Fr. Michael McGourty is pastor of St. Peter’s Parish in Toronto.
On the first weekend that we were unable to publicly celebrate Mass in our churches because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I had what I can only describe as a panic attack.
I struggled with a great deal of anxiety in those first few weeks of the church closures. I was terribly worried about how St. Peter’s Parish, which struggles financially under normal circumstances, would pay its bills during this crisis. I feared it would be necessary to lay off our parish staff and I did not know how I would look after the parishioners or maintain our huge property without our staff. The anxiety and stress that was making me panic was caused by my illusion that I had to solve these problems on my own and that I could be in control of these difficult circumstances.
As the weeks passed, I slowly realized that I could not deal with these issues on my own. I sought support in prayer and from friends, which helped me learn that many other people were feeling the same way I was.
It certainly helped that many good people at our archdiocesan chancery worked with the bishops to come up with solutions to many of the parish’s concerns. The situation was also aided by the support that many of us received from the government during this crisis. However, what I really had to learn (and accept) during this uncertain time is the same lesson that Jesus announces in this Sunday’s Gospel. This life-giving and freeing message of the Gospel has been hidden from the “wise and the intelligent, and revealed to infants.”
When I was studying at St. Augustine’s Seminary, my favorite teacher was the late Bishop Attila Mikloshazy, my liturgy professor. Bishop Mikloshazy said the most important lesson in the spiritual life to remember “that God is God and you are not.”
This is not always an easy thing to remember. We are often tempted by the desire to always be in control. Most of us hate uncertainty. When problems arise, we want to solve them with plans that make us feel confident that everything will be alright from our human perspective.
The reality of life is that we need to be aware of the things that we can control and be able to live with the things that we cannot control. There is a great prayer that is used in twelve-step groups that captures this reality. It goes: “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
This is such an important prayer for me to pray when I am tempted to forget that God is God and I am not.
It strikes me that this is what Jesus is getting at in today’s Gospel.
Let me share an example with you. Imagine how ridiculous we would consider a two-year-old getting a job and feeling responsible for providing for her or his family. In a healthy family, no infant is expected to care for her or his parents. The infant trusts the parents and does not even think about the mortgage payments and bills. There is nothing an infant can possibly do about these things.
Although we might be slow to admit it, and uncomfortable to accept it, the reality is that we must trust God, our loving Father. We are His children and we must trust in His loving providence, as we are powerless over certain things. There are things that we can control and there are responsibilities that we need to tend to in life. However, there are things that we cannot control — like natural disasters, illness, accidents, pandemics, the hour of our death and a whole list of things that make us uncomfortable.
We can pretend that we are in control of these things, if we wish. However, as we try to control those things that are beyond our power, in all likelihood, we will find ourselves creating unnecessary stress and anxiety for ourselves. The more we live with the unreasonable expectation that we control situations that are, in fact, beyond our control, the more likely we are to find ourselves panicking in the face of our reality.
As we come to terms with our powerlessness in certain situations, it is then that our hearts are ready for the comforting words of Jesus in today’s Gospel: “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Sadly, these words that should bring me comfort, are words that I often struggle to put into action. Because of my pride, I often have the curse of falling into that category of people who think of themselves, as Jesus says, among the “wise and the clever of the world.” Those of us who struggle with this problem, always think that we can solve things on our own. Even in prayer, we might come to God looking insights to help us use our intelligence to solve and deal with the situations before ourselves. When we do this, we end up closing our hearts and minds to the presence of the loving God who is at our side to assist us and give us the grace we need to walk tranquilly through those situations that we cannot fix and solve.
When we rely only on our own strength, we become blind to the God who desires to walk at our side. The result being that the mysteries of the Gospel are hidden from our eyes, as they are revealed only to God’s children who know that “God is God and I am not.”
What are we to do when trials come our way?
We should start by doing the best we can, as we use our prudence and common sense to care for our self and our neighbours. But, once that has been done, and we have been wise enough to recognize that the situation is beyond our control, we must hand it over to God in prayer if we are to enjoy serenity and peace in these situations. The alternative is to bring upon ourselves anxiety, stress and needless panic.
Now, I used to hear people say, “Give it to God,” and I had no idea what that meant. I have since come up with my own notion of what that means. This is how I do it. For me, to give something to God, requires prayer in a quiet place — ideally before the Blessed Sacrament in the church. There, I like to imagine myself in conversation with Jesus, who loves me and you very much. I imagine giving these fears and anxieties to Jesus. Sometimes as I come to Him, I do so as a child; at other times, I do so as an adult coming to a friend or brother.
When I say that “I give Jesus my fears and anxieties,” I mean that I imagine myself physically handing them to him to carry. If things are really bad, I imagine Him as the Good Shepherd carrying me on His shoulders and me as the helpless sheep that He has come to save. Sometimes the burden begins to lift quickly; at other times, I need to sit there with Him for a long time. Even if I have to sit there a long time, I don’t leave until I understand the meaning of His words: “For I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
It is said that St. John XXIII, pope from 1958 to 1963, would go into a chapel every night before he went to bed and say: “Lord, it’s your Church, I’ve done my best today. I’m going to bed, you look after it.”
Despite the great responsibility of his office, as pope, he always exuded such peace. St. John XXIII knew how to be a child of God. Jesus invites us to have the same confidence of His presence in our lives.
In this Sunday’s reading from the Book of Zechariah, we hear how God came to protect His people at a time of war. The people rejoice because the Lord came to rescue them from the war horses and chariots from Ephraim by riding humbly on a donkey. The temptation for all of us is to try and solve every challenge with our strength, intelligence and wisdom. Yet, we are all of us God’s children and, as His children, there are certain things that we must entrust to His care and providence.
When certain things are beyond our human power, it is futile to fight them or to weigh ourselves down with anxiety, stress and panic trying to solve a problem over which we have no power. These situations call us to take up His invitation in today’s Gospel: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
May we all learn the joy of being God’s children and giving Him our fears over the things that are beyond our control. When fear and anxiety are about to overtake you, stop and be still and know that God is God and you are not. By doing this, you will experience the freedom that only Jesus can give.
This reflection based on the readings for the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, year A: Zechariah 9:9-10; Psalm 145; Romans 8: 9, 11-13; and Matthew 11: 25-30.