The Body Will Speak
In our dealing with anxiety, we are helped by our relaxation techniques, but in the end it is in our faith and trust in God that we find our greatest help.
I often go back to a sentence I heard from Geneviève de Taisne, a French psychotherapist who used to teach at the Catholic Institute in Paris, concerning the way in which most people instinctively tend to be in denial with regards to their levels of fatigue, stress, anxiety, and past traumatic experiences, as a strategy to reduce the distress they cause to us. Of course, we can go only so far in this denial before we acknowledge our need for rest or help, and if we persist in ignoring the problem, at one point – this is her sentence- “the body will speak”.
Our body speaks.
It does so in many ways, especially through a whole range of physical illnesses which we call “psycho-somatic” and which go from simple headaches to more serious and sometimes life-threatening conditions.
This is particularly true of anxiety, which in small doses is not necessarily a bad thing. Some level of anxiety can be useful when we face a challenge, because it mobilizes our energies and heightens our levels of alertness and focus. In terms of evolutionary psychology, anxiety is the remnant of the so called “fight, flight, or freeze” mechanism in the presence of danger which we share with the animal world: our brain floods the body with adrenaline, kicking us into action, helping us to find a solution or escape route quickly and effectively.
For many people and especially at certain times in our lives, however, anxiety can insidiously spill over our ordinary way of functioning and become so pervasive and habitual that we are not consciously aware of it any more. It is at this point that, in Genevieve de Taisne’s words, our body speaks, it alerts us that something is wrong, in ways we are all more or less familiar with, like, for example, inability to focus in our work, or troubles with our sleep.
We all have stories to tell concerning the link between anxiety and sleep patterns. Sometimes we become aware of how pervasive our anxiety has become only because we experience difficulties to fall asleep in the evening or we keep waking up very early in the morning and are unable to go back to sleep, however much we might need and want more rest.
Dealing with this form of anxiety is not easy. The body again plays a key role in this process. Some of the most effective ways of reducing anxiety are relaxation techniques, contact with nature, sport, healthier eating. Just as our body “speaks” by revealing levels of anxiety we might not be aware of, so it becomes an ally in helping us to defuse this anxiety by letting go of things, worrying less, and relinquishing some control, thanks to the attitude exquisitely conveyed by the famous Alcohol Anonymous Prayer:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference”.
Mark’s Gospel points us in this direction in this little gem which I would like to call ‘the parable of the good sleepers’, that is those who have become good at appreciating what depends on them and what doesn’t, and to act accordingly: they scatter seed at the right time and in the right way, but then have the wisdom to know that their role simply is to sleep and let the earth do its job, since “the seed sprouts and grows, and they do not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head” (Mk 4.29).
The Gospel of course is not just simply giving us a recipe against anxiety, although there is nothing that I find more soothing in this respect than Jesus’ invitations not to worry and his injunction “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof”. The parable of the good sleepers is meant to describe the way in which the kingdom of God works, that is how God acts in history. Something is definitely expected from us and yet it is crucial for us to know when we have to let God do the work, and pray for the wisdom to know the difference.
Often, the greater our zeal, the more difficult it is for us to “sleep”, that is to take a step back, wait, and trust.
I find that this is charmingly illustrated in an episode of the life of St Paul, the evangelisation of the Thessalonians, which can be pieced together by comparing the 17th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles with the letters that Paul wrote to this community.
In Acts 17, we read that Paul, arriving in Thessalonica, “following his usual custom,” went for three Saturdays in a row to the synagogue to proclaim the good news, that is, in the words of today’s Gospel, to scatter the seed. We are told that all Paul did was to tell a story – the story of what Jesus did and said, because this is the only thing we can do – tell the story, and then let it works its magic “by itself’, automatos (this is the Greek word used in today’s Gospel in the sentence: “the earth produces its fruit by itself”). Indeed this is what happened on this particular occasion.
We are told that just after this first contact with the Thessalonians, a violent persecution erupted, and Paul had to flee the city in a hurry (Acts 17:4-10). This means that he had no time to establish any community, nor appoint any leader, maybe not even baptise anyone. In the words of the second parable in today’s Gospel, he was able only to sow a tiny mustard seed, and had to leave.
The first letter to the Thessalonians takes up the story where the Acts of the Apostles leaves off, and Paul recounts it in the first person. We see him in the grip of great anxiety about this community: considering how little he had been able to do to establish the church in this city and the violent persecution that had followed, he feared that the faith of the Thessalonians had been wiped out. He tried several times to return to the city, but this proved impossible. So at one point, unable “to bear his worry any longer,” he decided to send there his friend Timothy, to strengthen and encourage them in their faith (1 Thess 3:1-2).
To Paul’s great surprise, however, when Timothy came back from this visit, he brought unexpected news: “Timothy has returned to us from you -Paul says- bringing us the good news of your faith and love, and that you always think kindly of us and long to see us as we long to see you” (1 Thess 3:6). Despite Paul’s absence and the persecution, the community was thriving, the seed had sprouted, and grown, the earth had produced of itself the full grain, the tiny mustard seed had become a great shrub and put forth large branches. Indeed, not only had the young and small community held onto its faith but had even started to evangelize other cities – it had become such a large tree that “the birds of the air had made nests in its shade” (Mk 4.32).
So Paul had been anxious in vain. He should have meditated a bit longer on Jesus’ parables and learnt that this is the way in which the Kingdom of God works: all that is asked from us is keep telling the story, Jesus’ story – because it is a great story, and simply trust its power.
We do not convert anyone, only God does.
We constantly need to remember that we are not working for our kingdom or our church, but for God’s kingdom and God’s church – in the Lord’s prayer, daily, we do not say: “Our kingdom come”, but “Thy kingdom come”.
The good news is that if Paul could get it wrong – that if even he at times did not have the wisdom to know the difference between what was expected from him and what he should let happen automatos, by itself – if even for him this was arduous, than it is perfectly understandable that it should be hard for us too. We are just like the countless other pastors and ministers in the history of the Church who, as much as they believed in Jesus’ promises and in his presence through the Holy Spirit, have continued to act as if everything depends on them, as if the success of their evangelizing work merely is the result of human strategies and skills.
It is the Word of God -that is the power of Jesus’ story- that builds the community, this is why we keep telling it to each other, Sunday in, Sunday out. I find refreshing to know that this is all we have to do, and then let go, and sleep. The Church, as a whole and each of its local communities, is a “creature of the Word” in Luther’s famous sentence: the Church begins and is kept alive only thanks to the ‘power of the story’ - only to the extent that it constantly allows itself to be called together, shaped, consoled, guided, and instructed by the Word proclaimed, welcomed, and meditated upon.
Sleeping therefore means believing that even if we “do not know how”, as the Gospel says, God does act in our lives and in history, and our sleep is a metaphor for our trust and our faith.
As the Psalm 127 beautifully puts it
Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for God gives to his beloved [in his] sleep. (Psalm 127)
Not least among the magic worked by these words there is their ability to bring us peace, to relieve our anxiety, especially when we repeat them to ourselves in the midst of our busy days, as often as possible. In our dealing with anxiety, we are helped by our relaxation techniques, but in the end it is in our faith and trust in God that we find our greatest help. He cares for us. “God gives to his beloved in his sleep”!