Sunday, December 30, 2007

Avoidable and Unavoidable Stress

What happens when you combine AVOIDABLE STRESS with UNAVOIDABLE STRESS!

(Holy Family 2007 (A): This homily was given on December 30, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr Raymond Suriani. Read Sirach 3: 2-7, 12-14; Colossians 3: 12-17; Matthew 2: 13-23.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Holy Family 2007]

We’ve all got it in our lives and none of us likes it; but it’s there and so we have to deal with it!

I’m talking about STRESS!

It’s become such a problem in our fast-paced American society, that (believe it or not) a non-profit organization has actually been formed called, “The American Institute of Stress”! I know this because when I “googled” the word “stress” the other day on my computer, that was the very first hit—out of 165,000,000!—that came up on the screen.

Now we can all take some consolation this morning in the fact that even the members of the Holy Family had to deal with stress in their lives. Jesus, Mary and Joseph were not immune from the phenomenon, even though both Jesus and Mary were sinless! And yet, there was one big difference between the stress they dealt with, and the kind we face: almost all of theirs was unavoidable.

You see, there are two kinds of stress that we human beings experience, especially in our families: there’s the kind that we can avoid, and there’s the kind that we cannot avoid—even if we’re very holy, even if we do all the right things. Since there was only one sinner in the Holy Family—Joseph—most of their stress was of the unavoidable variety. By contrast, our lives are a mixture of some stress that we could pretty easily avoid (if we simply thought and acted in a certain way), and other stress that we’d have to face even if we were perfect in all our thoughts and actions. What makes life unbearable, I think, is when a great deal of our stress—maybe even the majority of it—is of that first kind: the kind that we could avoid. This is stress that we don’t need to have; this is stress that I would say God doesn’t want us to have. Unavoidable stress is bad enough; the addition of this other type can be overwhelming—and it can sometimes push us over the edge.

Perhaps you’ve been there—at least once or twice.

So what are some of the unavoidable stresses of life? Well here are 3 of them—3 that often manifest themselves in our families; and 3 that also were present in the Holy Family, whose feast we celebrate in the Church this weekend.

Number 1, there’s what I would call the stress caused by unforeseen circumstances. This is the stress we experience when someone close to us gets sick and then dies suddenly; it’s the kind of stress a person has to deal with when they’re laid off from work unexpectedly; it’s the kind of stress parents feel when their son calls to tell them that he just got into his first car accident.

This was also the kind of stress that Joseph and Mary experienced in today’s gospel story when they found out that crazy King Herod was trying to murder their child! After all, this was not something they had expected! There was stress in their journey down to Egypt; there was stress during their time of exile—because they were forced to live as refugees in a foreign country; and there was stress in their journey back to Palestine after Herod had died.

Number 2, there’s the stress of living with other people—which is also unavoidable, unless you’re a hermit living all by yourself in the middle of the desert! Let’s face it, people—even the best of people—don’t always do what we would like them to do; they don’t always say what we would like them to say. And that quite naturally causes stress—even if there’s no sin involved. A perfect example of this in the life of the Holy Family was the finding of Jesus in the Temple. When she and Joseph finally tracked Jesus down after 3 days of frantic searching, Mary said to our Lord, “Son, why have you done this to us? You see that your father and I have been searching for you in sorrow.”

Those are the words of a very holy woman under a tremendous amount of stress. But notice, there was no sin involved; it was simply a case of stress caused by the ordinary circumstances of living in a family.

There’s also the stress that comes into our lives when we do the will of God. This, too, is unavoidable—if we’re serious about living the way God wants us to live. As a priest, for example, I am called to preach the word of God—that’s the Lord’s will for my life (some of you, understandably, might not like it—you might wish God had called me to something else; but, alas, he did not). But sometimes preparing to preach causes me to experience a great deal of stress (especially when I have to prepare 4 major homilies—Christmas; Holy Family; Mary, the Mother of God; and Epiphany—within a few short weeks!).

But I count my blessings because any stress I might experience in preparing to preach is NOTHING compared to the stress that Jesus, Mary and Joseph experienced in doing God’s will in their lives 2,000 years ago. Just think of the stress Jesus and his mother had to deal with on Holy Thursday and Good Friday!

