Last week I reached into my big bag of fears and took out two of my favorite phobias. Claustrophobia is one I share with many people, but it has a special irony for me because I’ve chosen to live in a cloister. If claustrophobia bothers me, then I have to bear some of the responsibility, even if I have no idea how I came by that phobia.
My fear of hypodermic needles is a different matter altogether, and I trace that back directly to our childhood nurse Rose. To be fair, it wasn’t Rose the nurse who terrified me and my two sisters. Rather, it was her long blunt needles. They seemed ideally calibrated to take core samples from the earth, and even the hint of a visit to her office sent shivers down our spines.
Anyway, last week I faced a double-whammy of phobias when I had to visit a clinic for an MRI and a cortisone shot in my lower back. It was my first time for each, and dire warnings had prepared me for the worst. I’d always dreaded this moment, and I can only hope that my obvious anxiety mitigated my dramatic plea to the doctor for a tranquilizer. Mercifully he obliged, but even then I knew it wouldn’t be enough to calm me. And it wasn’t.
I trembled every step of the way as the nurse led me down the hall. My mind went into overdrive, and in a last-ditch effort I tried to console myself with the thought that I’d wedged myself into airline seats that had to be smaller than this machine. But even that dark humor failed to work. Then the door swung open, and for a moment I stared in stunned silence at the machine that was about to eat me.
“What?! Do you mean to tell me that you got me all worked up for THAT? That’s nothing!” I meant my mock outrage to disguise my relief, because in front of me was not the coffin-like tube I had expected to rest in for twenty minutes. Instead there was a bright and airy contraption, well-lit and comfortable. It even came complete with head phones and Sirius Radio for my easy-listening entertainment. I chose soft jazz, climbed on, settled in and dozed off. It truly was nothing.
Then came the ordeal of the cortisone shot. That too turned out to be a bust. There was no pain to speak of, and the worst of it was the anxiety of waiting for the pain that never came. That’s when I began to realize what I had done to myself. I had worked myself into a tizzy, and all I had to show for it was a totally unnecessary spike in my blood pressure. Even worse, two treasured phobias of mine had turned out to be paper tigers, and I had embarrassed myself by the silly fuss I had made.
I’m not a professional psychologist, and so I’m in no position to explain the grip that phobias can have on us. Still, as an amateur human being with plenty of phobias to my name, I will venture this. Common to all phobias is the fear of losing control of ourselves in the face of something much bigger than ourselves. Whether fanciful or quite real, these fears threaten our autonomy and perhaps even our existence. Quite rightly we sit up and take notice.
Saint Benedict does not have a section in his Rule on phobias, but he does address one situation in which a monk risks losing his autonomy in the face of something much larger than himself. In chapter 68 he writes of that moment when the abbot might ask impossible things of a monk. A monk in this predicament rightly feels helpless — damned if he tries and fails, and damned if he fails to try. He runs the risk of disappointing the abbot by his own failure, even as he is sure of his own inability to do the task at hand. In short, he’s lost control of his life to forces beyond him.
Saint Benedict doesn’t offer a lot of practical remedies for this situation. He doesn’t encourage the monk to protest wildly, nor does he suggest that someone act as an arbiter between monk and abbot. However, he does encourage the monk to submit in love to the command of his abbot and hope that somehow it will all turn out well.
It occurs to me that Saint Benedict may have taken this approach because he is thinking about the larger issues of life. On any given day there are things that a monk will find challenging, but life itself is the challenge. Life itself can seem insurmountable, unless of course the monk submits to it in love.
Not surprisingly, we all find ourselves in the same pickle when it comes to God. There are days when God seems to demand the impossible of us. And when Jesus asks us to be perfect as his Heavenly Father is perfect, that too is a recipe for failure. In the face of such a command, who is not bound to fail? In the shadow of the majesty of God, who doesn’t fear being overwhelmed and forgotten? How could God possibly take notice of a single poor soul?
On the day when God appears to ask too much of us, that is the day when we must plunge ahead in love. On the day when we imagine ourselves as nothing in contrast to God, that’s the moment to recall that God so loved each of us that he sent Jesus for our salvation. On the day when we think God’s hand reaches out to smother us, remember that God reaches out for the sole purpose of gathering us into the palm of his hand.
Not for a minute would I suggest that it’s easy to toss away our phobias. I’m sure that claustrophobia is lurking in the shadows, waiting for its next chance to scare the daylights out of me. And as for hypodermic needles, these we will always have with us. But to be afraid of God? That’s a phobia we can live without.
+Last week was a time of missed opportunities. I had planned to attend a talk by Saint John’s alumnus Denis McDonough ’92, who spoke at Saint John’s on March 14th. For the last four years Denis has been the chief of staff at the White House. Then on March 16th I had registered to attend an alumni reception at the new US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. I was able to attend neither of these events, much to my disappointment.
+On March 15th I spent the afternoon getting an MRI and a cortisone shot in my back. Happily, I am making good progress with my back, and I look forward to the day when I can ditch the walker that currently allows me to get around. The pain is down considerably. What I have come to appreciate most these past three weeks is the enormous amount of work that people have put in to make our campus accessible. I had no idea how complicated it could be to get through doors until I had a walker in tow.
+On March 18th retired Bishop John McRaith of the Diocese of Owensboro, KY, passed away. Bishop McRaith was an alumnus of our Prep School.
+The photos in today’s post show the panels of the Troyes Altarpiece, ca. 1525, now housed at the V & A in London. It is made of limestone, painted and gilded.