Fear, Faith, and Recognizing God’s Voice

Today I share my third and final post about fear and faith. Or rather, a fragment of a much larger post, because this is the part that’s relevant. In March 2014 I was sharing about my first spiritual direction appointment, and I wrote:


I talked at some length about the scrupulosity issue, the fear that I’m not supposed to be writing, that GOD’S WILL FOR MY LIFE (finger wagging as an illustration) is for me to be a mom and nothing else. My spiritual director said, “Do you think that’s what God’s calling you to?”

Not a question I wanted to answer. I fumbled a bit, and she rephrased: “Have you ever had a moment where you were sure you were hearing the voice of God?”

After a bit of thought I could say yes, I did. It’s never, ever about the big things, it’s always about small things that are immediate and in the here and now.

“And what does that feel like? Does it feel like the wagging finger?”

“No!” This one I could answer with certainty. “No, it feels quiet, and peaceful.”

Those words hung in the air for a couple of seconds before I realized their importance. I have identified what the voice of God sounds like to me, and more importantly, what it doesn’t sound like.


Stepping back in as 2020 Kate: I want to clarify the connection. In that post I referred to a wagging finger. But the point is what that wagging finger made me *feel*: fear. Anxiety.

How anxiety looms over life.

I have a history with anxiety–a long, tangled, ugly history. For me, fear and anxiety were twisted up in dysfunctional ways with my faith. (I still fight it sometimes.) A feeling that anything I wanted had to be contrary to God’s will, simply by definition, because “my ways are not your ways.” (I once told that fear to a good and holy friend of mine. He blinked in silence for a minute and then said, “Wow. What an unfortunate reading of that Scripture.”) A fear that if I got a discernment wrong, I was out of luck and basically doomed for all eternity (literally).

So the moment I described above, in my first spiritual direction appointment, was a game-changer. I cannot speak for others, but this I know: God does not speak to me in anxiety and fear. The Devil, however, does. The devil speaks anxiety and fear often, relentlessly, and loudly.

God speaks to me in a quiet sense of security and peace and joy.

There has always been an end-times movement. The world is always about to end in someone’s mind. There are always visions. Some of them well-respected in the Church and others, well, a lot more questionable.

I ignore them all, because I know now that is not where God speaks. Not to me, at least. And honestly, I don’t think following out of fear is what God wants for any of us. I think of Elijah. God didn’t speak in the scary, bombastic stuff, but in the tiny whispering breeze.

Is the world going to end? At some point. But that’s not where I need to keep my focus. I’ve been at this long enough to know that if I focus on fear, I’ll fall farther from him, not grow closer. I’ll only live a half life.

I wrestle many things these days, but this I am certain of: God wants more than that for us.

Wedge Issues, Tone Policing, and the Christian call

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There’s a lot on my mind these days that speaks to how we live the faith in the real world—a world that, at the moment, is defined by crises and division. More now than ever. I didn’t think that was possible.

It seems there is no safe subject; even small talk leads to conflict. This morning on a bike ride, I encountered my kids’ former bus driver, and stopped to chat (from across the street). I asked about coming back in the fall. The answer was a hard pushback on the forthcoming citywide masking requirement—a requirement that makes a lot of sense given that during the first wave, we had practically zero cases, and now we are averaging 30+ per day. “I’m VERY strongly anti-mask,” she said. ”I think it’s a personal choice.”

How does one respond to such vehemence? I know what I WANT to say. I WANT to say that as Christians, our world view is supposed to reflect a Gospel that tells us self-emptying, treating the other’s needs as equal to our own, is the way of discipleship. A Gospel that we believe tell us life is precious, and the right to life far outweighs personal “choice.”

I WANT to say, “Can’t you see that you’re setting aside your prolife convictions? That you’re using the exact same language used by the pro-choice movement for decades?”

But how do you communicate any of that without sounding holier-than-thou, preachy, and generally self-righteous?

It didn’t matter, because all I got out was, “Oh, I’m not.” Then she was pouring out her grievances, and thirty seconds in, I thought, I’m supposed to be home in 40 minutes. I just need to politely say “good luck” and move on.

So I did.

