My father used to work in the intelligence community. He says that there were a high number of Catholics in this community because they “knew how to follow the rules.” He also says they had a high rate of nebulous results on their lie detector tests – a fact that he and his friends always attributed to “Catholic guilt.” Stressing over answers delayed their response times and would register as a “not quite the truth” response.
I was reading a study* this week about how the neurochemical mechanism of stress has been discovered. Pharmaceutical companies are likely clamoring to create a drug to stop stress in its tracks.
The problem is, “stress” is a very broad term and it always points to an imbalance. The triggering of the “fight of flight” mechanism always means something within the person needs to be addressed. Sometimes this imbalance is, in fact, neurochemical and medications are helpful in addressing the imbalance. Muting stress without looking at the causes though, should not be an option. Maybe it will be an option someday, but it certainly isn’t a viable option. Our bodies were created with beautiful precision. If we are experiencing stress, we need to examine our whole self – body, mind, and spirit – to discover and address the reason for the stress.
Stress almost always reveals some form of suffering.
Saint Pope John Paul II, in his Apostolic Letter, Salvifici Dolores (SD), spoke most eloquently to the unavoidable presence of suffering in the human condition. Having suffered deeply and personally through the loss of his mother at a young age and as a young person growing up surrounded by the atrocities of the Holocaust, he wrote as a veritable expert on the subject of suffering.
The concept of “salvific suffering” reminds us that although suffering in life is unavoidable, Christ stands with us in our suffering. It does not call us to go out and seek suffering. Nor, does it call us to not address the suffering if there is a remedy for it. Yes, we strive to suffer through with God’s grace, to offer our suffering for the pains of others, but not just to suffer without purpose or end. “Salvific suffering” helps give meaning to and make some sense of suffering, yes, but to seek it out or endure it endlessly without seeking assistance, no.
Many years ago, I was telling my spiritual advisor of some personal suffering. In his wisdom he said something that stuck with me through the decades, he said, “Rebecca, you are not Christ. Let Christ be Christ. Give it to Him.” “In the cross of Christ not only is Redemption accomplished through suffering, but also human suffering itself has been redeemed” (SD 19).
In Catholicism, we are also taught that our bodies “are the temple of the Holy Spirit.” If there is a smoke signal going out, if the temple is “under-siege,” should we just let the temple burn? Stress is a “smoke signal” that points to a pressure upon – a potential or actual brokenness of some part of the person. We are called to save the temple and respect our own human dignity as children of God.
Children of the living God. Children of a God who calls us to fullness of life.
Christ died and took all of the sins of the world upon Himself. Through his own suffering he offered us the resurrection. New life. Bright life. Full-of-joy-life.
The term “self-care” has floated around the counseling community since the late ‘80’s. Unfortunately, many people think that “self care” is an indulgence or luxury. At a most basic level though, it is an important response to stress. It is our responsibility to take care of the temple. When we feel stress we need to look into ourselves and look for the cause – is it in the body, mind, or spirit? We often need help with this, from an objective point of view – be it a physician, counselor, priest, spiritual director. These people can help us find the brokenness and put us on the path to healing.
But, they can only help us along the path. We need to take the first steps and then keep plodding along the journey. It may not be an easy journey. It definitely would be easier if there were an “anti-stress” pill to pop.
In the Gospel, even Christ’s own friends didn’t recognize him after the resurrection. In their sadness, they plodded along not recognizing that it was He who was right beside them. It was not until He “opened their eyes” that they recognized Him. While we are entrusted with the care of our own temples, it is He who will open our eyes. Let us always strive to take care of our temples, to ask Him to heal our whole selves – body, mind, and spirit – and to open our eyes to the beauty of the colors around us.
The problem with that “anti-stress pill” is that, if we take the pill, we won’t get to see the colors at all.
And the colors are brilliant….worth every plodding step.