By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
Lots of us say we’re stressed. What is stress? According to the American Psychological Association, we can distinguish two kinds, one positive (eustress) and the other negative (distress). Positive stress is what we feel when we stand before a challenge that we believe is proportionate to our abilities — we feel excited and ready to grow. Think of an athlete’s jitters before a big game, or an actor about to take the stage on opening night. Negative stress is what we feel when we stand before some task or trial that we think overwhelms us, that seems disproportionate to our abilities and therefore threatening. We feel helpless and out of control.
It is interesting to note that the experience of stress — and whether we experience eustress or distress — depends upon our self-perception, upon whether we think we can be safe and grow through a task. Here I think we can draw a very important connection between psychology and spirituality, since faith in Jesus Christ shapes our basic perceptions of ourselves and our situations when it comes to what is most essential.
As a witness to Christian spirituality, I think The Rule of St. Benedict helps us when we feel negative stress or distress. In a short chapter titled “Assignment of Impossible Tasks to a Brother” (Chapter 68), St. Benedict counsels the monk who finds himself faced with a task that seems to him to be disproportionate to his abilities, a task that feels like a dangerous threat rather than a healthy challenge. Here is the whole chapter:
A brother may be assigned a burdensome task or something he cannot do. If so, he should, with complete gentleness and obedience, accept the order given him. Should he see, however, that the weight of the burden is altogether too much for his strength, then he should choose the appropriate moment and explain patiently to his superior the reasons why he cannot perform the task. This he ought to do without pride, obstinacy or refusal. If after the explanation the superior is still determined to hold to his original order, then the junior must recognize that this is best for him. Trusting in God’s help, he must in love obey.
What I find significant about this passage and its connection to stress, is that St. Benedict wants the monk to trust in the judgment of someone else when it comes to determining whether something is “too much” for him. The monk trusts his fatherly superior, and above all God, when it comes to discerning how much he can handle and whether the task is “best” for him in the end. Since we are tempted to rely on ourselves, we can easily underestimate our strength, and we can easily think we are not fit for a task when we have a narrow understanding of our goals and efforts.
Whom should we trust to help us broaden our understanding of our goals and efforts? How does faith in Jesus shape our basic perceptions of ourselves and our strength? Jesus exhorts us to seek “first” the Kingdom of God, and he promises that everything we need to live in that Kingdom will be given us (cf. Mt 6:33). St. Benedict knows the monk might worry a task is too much for him, and that he might seem like a failure if he is unable to complete it. But the monk need not suffer negative stress, for in all things, whether success or failure, God works “good for those who love him” (Romans 8:28). The Gospel promises us that we are never alone, even when our circumstances leave us vulnerable to failure, pain or injustice. In those cases, we should, as St. Benedict says, try to improve our circumstances and speak to those above us. But life brings moments when we cannot improve our circumstances, at least not immediately – and, blessed be God, the Gospel intervenes precisely here to tell us that even then we are with God and therefore secure when it comes to what really matters. Jesus looked like a failure when he was handed over to be executed, since armies of angels did not arrive to change his situation (Mt 26:53; Jn 18:36). But he was ultimately not a failure, for he was a man with his eye trained “first” on the Kingdom of God. We can have this same strength. When it comes to what really matters, to what lasts into eternity, each of us can say, like St. Paul, “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:14).
St. Paul feels an indomitable strength because he knows that God lives in him, and because what he ultimately seeks in life is what God has promised him: true peace, holiness, communion with the saints and an eternal life of love in Love himself. In Jesus, our vital center is God, who promises to transform our tasks – even the “impossible” tasks that could leave us in distress if we ever fall into the tunnel-vision that obscures his presence and guidance. Whenever we feel distress, let us remind ourselves of God’s presence and promises, and so reframe negative stress into positive stress, into an occasion to grow in a holiness and love that will last forever. “Since he clings to me in love, I will free him; protect him for he knows my name. When he calls I shall answer: ‘I am with you.’ I will save him in distress and give him glory.” (Ps 90:14-15).
Father John Bayer, O. Cist., is a monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving.