There’s a phenomenon I have long been familiar with known as the anxiety closet. In it we keep all our fears, concerns, worries, and anxieties, real and imagined. The size of the closet varies from person to person and I think it changes during life depending on one’s inclination and how much regular spiritual housekeeping one does. Mine seems to be shrinking a bit as I get older, having realized (actually, having had it pointed out to me by others) how much of my anxiety is over things that never happen. Even so, it’s still a pretty good walk-in size, the shelves, unlike those of my real closet, neatly arranged so that I can access any particular anxiety whenever the time is right.
Most of the time, I manage to keep the door locked and the fears hidden away, except in the small hours of the morning. Vigils comes just when my anxiety closet, should I awake by accident, pops open and randomly spills its contents onto the floor of my heart. I think that’s one reason why Vigil—once I haul myself out of bed—may be my favorite office of the day.
For the last few days, I have been preternaturally calm about my husband’s impending surgery, very much unlike me, who is never one to let the opportunity for a good panic go under-utilized. It’s not that I haven’t been concerned, afraid, even, of what the surgeons will find and what it will mean. I know that my life has already changed just by the fact of the surgery; I am simply waiting to find out more. But the familiar black void in the pit of my stomach that is the usual manifestation of my fears has been—blessedly—absent.
I was beginning to wonder whether I just wasn’t feeling anything at all until I realized that this is what peace must be like: a conscious awareness of the (possible) impending awfulness without being possessed by it. It reminded me of my childhood fears of storms. Thunder and lightning, particularly without rain, the terrible dry storms that can afflict North Florida, terrified me. No amount of soothing words from my parents could dissuade me that something dreadful was going to happen when all those pyrotechnics and all that noise was around. The only thing that helped was to climb into my daddy’s lap and put my head against his chest and let him hold me. I was still afraid, but I wasn’t scared any more.
I think that’s what Vigil does for me. In the middle of the night, when my anxiety closet opens up, those prayers pull me into my Father’s lap and let me rest my head against His chest. Psalm 27: The Lord is my light and my salvation, in whom should I fear?
That’s no psalm for wimps or for those who think that the world of faith is a guaranteed paradise in the here and now. The Psalmist recognizes that this world can be a very ugly place indeed, but he ends on one of the most hopeful notes in the Bible: I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. In other words, God and His power and love manifest in the here and now, in spite of how things seem.
We were dismissed with the vine and branches discourse. Scientist that I am, I could not help wandering off into a very different and quite material field. The point of the scripture is, at least in part, that without Christ we can do nothing (and indeed, the homily of St. Augustine that was read drove that point home very well). Without the vine and without the roots, the branches—that would be us—die.
It crossed my mind that that image goes much farther than simply defining our relationship with Christ. Vines, after all, are planted in the dirt, not in the air. Vines are connected to the earth, to creation, in the most intimate of ways. And the roots of the vine take some of the most unpleasant bits of creation—the decaying detritus of lost life—and by passing it through the roots, send out nourishment to the branches. Without the soil, without the grit, without the….well, the manure, the branches will not receive life from the vine. It’s just the way the world has been set up, hydroponics not withstanding.
That goodness of the Lord in the land of the living the psalmist sings of? It’s at least in part the transformation of our selves by the things that happen to us, not in a reactive, dysfunctional way, but into life for ourselves and for each other because of our connectedness to Christ.
Bad things to happen to good people, but in Christ, even the worst of times can bring great good. That’s the message of the cross. Christ’s first words to His Apostles after the resurrection were not Do not be afraid but Peace be with you. Peace even in the face of what is a legitimate cause of great concern, like being persecuted by the Jews or the Romans or the uncertainty of what the surgeons will find when they operate on the love of my life. Without Him we can do nothing and with Him, nothing can really, when all is settled, undo us.
At the risk of mixing metaphors in the worst possible way and with apologies to Mrs. Chapman who tried to teach me English, it turns out my anxiety closet is not so much filled with fears to destroy me as plant food to feed me as long as I set my roots deep into them and trust the Christ the Vine to turn them from something noxious to something fruitful. Fears, like dirt, are part of life, part of the way creation just is.
We cannot avoid those forces, natural and man-made-that surround us and threaten us, any more than the psalmist or the Apostles could. Nor should we wish to, for to do so is to fail to live life in this world. We cannot change the order of creation, but we can let creation, through Christ, change us. Even in the middle of the night.