Anxiety, like all tensions, eats at us at various levels. More superficially, we worry about many things. Deep down though we are anxious in a way that colors most everything we do. So much of what motivates and drives us is an unconscious attempt to free ourselves from anxiety. We are forever nursing the hope that we can free ourselves from anxiety through achievement, success, financial security, fame, leaving a mark, and through power and sex. We nurse the secret belief that if we have the right combination of these our lives we will have the substance we need to feel secure and non-anxious.
But experience soon teaches us that these things, though good in themselves, are not our cure. Indeed they can, and often do, make us more anxious: As soon as we have financial security, we become anxious about protecting it; and as soon as we have power, we are constantly looking over our shoulders in fear about losing it. As well, success can quickly become a cancer because we have a congenital propensity to identify our self-worth with our achievements and this pressures us always to be doing something of importance for fear of no longer feeling worthwhile. And sex, unless it is experienced inside a truly committed and unconditional relationship, becomes a drug, with the same addictive quality and ineffectiveness as any other drug. Sex, like achievement and fame, will not quell the deep demons inside us.
We are forever trying to give ourselves wholeness, but we cannot. We cannot self-justify. We cannot make ourselves immortal. We cannot write our own names into heaven. Only love casts out anxiety and, indeed, only a certain kind of love can give us substance. Only God’s love can write our names into heaven. What’s the algebra here?
Some years ago, I went on a weeklong retreat directed by Fr. Robert Michel, a French-Canadian, Oblate missionary. He began the retreat with these words: “I want to make this a very simple retreat for you. I want to teach you how to pray in a particular way. I want to teach you how to pray so that in your prayer, sometime, perhaps not this week, perhaps not even this year, but sometime, you will open yourself so that in your deepest self you will hear God say to you: ‘I love you!’ Because before you hear this inside you, nothing will be enough for you. You’ll be searching for this and for that, running here and running there, trying every kind of thing, but nothing will ever be quite right. After you hear this from God, you will have substance; you will have found the thing you’ve been looking for so long. Only after you have heard these words will you finally be free of your anxiety.
In a culture too-easily given to false-sophistication, it can be tempting to dismiss his words as naïve, or over-pious, or sentimental; but what these words are inviting us to is, in essence, what Jesus invites us to in John’s Gospel.
As we know, in the Gospel of John, Jesus exhibits very little humanity. John’s Gospel depicts him as divine from the first page to the last. And, in that Gospel, the first words out of Jesus’ mouth are an invitation: “What are you looking for?” The entire Gospel of John then tries to answer that question: What are we looking for? Throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that we are looking for many things: Living-water which quenches our deepest thirst and never needs to be drunk again, a truth that sets us free, a rebirth to something above, a light that shines eternally. But these images can seem abstract. What’s the real kernel inside them?
The Gospel of John eventually answers that a very clear way. Near the end of the Gospel (indeed this was probably the original end of John’s Gospel) we have that poignant, post-resurrection meeting between Jesus and Mary of Magdala. It takes place in a Garden, the archetypal place where love happens: Mary, carrying spices to embalm his dead body, goes searching for Jesus on Easter Sunday morning. She meets him, but doesn’t recognize him. Supposing him to be the gardener, she asks him where she might find the body of the dead Jesus. Jesus replies by repeating the question with which he opened the Gospel: “What are you looking for?” Then, before she can answer, he gives the deepest answer to that question: He pronounces her name in love: “Mary”. In that very-particularized affirmation of love (for which Robert Michel invites us to pray) he writes her name into heaven. He gives her substance, and he cures her of her anxiety.
Since love needs to be mutual, that affirmation has to be responded to in kind. And … in that lies the risk: As Simone Weil puts it: “Inner communion is good for the good and bad for the bad. God invites all the dammed into paradise, but for them it is hell.” God willing, for us it is heaven!