A tweet from @Deborahhollamby caught my eye this morning. She was talking about the impact stress can have on our health. Anyone who suffers from an immune disorder knows how damaging stress can be, but what exactly is stress and how long have we been subject to it? I can’t find any references to ‘stress’ in the sense that we use the word earlier than the twentieth century; so is it a modern phenomenon? A case of re-minting an old word to give it a keener edge?
‘Distress’ has been around a lot longer; and to me, at least, its root meaning, from the Latin distringere, to pull or stretch apart, is both clearer and more evocative. We all know the feeling of being torn apart by worry or conflicting duties or events in our lives which make us unhappy. Is the way we cope with distress fundamentally different from the way in which we cope with stress?
Whether we call it stress or distress, we all have to live with imperfect circumstances that can make huge physical and emotional demands on us, but I do think monastic life offers some guidelines for dealing with it that should be better known. I have often mentioned that end-of-the-day review (examination of conscience) which allows us consciously to accept both the good and the bad and turn it all over to God. That act of turning things over to God isn’t a cop out. It is a recognition that we aren’t in charge, God is. When we take ourselves from centre stage, we allow God more scope; and that must be good.
It isn’t only the end-of-day review that helps. Every time we go into choir to sing the Divine Office, we sign ourselves with the Cross and with holy water. That is a powerful reminder both of our baptism and of our desire to stand before God with clean hearts, free from anything that might be unworthy of him. Sometimes we don’t just have to purify our hearts, we have to pacify them as well. Letting go is often hard to do, but being regularly called back into the Prayer of Christ is a way of freeing ourselves from the bonds that stress (or distress) create.
For those who don’t live in monasteries, this could seem a bit remote from reality; but most of us do have odd moments during the day when we have no particular duty or job to do. Such moments can be used for turning to the Lord, creating out of the chaos of our lives something that is quiet and still. If all else fails and the demons continue to haunt us, we can remember that Jesus’ quiet time was in Gethsemane and it was on the Cross that he finally, irrevocably turned everything over to God.