These are just a few of the many stresses of life that cannot be avoided. We can’t escape them; they’re part of the fabric of daily living.

But others, thanks be to God, can be avoided and should be avoided! A few of these also need to be mentioned today, because we’ve probably all experienced them at some point in our families.

The first avoidable stress is the kind that comes when God’s order in the family is violated. When children reject their parents authority, for example, there is stress—lots of stress. Guaranteed! That type of stress, incidentally, was absent in the Holy Family, because, as we’re told in Luke 2, Jesus always obeyed his parents.

So children, if you want your parents to be less stressed and in a better mood more often, obey them! Honor God’s order in the family, as Sirach tells you to do in today’s first reading! Do what mom and dad tell you to do when they tell you to do it! And that message even applies to teenagers! In fact, let me tell you teens a secret: When your parents know that you’re obedient and honest and trustworthy, they end up giving you more freedom! And that’s what you want, isn’t it? However, when all they get from you is disobedience, they clamp down—hard! And then everybody in the house gets stressed!

Here’s another avoidable stress in family life: the stress that comes from not being responsible. When young people, for example, don’t pick up their toys, and clean their rooms, and do their chores, and finish their schoolwork when they’re supposed to—it adds to everyone’s anxiety level in the home. I was speaking with a woman the other day who was just about as stressed out as I’ve ever seen her—and I’ve known her for many years. She’s normally a very strong person, but on this day she was in tears. She said, “Fr. Ray, I just can’t deal with it all! It’s overwhelming me. I have to do everything: I have to get the kids up in the morning, and make their lunches, and go to work for 8 to 10 hours a day, and then clean the house, and do the shopping . . . (and on and on she went with her list—it was quite long).”

Finally I said to her, “Wait a minute here. You have two children—but they’re both teenagers! You mean to tell me they can’t make their own lunches? You mean to tell me that you have to get them up in the morning? Whatever happened to their alarm clocks? They need to take responsibility where they’re capable of taking responsibility! That alone would take a lot of stress out of your life immediately!”

She agreed—and so did one of her children, who happened to be standing there at the time, noticeably concerned about his mother.

And finally, there’s this avoidable stress: the type that comes with unrepented sin! When family members speak unkind words to one another, and don’t say they’re sorry; when they lie and violate one another’s trust; when they refuse to forgive—all of that creates what I would call “an atmosphere of stress”. And we all know the truth of this, because we’ve all been there! That’s why today’s second reading from Colossians 3 is so appropriate for the feast of the Holy Family, where the focus is on family life: “Put on,’ St. Paul says, ‘compassion, kindness . . . patience—bearing with one another and forgiving one another.”

This, of course, is the ideal. The reality is always something less, which is precisely why repentance is so necessary! Did I say that Confession is good for family life? Did I say that Confession is a good remedy for stress in a family? Well, I’m saying it now! Imagine a family where each member honestly faces his or her faults, admits them, confesses them, is forgiven for them, and then makes a sincere effort to change his or her behavior for the better.

That family, I can assure you, will avoid a great deal of avoidable stress. Common sense should tell you that.

Let me end today by paraphrasing the closing prayer of this Mass. I’ll tell you why I’m doing this in a moment. Today’s closing prayer—which is the one I will say after Communion and before the final blessing—reads as follows: “Eternal Father, we want to live as Jesus, Mary and Joseph, in peace with you and one another. May this communion strengthen us to face the troubles of life.”

When I was trying to come up with a conclusion for this homily, I happened to glance at those words in my Magnificat, and I suddenly realized something: this is an “anti-stress prayer”! To live like Jesus, Mary and Joseph means to avoid the avoidable stresses of life—like they did. And facing the troubles of life involves coping with the stresses that we cannot avoid.

So now I’ll paraphrase the prayer and make it the closing prayer of my homily. I’ll say it for all of us, and for our families: “Eternal Father, we want to live as Jesus, Mary and Joseph, who avoided most of the avoidable stresses of this life, and thus lived in peace with you and with one other. Help us to follow their example. And may the Eucharist we receive at this Mass strengthen us so that we can face all the troubles of life—especially those difficult and stressful situations that we cannot escape, no matter how hard we try. This we ask through Christ our Lord. Amen.”