St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) was the bishop of Geneva, Switzerland, and a Doctor of the Church who achieved great success as an evangelist, apologist and spiritual director and writer. This excerpt is adapted from his spiritual classic "Introduction to the Devout Life" (1609).
"Do not be anxious about anything," St. Paul says, "but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus" (Phil 4:6-7).
Anxiety is the source of various temptations in the spiritual life. How does it come about?
Sadness is the grief we feel when we experience an evil contrary to our will. The evil may be exterior, such as poverty, sickness or contempt; or interior, such as ignorance, spiritual dryness, discontent or temptation. When the soul is conscious of some such trouble, it's downcast, and so sadness sets in.
Then at once we begin to try to get rid of the trouble, and to find the means to shake it off. So far, we have done no wrong, for it is natural to desire good and shun what we see to be evil.
If we strive to be delivered from such troubles out of love of God, we will strive patiently, gently, humbly and calmly, looking to God's goodness and providence for our deliverance rather than to our own diligence and efforts.
But if self-love is our prevailing motive, we will get stirred up and wear ourselves out in seeking relief, as though everything depends more upon ourselves than upon God (see Prv 12:25).
Anxiety Is Counterproductive
As a result, if we don't obtain what we want right away, we grow quite anxious and impatient. But that doesn't solve the problem; on the contrary, it makes it worse.
In this way, we fall into an unreasonable state of anxiety and distress, with such a loss of strength and courage that we begin to imagine there is no cure for our trouble.
You can see, then, how a disturbance in our soul, which may have been justified in the beginning, produces anxiety, which intensifies our sadness. Such anxiety is the greatest evil, except for sin, that can happen to the soul.
Internal strife and sedition can ruin a nation, and make it incapable of resisting a foreign invader. In the same way, if our heart is disturbed and anxious, it loses the strength both to maintain the virtues it has acquired and the power to resist the temptations of the Evil One (who fishes in troubled waters).
Birds ensnared in nets and traps become inextricably entangled because they flutter and struggle so much (see Eccl 9:12). Whenever you urgently desire to escape from a certain evil or to attain a certain good, strive above all else to keep a calm, restful spirit. Steady your judgment and will, then go quietly and easily after your goal, taking all the appropriate means to attain it (see Ps 131:2).
By "easily" I don't mean "carelessly," but rather without hurry, trouble or anxiety. Otherwise, instead of obtaining your goal, you will hinder it, adding to your perplexities.
Examine yourself often, at least every morning and night. If your soul has become anxious, make it a priority to bring it quietly back into the presence of God, placing all your hopes and affections under the direction of His holy will (see Ps 139:23-24).
When you become aware that you are growing anxious, commend yourself to God, as the apostle Paul urges, and resolve firmly not to take any steps whatever to obtain the result you desire until your disturbed state of mind is altogether quieted (see Ps 42:5). Of course, this is the approach to take unless it's necessary to do something without delay. In that case, you must restrain yourself from acting impulsively, even when you must act immediately.
Finally, if you lay your anxiety before a spiritual counselor, or at least some trustworthy and devout friend, you may be sure that you will find great comfort. The heart finds relief in telling its troubles to someone else. TCA