I spent the rest of my ride pondering this exchange and others. So many things have become wedge political issues that have no business being so. A pandemic should NOT be a political wedge issue. Racial justice should NOT be a political issue. Supporting women who have experienced harassment, abuse, or assault should NOT be a political issue. These are things people of faith should be unified on. Certainly the Catholic Church, flawed as it has been in practice, has spoken clearly on them all. How on earth has politics become more important in forming our world view than our faith?

But I realize that a lot of the refusal to budge on these issues is a reaction to scrupulousness–a scrupulousness that leads to making assumptions about people. From there, it’s a short skip to judgment.

There’s a lot of judgment on social media these days.

*I’m* judging a lot. Most of the time I don’t post my judgy thoughts, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there.

I think those of us who believe we have a societal responsibility to public health, who care passionately about racial justice and victims’ rights–those of us who care about these issues are so angry, we don’t always recognize that our words and our tone can do more harm than good. That sometimes, in our passion for justice, we cross the boundaries of Christian charity.

I know, that sounds like “tone policing.” I get it. But tone DOES matter, because when we make assumptions about what people are or aren’t doing; when we pass judgment; when we belittle and dismiss and make sweeping generalizations about everyone who (fill-in-the-blank)—

When we do these things, we make everything worse. We aren’t bringing people to a greater understanding of the truth. In fact, all we’re accomplishing is hardening people in their perception of persecution. They become less open to hearing, less open to examining the conflict between their worldly perspective and the Gospel.

Below (in the comments, on Facebook), I am sharing an op-ed that really hit me hard. I don’t often share (or read, for that matter) from the New York Times, because to so many people, it epitomizes the “liberal media.” But I think people across political spectrums will be surprised by what this man has to say.

Anxiety, judgment, and discernment in the social distancing era

(Disclaimer: this post is written so that others might not feel alone. It is not shared as a cry for advice. Advice does not help people experiencing anxiety. Just don’t. Empathize, share your own journey, but do.not.advise. Please.)

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I haven’t posted here in a week. I just couldn’t. What can I say?

In the past week, death by coronavirus came to my community. My kids came home from school for a four-week online learning plan that I have already told them to expect to last until the end of the year. That way if we do get to go back to school, we’ll all be pleasantly surprised.

My family is wrestling with the loss of events we had our hearts set on. The loss of freedom. The panicky sense of lack of external structure, which you can handle for a week or two, but the idea of it stretching from now until late August is enough to invoke panic attacks. (Every blessed day exactly the same, nothing, not even going to church to break the monotony.) The gut-hollowing recognition that no matter what I do, I can never provide as much structure as my daughter with Down syndrome needs in order to learn successfully.

There’s the discernment of what things outside the home need to be done, and the reality of judgment when others think we’re discerning too loosely. The terror of a person whose anxiety molds itself on scrupulousness, thus making me think I’m not doing enough to “flatten the curve” unless I lock the doors and keep us totally isolated. The discernment of trying to weigh mental health against the reality that if the kids go outside, they’re going to encounter other kids.

The recognition that way too much of my anxiety has to do with other people’s opinions.

To say nothing of the fear of what happens if the virus does land in my household.

Only a few weeks ago I was looking at my life with great contentment. And, truthfully, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Things were going too well.

I didn’t expect what we’re dealing with now.

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I also didn’t expect the anxiety to hit. Because hit it did, roaring back into my life the middle of last week along with the arrival of my kids at home for Coronavirus Break. And unlike other flare-ups in recent years, this one has no expiration date.

I’ve spent a lot of hours lying awake lately with heart pounding, praying and praying and praying.

The one moment of hope coming out of all this is that, in the middle of one of my white-night prayer sessions, begging for clarity and discernment and peace, I remembered my spiritual director asking me, “Has there ever been a time when you were certain that what you were hearing was God?”

Well, of course there was.

“What did that feel like?” she asked.

Well, I answered, it felt like quiet, cool breezes by a creek. It felt like calm.

It did not feel like a maelstrom of lava pits and pounding hearts.

That recognition was so profound. And I am clinging to that reminder in the midst of these days full of anxiety I could never have anticipated.

Scrupulousness

A few years ago, I’d never heard the term “scrupulousness.” My mother introduced me to it when I wrote a series on my personal blog about my struggles with anxiety. Now I think of it all the time–though simply recognizing it is a big step toward battling it.

I tend to view it as a sin, although a web search this morning seems to indicate that it’s more a cross to be borne. But I think Catholics in general are particularly susceptible. I would argue that scrupulousness is a big part of “Catholic guilt.”

Once I was sensitized to this tendency in myself, I saw it cropping up all over the place. It may not be a sin, but the inevitable fallout of scrupulousness is a rush to judge anyone who doesn’t share whatever I think is the right way to look at the world, and to place rigid expectations on others that constitute a heavy burden on people prone to scrupulousness–which, as I said, I think is many of us.

I would argue that scrupulousness plays a big part in a lot of the no-compromise fights we have within the Church–the political ones, yes, but also the liturgical ones (and many others). Most recently it’s struck me in the arguments about texts of liturgical songs–an assumption that because I read a particular text fragment in a certain way, a song is inarguably heretical, even though thousands of other people may find great spiritual benefit in it, and great potential for growth in holiness, because they don’t interpret that text fragment the same way I do.

For a long time, because I myself was very conservative and all my scrupulousness was about doing the right things (which were always conservative values), I thought scrupulousness was only a problem conservatives have. As I got better at combating my own scrupulousness, I began to move to the center, and that seemed to confirm my assumption.

But I was wrong. These days I am more likely to suffer from scrupulousness about environmental issues. It’s never enough. And I am VERY judgy about other people’s lack of environmental stewardship.

But the example that sparked this post was this: In the midst of my great world view shift, a quote kept cropping up over the course of months–I can’t find it anymore, but it was something like, “Your money doesn’t belong to you, it belongs to the poor.” It was attributed to a pope. No arguing with that!

The obvious conclusion to draw from this quote is: anything I do to save money is a sin. I have no right to enjoy the things of the world as long as poverty exists. I should never go out to a nice dinner, I should never take a trip to see the wonder of the world, I should never own jewelry–because as long as people are suffering, “my” money doesn’t belong to me. Also, I pointed it at conservatives who don’t like taxes.

It was a big struggle. I told myself that religious figures exaggerate to shock their listeners into doing something for the poor. But that didn’t help, because of who we hold up as the ideal of Christianity: Francis of Assisi and Katherine Drexel, rich people who did give away everything they had; Mother Teresa, who lived in abject poverty for decades; the fact that to this day, a lot of religious orders take a vow of poverty. A papal quote + the body of evidence of what the Church holds up for honor made it hard to draw any other conclusion than the Church intends us to be poor rather than rich.

Even Robert Barron used that quote once.

I tried for a long time to find the exact verbiage, but couldn’t find it anywhere. Then one day, someone attributed it to Rerum Novarum #22. Finally! I went to look it up.

Guess what? Rerum Novarum 22 does NOT say I am obligated to give every single penny I don’t absolutely need for my bare survival to the poor. Here’s what it actually says:

True, no one is commanded to distribute to others that which is required for his own needs and those of his household; nor even to give away what is reasonably required to keep up becomingly his condition in life, “for no one ought to live other than becomingly.”(13) But, when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one’s standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over. “Of that which remaineth, give alms.” (14)

Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, 1891

(Note the date: eighteen ninety-one. This is not some uber-modern corruption of the Gospel. Note 2: the footnotes refer to the Summa theologiae and to Luke 11:14.)

Now, it’s important to recognize that this quote doesn’t give us a free pass to hoard money or to try to avoid paying taxes; it does NOT give us a free pass to store up wealth for our own pleasure, or for passing it on to kids, or whatever. The actual quote–like virtually everything the Church puts in writing–is nuanced to recognize the complexity of competing needs and factors. What this quote requires of us is that we discern honestly, prayerfully, what it means for us to “keep up becomingly” our condition in life.

It’s also worth noting that St. Basil the Great is a little more blunt on the topic of our responsibility to the poor:

(Note: I have not checked that quote, for what it’s worth.)

In the end, we all have to wrestle, to try to find a balance between enjoying with gratitude the good things of the earth (which are, after all, made by God), and hoarding the wealth that allows us to do so, thereby sinning by not helping those who suffer.