I Corinthians 7: 32-35
“I want you to be free from anxieties.”
Apparently, Paul was not following the latest research on the correlation between marriage and anxiety. Numerous studies have now shown that those who remain married over a life span are less anxious, more emotional well-balanced, and generally happier than those who are not married or who divorce. (This seems to be slightly less true for women than for men, but on the whole it remains true.) Of course, this is an anachronistic attack on Paul and misses the point he is trying to make. It is well-known that Paul expected an immanent return of Christ and thus probably saw no purpose in propagating the species or ensuring the long-term emotional well-being of his readers. If we remove the middle part of the discourse, Paul’s reading for this Sunday goes like this:
“I want you to be free from anxieties. [Insert your preferred anxiety and all of its negative consequences here.] I say this for your own benefit, not to put any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord” (italics added).
We could substitute just about any anxiety for Paul’s discourse on marriage and his overall point would still be valid. Money, career, spouse, getting my next article published, my kids’ future, self-criticism, criticism of others – all of them detract from unhindered devotion to the Lord in this moment. We can only hear God’s voice and respond to it with our whole will in this moment when we are unhindered by excessive anxiety and are present to the moment.
The disciples in Mark’s Gospel (we’re in cycle B of the lectionary, so we’ll be in Mark’s world for a while) are a striking model of this kind of attention to the moment. In last Sunday’s readings the disciples are going about their business of providing for themselves and their families, probably just as anxious about the catch of fish for the day and whether it would be enough to pay for their kids’ synagogue pre-school next year as we are. The Son of God walks by and calls them, they drop everything without question and follow him. Apparently, something about Jesus’ presence snapped them back to the moment to such an extent that they realized that this was no ordinary guy, and they responded. They are quickly rewarded as Jesus immediately takes them to the synagogue on the Sabbath and heals a man with an unclean spirit. Suddenly, they recognize “A new teaching – with authority!”
Likewise, the Rule of Benedict (Ch. 5) upholds obedience as the first and most important step of humility. The root of this word obedience is oboedire (Lt.) – to listen. Listening requires us to be present to the moment, not to be caught up in our worries and thoughts, in order to respond to what we hear. We know that anxieties of any kind disrupt not only this capacity to be present and to listen, but also our capacity to respond to what we hear, to reason through a situation and come up with a creative response. This latter part is the essence of moral action – more specifically, it is the essence of prudence, that virtue that allows us to take in the world around us and thoughtfully to respond with a free and creative moral action. Anxieties, and unruly passions of any kind, thwart this process, keep us away from presence, and hinder our devotion to our values and principles and ultimately to God’s call.
All of this suggests that there is an intimate link between contemplation and moral action, between presence of mind and our capacity to respond. In cultivating a morality that is intimately connected to a healthy spirituality, we do well to take heed of Paul’s admonition “to be free from anxieties.” Of course, we cannot eradicate anxiety or the demands of our daily lives and the need to secure our existence and our future, but we can find practices that mitigate the capacity for such anxieties to interfere with our capacity to be present to ourselves and to God’s call in the moment. Despite the cacophony of voices and authorities that vie for our attention in the world today (some of these may even be couched in religious and well-intetioned terms), our capacity to cultivate an authentic spiritual and moral response to life ultimately derives from such calm and trusting presence of mind. The readings for this 4th Sunday in ordinary time remind us that staying present to each moment in this way is the most fitting way to grow in wisdom and holiness and to cultivate the moral life.