Abba Nilus said: Do not want things to turn out as they seem best to you, but as God pleases. Then you will be free of confusion and thankful in your prayer.
Mental health and our spiritual tradition
October is Mental Health Month. Mental health, as we know, can be complex. However, putting aside those expressions of mental health issues which require counselling or other forms of treatment, in the normal day to day of our lives, we all need to be aware of what we can do to ensure we develop and maintain a healthy way of being and living. This includes our thoughts, feelings, outlook and attitudes as well as our choices and actions. So what might our Christian tradition have to tell us about these aspects of our well-being? What is its contribution to our mental health? There are several instances in the Gospels where Jesus exhorts us not to be anxious or troubled, not to be afraid. In other words, he is identifying that one of our distinctively human tendencies is to be just that – to worry, to brood, to be anxious. And he offers us a way out of that into a more healthy way of being which is then expressed in the way we live and interact with others.
Jesus regularly invites us into peace. There are many ways of understanding peace. Peace may be seen as the absence of war or any form of conflict. Peace may be understood as tranquility and serenity, watching the waves break gently on the shore, or immersed in a sunset. Peace may be experienced in the quietening of the inner voices pulling us this way and that. Peace may be found in the resolution of a crisis. The list goes on. But often the attainment of peace or the lack of it is seen as dependent on changing the realities around us. And so we can tend to blame others, the world at large, our past, our parents, our workload, the era in which we live, the things that happen to us, for that lack of peace, and we continue desperately searching for it somewhere out there.
However, Jesus speaks of a peace which is not dependent on our environment: he says it is not a peace that the world gives. What is this peace of Jesus? One insight we have into this peace is that Jesus speaks about it to his followers, to us, in the context of inviting us to let go of fear. Easier said than done much of the time! It is a deeply human response to be afraid – of situations we are in, of what the future may hold, of the unknown, of what is perceived as threatening us in any way. Yet we are called to let go of fear: “Do not let your hearts be troubled” (John 14:1) and do not let them be afraid, he says.
So how do we let go of fear? Much of our fear arises out of our tendency to want to control things, day to day, and in the long term. It arises from our attachment to being in control. When we feel ourselves to be out of control, anxiety can set in. And yet, our Christian spiritual path, and indeed our spiritual growth, are dependent on how fully we are able to let go of control. Now that certainly doesn’t mean being passive or weak or lacking direction. It does not mean being without goals or aspirations. But what it does mean is seeing ourselves and our lives in light of a greater context to which we surrender and which informs and directs all our undertakings and our attitudes, sets our agenda and gives us direction, inspires our aspirations, enables us to respond to what life presents. It is in that surrender that we make choices and exercise strength and courage. We speak of it as ‘dying’ – dying many times, sometimes many times in a day. Ancient wisdom from the desert fathers and mothers of the first few centuries of Christianity, reminds us of this. This is what that dying is: “Abba Nilus said: Do not want things to turn out as they seem best to you, but as God pleases. Then you will be free of confusion and thankful in your prayer”.
Ms Kerry McCullough
Dean of Mission