An experience of anxiety out-of-control brings Father Alex face-to-face with the reality of his dependence, his need for fraternity, and the solace of prayer.
Over the last three months I have been having panic attacks during Mass. About two months ago I had to stop Mass during the Eucharistic Prayer, unable to catch my breath and on the verge of passing out. It was a new experience of being completely overwhelmed by something I couldn’t control.
For the first time in fifteen years of priesthood I was terrified at the idea of celebrating Mass publicly. Then a flood of questions followed: What if it happens again? What if I can’t catch my breath? What kind of priest am I if I can’t celebrate Mass publicly? Why in the world is God doing this to me?
I called friends and explained what was happening. I went to the diocesan clinic and described the symptoms. I called Catholic Charities to meet with a counselor. I texted my spiritual director to set up an appointment. And I told my people publicly that I was having panic attacks during Mass. After two weeks of essentially exposing the wound, a new round of questions arrived: What is the meaning of this experience? What is its value for my life? What is it teaching me about being a priest?
Then four things happened:
First, people began telling me about their suffering with anxiety and more. In some ways I expected the response from those who shared my struggle, but I did not anticipate those who suddenly felt they could tell me anything—things they did not feel the freedom to tell me before. Second, priests began calling with the same struggle. I realized that I am not the only priest who was having this struggle with anxiety. And the “problem” itself became a source of fraternity. Third, my conversations became more meaningful. It gave me the chance to have more serious conversations with my friends about how I live my life, how I use my time and what I expect of myself. Finally, my prayer, particularly at the level of dependence, has matured. I found my limit. And oddly enough it was a point of freedom for me. The recognition of that limit became the starting point of dependence; a dependence that is born not from duty or moral obligation, but out of sincere need. My prayer is more real. For that I am grateful, even for the fact of suffering and the admission of my weakness.
The last three months have been a tremendous time of maturity for me. And it has been through the struggle that I’ve become more attuned to the Mystery at work.
At the International Meeting of Responsibles, Martina shared a quote from James Fitz-James Stephen who noted the ease with which people could cross the Atlantic in massive ships like the “Great Eastern” as if they had never left land. Then he writes, “But it seems unlikely that they will have such a knowledge of the great ocean on which they sail, with its storms and wrecks, its currents and icebergs, its huge waves and mighty winds, as those who battled with it for years together in the little craft, which, if they had few other merits, brought those who navigated them full into the presence of time and eternity, their maker and themselves, and forced them to have some definite view of their relations to them and to each other.”
This is the exceptional gift I have received.
Father Alex, Evansville, Indiana