Stress: A Pathway to Prayer?

Lazarus, Mary, Martha and Jesus all love each other—so the sisters must wonder why Jesus waited so long to come. We can only imagine their anxiety increasing as Lazarus grew worse, and their dear friend didn't appear. Martha's complaint, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died" may sound like whining. On the other hand, it is honest expression of her feelings—and her respect for Jesus.

Later, Mary weeps; her friends join her, and Jesus also weeps. This could be our prayer when we have no words left, and silent tears are eloquent. Jesus is "greatly disturbed," but begins his prayer by thanking God. Despite the annoying criticism of the crowd ("Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?"), he can still be grateful. In that stance lies a message for us—no matter how stressed we are, we can still be deeply thankful.

Jesus speaks with great confidence to God: "Father...I knew that you always hear me." Then from the depth of his inmost being tears the wrenching cry, "Lazarus, come out!" It is the call to life, a stirring invitation to renewed engagement with the family Lazarus loves.

None of this occurs in a silent chapel. Indeed, the background noise of the crowd must be irritating. Prayer doesn't always convey the polite emotions. Martha's distress is as raw as the anger which rages through some of the psalms (see Ps. 88, 120, 137). No one consults a Bible or a book of prayer—all of it is spontaneous; some of it is wordless.

How does the gospel scene translate to our prayer in stress? Sometimes—when the gas gauge nears "empty" or the thermometer spikes over 102—we may use "arrow" prayers, brief, direct beams to God's heart. They may be simple as "Help!" "Please!" or "Thanks." In short, they tell God we're at the end of our rope. We've exhausted our limited resources. We don't know what to do. We desperately need God's intervention—or appreciate it.

Sometimes, our throats are tight and our minds are numb. We're too tense to know what to say in prayer. Then, we can turn to scriptural mantras. We repeat consoling words in calming rhythms. For instance, when time, money or resources seem scarce, Jesus recalls to us the abundance of the Kingdom. We repeat then the father's assurance to the elder son in the parable of the prodigal son: "You are always with me and all that is mine is yours" (Luke 15:31). Or Jesus' words at the last supper tell us of his abiding presence, no matter what we're going through. "Do not let your hearts be troubled....I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also" (John 14: 1, 3). Water often calms and refreshes; Jesus says, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and let the one who believes in me drink" (John 7:37-8).

Bodily Prayer
Humans live incarnate—and the stress on our minds will inevitably transfer to our bodies. When we're overly stressed, we pour toxins into our systems. Why are we then surprised by the resulting back ache, indigestion or migraine?

Deep breathing has been part of every major religious tradition. Many use it to replace the venomous retort, to gain a few minutes to think, or to restore inner calm. In Genesis 1, God breathes life into humanity. In John 20:22, Jesus breathes courage and forgiveness into a confused and frightened group of friends. Yet when we're nervous, we take short, shallow breaths, not the deep, relaxing ones that could bring peace. Breath is intrinsic to yoga, which can be moving meditation. It helps relieve chronic stress, which for most people collects in the neck, back and shoulders. 

Collaborating with the Inevitable
Sometimes a difficult situation is beyond our control. If, for instance, our work involves tax preparation, we know that the weeks preceding April 15 will be full. In such times, Piero Ferrucci, author of What We May Be, recommends an attitude of acceptance. We can ask in prayer not to descend into self-pity, but to freely choose what we can't change.

The same God who gives the pleasant Sunday picnic also sends the midnight deadline. Can we learn from both, finding enrichment in radically different circumstances, trusting that God knows what we need? One unexpected blessing of the recession has been that with so many people out of work, those who have jobs appreciate them more—even the stressful ones.

The Strange Benefits of Stress
Oddly enough, stress is a mixed blessing. Without it, we might not get much done. Indeed, some folks look forward all year to their two-week vacation. They dream of lounging around the pool doing nothing. Inevitably, the novelty wears off. In a few days, they're organizing activities: a tennis match, a shopping trip, a hike. They're consulting the movie schedules and piling the family in the car. Hmmm - it's almost as if humans were made for action!

7/26/2011 4:00:00 AM
  • Catholic
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  • Kathy Coffey
    About Kathy Coffey
    Kathy Coffey is a national speaker, retreat leader, and the author of numerous articles in Catholic periodicals. On the web, find Kathy at: