By Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist.
Special to The Texas Catholic
The future is not simply an adventure; it’s the adventure, according to the Latin roots ad, “to, toward” and ventura, “what will come.” While many students eagerly anticipate the start of a new school year and engaged couples impatiently count down the days to their wedding, dread of the approaching unknowns is familiar to virtually everyone. Regardless of one’s age, fear of the future is a dominant emotion that inhibits our joyful living of the blessed adventure that God wishes every life to be.
Other etymologies combine to furnish a spiritual insight here. We human beings are fantastically complicated creatures, to the point that we are often (always?) mysteries to ourselves. Complicated indeed! By itself, the Latin verb plicare means “to fold, plait, intertwine.” Add the prefix “with” to that basic verb, and you get the English words “complex” and “complicated” – literally, “with folds.” At the psychological level, our complicated selves create layers, folds, sheets piled high, multiple coatings which serve to hide feelings and suffocate the experience of wisdom. These mental complications present anxious fears as certain facts and label obscure pessimistic concerns as the pitiful truth. Much like a Matryoshka doll nesting within itself numerous smaller dolls, our worries about the future leave us confused about our genuine motives and doubtful about our own goodness. With the future in view, paralyzing fear – of a commitment, of a struggling relationship, of conquering or being conquered, of seeing or being seen – conjures up endless hypothetical catastrophizing about what must necessarily come. This creates an immensely complicated sequence of unreasoning that has no basis in reality and, worst of all, robs us of any possible peace in the present moment. (The same logic holds for the past as well.)
The opposite of the complicated is the simple – not in our common usage of the term to denote an ignorant or uncultured person (a “simpleton”), but in the literal sense. When the same plicare verb receives a prefix meaning “one, together with,” the English words “simple” and “simplicity” appear. The person who possesses the virtue of simplicity has no folds, lacks mental compartments or pockets to conceal or accumulate mountainous piles of worries. The simple person thus has nothing to get caught up in, but has learned instead to refuse entry to crippling fear and the illusory desire to control what is to come.
I should note here that this reflection is not intended to solve diagnosed psychological maladies treatable only by medication, nor would I ever suggest that someone suffering from anxiety or depression is “not praying hard enough.” Such imprudent pastoral advice offers more harm than hope.
Writing about simplicity, of course, is easy; putting it into practice is altogether more difficult. We must first of all pray for the virtue of simplicity; the desire to acquire the virtue will allow us to recognize the thought patterns that fold endlessly on top of each other and annihilate the possibility of calm and brave discernment. The wisdom of the Desert Fathers is ever ancient and ever new in this regard: they would counsel us to breathe deeply and then find a prayer word to act as an anchor for the boat of your mind tossed about by raging worry-waves. Time-tested words include the Jesus prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”), the Divine Mercy phrase “Jesus, I trust in you,” or a cherished Scripture passage. The Psalms are always a treasure-house of prayerful wisdom, as is Mark 9:24: “Lord, I do believe; help my unbelief.”
There is great freedom in learning to relinquish the illusory control of a future that you cannot control anyway. Recognizing the liberation that comes from yielding our fears to the Lord will allow us to see life itself, past, present and future, as the simple adventure in grace that God has always intended it to be.
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas and teaches in the theology department at the University of Dallas.