate means when you are in the heat of the battle" you need to respond with unique practice appropriate to the situation ("P" below).

Eucharistic Adoration (R): Pope John Paul has declared this the Year of the Eucharist. So, what are you waiting for? Go in to a Church before the Lord Jesus in the Tabernacle and pray. Just sit there! Practice AtOneMent with God-this is one meaning of the word Atonement-Unity with the Lord thru deeper healing, slowing ourselves enough to allow Him to suffuse His Divinity with our bodies and souls. (P)Also go before Him and give all your trouble to His Divine Heart: He is an Infinite Receptor of suffering souls: "Come to me all you who are weary and I will refresh you" (Mt.11:28).

KISS-Keep It Simple Stupid (P): Pope John Paul: he's been the busiest man in the world and yet he knows about what is most important-- God. "Seek ye first the Kingdom and all else will be added unto you" (Mt. 6:33). God has helped him thru super-stressful situations-becoming a priest during communism; surviving his mother's early death; laboring hard as a stone quarryman thru Nazism; becoming Pope; getting shot at by an assassin; getting spit at by dissenters and protestors; putting up with lots of nonsense…The Pope's stress management, as with many saints? Daily the Pope says Mass and prays before the Bl Sacrament, and prays a Rosary. How can you make Jesus and Mary part of your stress management? One time a preacher was late to the Pope's chapel to give a talk. All the officials were stressed out, worrying for the preacher to arrive. The Pope? He was praying his Rosary.

Marian Mystogogy : The Virgin grew troubled when the Angel visited her to announce she would bear the Christ-Child. But then the angelic messenger gave the mystical message and help-which is what we should pray in stressful situations (and image within): "The power of the Most High will overcome you…"(Lk. 1: 25). (R)Within your soul mediate upon this; (P)in the heat of battle image within, think about, and actually say this holy verse and Divine Reality to overcome your false self with the soul's newfound Higher Power of Spirit .

DWDP=Dealing with Difficult People-and situations (R and P): this is inevitable. People will "push your buttons" and you may be tempted to "fly off the handle." Remember: haste makes waste (the unchecked passions skewer us and others) but serenity provides liberating clarity: calm-awareness helps you see what to do and what not to do. Project love, not fear. The tendency of our harried souls is to react, not respond, to angrily, grittily chainsaw someone with words or glaring invectives, rather than dispassionately transcending the situation and giving a gentle response. Sometimes the answer will be the same (essence-wise) but your delivery and heart's intention will be dramatically different. Don't get stuck, enchained into the disharmonious dance of anger and vitriol with others-don't pass on evil for evil. So: bite your tongue (literally) and count to ten and call on the Holy Spirit for help instead of yelling first, or volcanically erupting and being sorry later.

Practice Transcendence-Extension (R). Huh? To transcend means, from the Latin, "trans- across, and scendere-to climb, to pass beyond the limits of." (AHD). Okay, so this practically means: rise above the situation. You're not an animal; you're not a rat on a treadmill or a stooge in a play who has to get angry, upset and carry on stress, rage or resentments. But you must learn to ex-tend the momentary victories you win more and more thru the "daily grind" so they become habits, dispositions within. Ergo: analyze at the end of a day where you "rose above a situation" of stress and how you did it. Vow to extend this to other situations-with God's grace! (P) Think of Christ before Pilate and extend His self-control and Peace from that time and sacred event into your own.

New Creation (R): "Behold, if anyone is in Christ, the old has passed away and the new has come" (II Cor 5:17). Just who is it that is showing up for another conversation, argument or difficulty? ---the "same old you" or a "new you," a different, transformed person? We must be "begotten from above" (Jn. 3:3) and "renewed in the spirit of our minds" (Rm 12:2). So (P): before entering a conversation, STOP and ask: Is it the "same-old me" or a "new me" that is going to deal with a difficult person or who is going to try to reconcile or offer love?

Rehearse Releasement (R): Say inwardly and practice regularly, esp. in the heat of the battle: "I release all negative thoughts, pacify my passions and allay any attachments: these have no power over me." Say, now, with St Paul: "I have the strength for everything thru Him who empowers me" (Phil4:13). Mindfully pray and practice this during prayer times.

Stressing Stress? Are you consciously or unconsciously creating stress in your life-by a conditioned process of turning on the treadmill of tensions in life (always needing stimuli, anxiety, and tension- to feed off of)? Are you throwing wood on the fire of your passions-for instance constantly exposing yourself to distressing news? Review and examine these various situations and then plan a course of action of liberation, healing and response. Persevere, as it will be difficult to change. Yes, you can teach an old dog (yourself) new tricks (virtues) if you seek, desire change, and then persevere in changing.

Cathy-the-cleaner: She recently asked what I did on my day off. I said, a little embarrassedly, "Well, I just did nothing yesterday." She immediately responded: "You need to do that sometimes". Do that by not doing! Read Mk 6:31. Hurry up and slow down!

Offer it up (R and P): Make a current suffering, irritation or stressful situation one with Jesus-unite it to His distress on the Cross and save souls-esp. lost ones in purgatory.

Simplify vs. Multi-Tasking: Are you doing too much, "balancing too many balls"? What do you need to give up, cut out…even good things.

Practice the Presence of God: Know you are always in His Divine Presence-wherever you are. Wake up! Are you not aware you are a temple of the Holy Spirit? (I Cor 6:19) He is within you. Mindfulness of this Divine fact should help you toward serene calmness if you practice the Presence of God. Invoke Him, go within the still wilderness of your Soul and remember: serenity means clarity. Read Jn 17:21 about unity with the Trinity.

SISTER=Sit In Stillness Till Everything Recedes (R): Unless you gain self mastery thru meditation-in-stillness, you will never see the depths of Truth or self-illusions, or soul. Like a soul that is constantly agitated, so is your soul unless you stop. Be still and allow Him to enlighten you. Stop multi-tasking and begin calmly basking-thru Him, with Him and in Him.

Misplaced anger (P): I learned this one in the seminary. Say within while undergoing unjustified wrongs towards you: "I am not the target." This will help with loving detachment.

Confession (R): Overcome your sins, faults and even part of your tempestuous temperament by de-railing these distressing behaviors in this "Sacrament of Love" (Mother Teresa). You are binding yourself to negative actions and thoughts if you do not discharge them. Thus, Christ uses this image of "un-binding" regarding Reconciliation, twice in the Gospels (Mt. 16: 19 / Jn. 20: 23). Don't let a month go by without de-enslaving yourself!

Ejaculations (P and R): these are short, heart-felt sayings, said in stressful situations, which may include: Jesus, I trust in you. Mary, I love you. O God, come to my assistance, make haste to help me. Jesus: I need you, I love You, I trust You. Repeat and imprint within to transcend imprisoning passions and external challenges. Remember Miguel Pro!

Know Your Nature (R): you have a temperament, a gene-pooled-blood-affected personality-hot or cold, Type-A fastidious and frantic, or cooler, passive and introspective. Know your strengths and weaknesses. St Peter , the first Pope, was probably more Type-A and external; Our Lady seems to be more internalized and Type-B-contemplative. We need both in the Church-active and passive. Some will react to stressful situations right away while others let things fester and boil-and then erupt. By knowing yourself you can free your soul.

Driving and Traffic: the more traffic and red lights, the more stress. Start out earlier on your trip with less forcefulness and aggression. Yield: not only because road signs suggest it, but because it is spiritual to do so. Fiat, surrender, "let it be done…" (Lk. 1: ).

Family-children: The most challenging places of holiness are usually the most common-work and home. Remember three essential points: you're there to 1) sacrifice for and with them; 2) get them to Heaven; 3) and always, as St Paul said: "Put on the bond of love" (Eph. ). warrant a continual reading The Love Chapter, I Cor. 13.

Loving Detachment: foster this attitude and disposition by slowly and consistently freeing yourself of unnecessary people, places and things. And, finally, don't forget to free yourself from your soul. Make yourself "less sticky" to attach to, less of a target for button pushers and difficult people to attack or war with.

Remember-one of the best definitions of Peace is: Tranquilitas ordinis-the tranquility of order-things which are disparate are not tranquil, ordered, in their right places. Is this true of your heart and soul?

TBC- Next week: Practices from Stress into Serenity.

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi