I manage anxiety, something that’s been with me for a few years now. I refer to it as “managing” and not “struggling with” because I feel like the work I’ve done with professionals to address my health is the same approach someone would have for any chronic illness: a combination of chemical and physical support to make it less of a struggle.
I’ve also experienced multiple entry points in my Catholic faith for addressing mental health. Being Catholic means having a tradition and spiritual practices that have the power to heal and keep us anchored in a community. I’ve found these tools to be effective for keeping me on track, as well as dealing with anxiety, depression, and trauma.
If you stop to think about it, the wisdom from the Church isn’t confined to just understanding the Bible. Sure, there are a lot of old men in Rome who are thinking about those things — but the Church is also childbearing mothers, and French peasants from the 17th century, and bankers in Africa, and astronauts, and nobles who lived in Rome before it fell, and kindergartners. In fact, the Church is primarily these people — and they’ve been thinking about what it means to truly live a good life for more than 2,000 years.
So the insights and practices gathered in our Catholic tradition present us with systems and methods to be able to take care of ourselves and others — to love more deeply, and so to find God. In my own journey of searching for mental health, I’ve found these resources to be an immense help for staying on track, finding encouragement, and going deeper than I could on my own.
We grind and we rest
Let’s start with the Church calendar, a collection of feasts and seasons of preparation that invites moderation and balance. We fast for 40 days in Lent, but we celebrate for 50 during Easter. There are long stretches of what is literally called Ordinary Time. Boring Time. Normal Life Time. Do the Daily Tasks Time. But what is sprinkled throughout Ordinary time? Feasts! Today, feasts mostly mean the priest wears a different color vestment at Mass, but in the long history of the Church, a feast often meant a feast — a day off from work and a good cut of meat. A Treat Yourself day, if you will.
The liturgical calendar is built so that there is a balance between periods of grind and periods of rest. We Catholics abstain and embrace discipline, and we also indulge and celebrate. The rhythm of the Church’s seasons help us dig into these moments of preparation or feasting with all that we have, and to do so together. They move us to gratitude and to give more of ourselves than we would have thought to do on our own.
I spent this year feeling very low from a combination of grief and constant lockdowns that removed access to social support systems. However, I never panicked about the “low” season itself. It was hard, but knowing how even St. John of the Cross experienced a “dark night of the soul” allowed me to see the year’s lowness as a normal, boring, hard part of life. I was able to just be sad, instead of worrying about how to immediately fix the sad.
If you’re one of the millions of people who’ve downloaded Headspace or Calm or Hallow this year, you know the benefits of quiet, focused reflection. As Dag Hammarskjöl put it, “We all have within us a center of stillness surrounded by silence.” Thomas Merton helped us see contemplation as a way to enter this center of stillness.
Merton (1915-1968) lived in the Blue Hills of Kentucky as a monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani. He spent much of his life in dialogue with Zen Buddhust Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki, relating the work of Zen to that of the Desert Fathers in the early Church. His landmark work, New Seeds of Contemplation, is a how-to guide for cultivating the technique of a stilled mind, so that we may hear God speaking.
Around Easter of this year I began mediating in earnest, along with reading Merton. I learned that reaching this stillness in meditation is a deep form prayer that goes much deeper than just asking God for help — it’s a way to spend time with each other with no agenda. The peace it brings to cultivate this stillness has led me to pray often.
Writing & journaling
If there is one area of mental health where Catholics historically shine, it’s the use of the written word to work through tough experiences and soothe trauma. Long before Julia Cameron proposed the work of journaling to initiate change in her book, The Artist’s Way in 1992, Julian of Norwich was writing out her visions as a way to understand her experiences of the divine.
Julian of Norwich (1343-1416) was an anchoress — a woman who chose a life of seclusion to pray, write, and offer counsel for those in her village. Around age 30, she became deathly ill and had a series of visions of Christ. She wrote about those visions, and then returned to the text years later to explore their theological implications. In the midst of a life of seclusion, the act of writing was a way to not only document her experience in the midst of grave medical trauma, but work through what it meant to her faith.
Inspired by Julian, I’ve taken time this year to look more closely at the feelings and movements of losing my mom. The peace that comes from writing about it isn’t just cathartic, but also organizational. I feel like I can see my heart working and understand my emotions better when I put things into words.
St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) wrote a guide for working through emotions by evaluating their source. He also developed a way to do this with a mentor. Over a period of four weeks, one makes the Spiritual Exercises alongside a spiritual director who is trained to listen and respond with appropriate support and follow-up questions. This method of space, reflection, and conversation has been used in the Church for centuries to invite people to get to the heart of what is happening in their lives at the moment — and to discover how God might be meeting them there.
The Spiritual Exercises help people unearth patterns of negative thinking and begin to name their source. Emotions are seen as movements toward or away from the love of God. An honest evaluation of emotions allows us to see them as indicators that point the way toward balance. Mindfully attending to our emotions also helps us name what truly brings us joy. Often, the Spiritual Exercises are used to discern a satisfying calling.
This summer I finally did the work to find a good therapist — someone to journey with me, but doesn’t have any stake in the game. She’s able to give a disinterested, benevolent evaluation of my choices, as well as guide me through a process that reroutes emotional pathways in the brain. It’s weird and awesome at the same time. This is the kind of intentional engagement with emotion that is our inheritance as Catholics.
Saints had anxiety, too
It is comforting to think of all the holy men and women who lived lives of anxiety, worry, and depression. Being a Saint doesn’t assume a life free from worry — it means knowing how to properly meet, express, and integrate worry.
That’s the thing about Saints — they are normal people. Many Saints lived seemingly unremarkable lives, but they found tools to integrate their anxieties in such a way that they remained oriented toward love. That’s the best we can do: acknowledge the reality of our mental health, and be confident that God desires us to choose love — for ourselves as much as for others.