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Considering the lilies

11 October 2013

David Bryant reflects on the modern epidemic of anxiety

PROFOUND anxiety lies hidden behind every door in the parish. There are myriad causes. It may spring from clinical depression or recent bereavement. Health problems and financial insecurity can notch it up to unbearable levels. Guilt exacerbates it, and domestic worries run through the days like a dark thread.

For some, it is a spiritual emptiness, an existential angst. Fate has thrown us into the world and abandoned us. That is partly why we have become a nation of pill-takers. It is not a new phenomenon. Christ exhorted his followers to overcome anxiety by reflecting on the serenity of ravens and lilies.

Paul Tillich (1885-1965), anti-Nazi, celebrated philosopher, and theologian, unearthed the deeper causes lying behind anxiety in his book The Courage to Be (1952). The primal root of our unrest is the fear of non-being, our awareness that the day of death will inexorably dawn.

The Church teaches eternal life, but nagging doubt still remains, if we are honest. It cannot be empirically proved, and few have an unswerving, rock-like faith in a post-worldly existence.

No less disturbing is our sense of the meaninglessness of life. Everyone has experienced those dismal days when questions fly around, unanswered and unanswerable. Why are we here? Is life devoid of purpose? Does God exist, or is it all hogwash?

We can paper over the uncertainties with alcohol, drugs, formal religion, busyness, or socialising, but that unsettling voice will inevitably break through, telling us that life is empty and futile.

Our own moral and spiritual shortfall is another trigger for unease and anxiety. We set ourselves standards and goals, and the daily unfolding of events causes us to fail; despair creeps close.

Brooding malignly over it all and heightening our worry is the world's darkness; wars and the fearful uncertainty about what their outcome may be; world overpopulation or ecological meltdown, and how it will affect our children and grandchildren; the obscene depths of depravity to which humans can fall. Read the newspapers to discover all this.

They paint a bleak picture, but Paul Tillich puts forward a new way of coping, a fresh insight about how we can take on board the weight of anxiety, and still win through. "Being religious means asking passionately the question of the meaning of our existence, and being willing to receive answers, even if the answers hurt," he maintains.

Ultimately, this implies that we have to accept that nothing is certain, and often there are no answers. This is tough. It appears that we have reached a spiritual cul-de-sac, an all-time low.

Then comes a flash of light in the darkness, a reassurance that all is not lost; that we can inject renewed hope, and a refurbished meaning into existence. We do this by continuing to believe, in spite of doubt, by clinging on and choosing not to give way to despair, come what may. If we go through life affirming the courage to be, we will find ourselves grasped and held safe above the abyss of despair.

This is the point at which we encounter the one who lives beyond all that we can know or comprehend, the Holiness hidden in light inaccessible. In Tillich's thought-provoking words: "The name of this inexhaustible depth and ground of all being is God." So, take heart.

The Revd David Bryant is a retired priest in Yorkshire.

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