Worry and the Sacred Heart

Last Sunday, the 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time and the last Sunday before Lent this year, we heard challenging words from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6: 24-34).  He spoke against worry.  “I tell you, do not worry about your life…. Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? … Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.” 

I must confess: I am a great worrier. My mother was too. She tended to think and to plan for the worst so that she would be ready for it. The problem is that this tends to give one a very negative attitude and causes a lot of needless anxiety.

In the summer of 1969 I went on a camping trip organized by Fr. John Eagan, a Jesuit priest at my high school. At the end of it, as we drove back to Milwaukee from the shores of Lake Superior, I and my five fellow juniors about to become seniors and Fr. Eagan, gave out awards to one another—the best diver, best swimmer, best cook. The award I received from my fellow campers was “Worry Wart of 1969.” Everywhere we went I was filled with questions as I prepared for disasters. “What if the rain doesn’t stop and we have to set up our tents in it and the wood is wet and we can’t start a fire? What if we can’t find a place to park? What if the people we are meeting don’t show up? What if the cut on my foot gets infected? What if, what if, what if…?”

During the next year I told Fr. Eagan that I was thinking about becoming a Jesuit. The summer trip had such a positive effect on me that I felt called to do for others what this fun and vibrant and prayerful Jesuit priest had done for me. My words were met with a caution.  Fr. Eagan told me, “Jim, if you’re going to be a Jesuit today, your future won’t be very clearly marked out for you. There will be a lot of challenges and you are going to have to learn to stop worrying so much.”

Some 42 years later I have to admit that he was right. If I knew then all the challenges and difficulties I would have to face, I probably would not have entered the Jesuits. If I had known that I would enter a classroom on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation at the age of 26 (prophetically, I thought, on the Feast of the Beheading of John the Baptist!) and that I would have to be in charge of a one-room dormitory of 60 high school boys in bunk beds, I would have balked at the idea of a Jesuit vocation. If I had known the challenges I would face as the province vocation director and then formation director, I would have chosen a different path. 

But in those 42 years I’ve learned some things .

First, I’ve learned that adversity, difficulties, and challenges don’t come all at once. I’m learning more and more not to borrow tomorrow’s troubles today. As Jesus put it in the last words from Sunday’s gospel: “Sufficient for a day is its own evil.” It’s unfair to cram all of tomorrow’s potential problems into today. This one day can’t contain them all.  Live one day at a time!

I’ve also learned that worrying doesn’t really prepare me for potential problems and instead can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The anxiety and stress that worry causes only make handling the difficulties of life even more difficult.

And I’ve learned that the only way to grow is through facing and overcoming challenges. Through overcoming adversity and dealing with problems, I grow as a person. I grow spiritually and I grow in the virtues.

Worry is a temptation against trust and faith and hope.  When the temptation comes my way, I try to see it as an opportunity to grow in those virtues. Worry is a call to put into practice the slogan that many people involved in 12 Step recovery programs use: “Let go and let God.”

Faith and trust and hope are directed toward an object, or rather, a Person. The faith with which we are challenged to confront worry is in God and the greatest sign of God’s love is the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

A few weeks ago when I visited grade school classrooms in Burlington, Iowa on Valentine’s Day, all the students knew that the heart symbolizes love. And when I asked them why the Heart of Jesus was there on the outside of his body in the pictures I showed them, they answered that this was a way to show that the love of Jesus is always there for us.

Some of them had heard the expression “My heart goes out to you.” I explained that this is a way of showing compassion.  The Sacred Heart is a way that Jesus says to us: My Heart always goes out to you. My Heart is always there for you.”  And because the Heart of Jesus is on the outside of his body, it is in a very vulnerable place. His Heart can be and is wounded and hurt. Thorns surround it.

The love of God doesn’t remove or prevent adversity or pain. Our faith in the love of God revealed in the Sacred Heart of Jesus won’t take away all our struggles. It’s natural to think: if God loved me, this pain or difficulty would be taken away.  But a greater sign of love is not to remove the difficulty; it’s to share in it.  The depths of God’s love are shown in the fact that God entered into our life with its worries and struggles, its sufferings and even into death itself.  This willingness to share in suffering and death is a greater sign of love.

I know that I will continue to worry.  That’s not only because it’s part of my personality. It’s because I need to continually exercise my faith and trust in order to keep these virtues healthy and growing.  The Heart of Jesus won’t remove the things that cause worry, but his Heart will give me strength to face them. I know that I am not alone and that Jesus shares my struggles.

Does that mean that Jesus even shared in my battle with worry? The challenges in last Sunday’s gospel would seem to indicate that he didn’t. Yet, if we look more closely at the Scriptures we see that Jesus worried.  His words challenging us not to worry and to have faith came from his own experience.

According to Hebrews 4: 15, we have a compassionate high priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses because he “has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin.”  Jesus was tempted by worry. We have to imagine him worrying about his apostles, whether they would ever “get it” and understand the kind of messiah that he was—one who would save the people by suffering and dying for them; whether they would run away in his hour of need and not return?

But perhaps the most striking instance of Jesus’ battling the temptation to become anxious occurred in the Garden of Gethsemane. His human nature rebelled against the suffering and death that he anticipated. He was so anxious that he literally sweat blood (Luke 22: 44).  Yet in the end, the Heart of Jesus, filled with love and trust for the Father, surrendered to his will. He took hold of the cup that he prayed would pass him by and drank it, with its suffering and death, to the bitter dregs. 

The compassionate Heart of Jesus knows anxiety and worry in a way that I have not known. I can always draw near to that Heart which is not hidden but always there. And like John at the Last Supper, I can find the strength to embrace the crosses that will come my way.  I may still worry about them, but I can find faith and trust and the strength to face them in the Heart of Jesus.