Age of Anxiety – Br. Jim Woodrum

Br. Jim Woodrum

Job 38:1-11
Mark 4:35-41

In 1947, a friend of the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein suggested that he write a piece of music based on W.H. Auden’s epic poem, “The Age of Anxiety.” Despite critics deeming the poem as Auden’s “one dull book, his one failure,” it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948. The poem’s subject is four strangers who meet in a New York bar during wartime and contemplate their lives and the human condition.[i] The title of the poem evokes a theme that permeates society, both ancient and modern: anxiety. Just saying the word can make your muscles tense up.

Two definitions of anxiety resonate deeply with me. First: “an apprehensive uneasiness or nervousness usually over an impending or anticipated ill: a state of being anxious.” We’ve all experienced anxiety of this sort, say, before a job interview, exam, wedding, or while awaiting a medical diagnosis and its implications for our future. For me, I remember the anxiety of preparing a meal for thirty people for the first time, my first sermon, or getting the call that my father had suffered a fall while I was away on mission in Texas—a fall that ended his life. What is something that has caused you anxiety in recent memory?

The second definition is derived from psychology: “an abnormal and overwhelming sense of apprehension and fear often marked by physical signs such as tension, sweating, and increased pulse rate, by doubt concerning the reality and nature of the threat, and by self-doubt about one’s capacity to cope with it.” Some of us may relate specifically to this definition, especially those dealing with anxiety that co-occurs with depression, PTSD, or other neurological conditions.

Our first lesson from the Old Testament is another epic poem, akin to Auden’s, that evokes the theme of anxiety. The Book of Job recounts the story of a righteous man named Job who faces severe trials orchestrated by Satan, with God’s permission, to test Job’s faithfulness. Imagine Job’s anxiety as he loses his wealth, children, and health—even though, through it all, he refuses to speak ill of God. Throughout the book, Job and his friends engage in profound theological discussions about suffering, justice, and the nature of God. Ultimately, God appears and challenges Job’s understanding, emphasizing His sovereignty and wisdom beyond human comprehension. God asks:

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.

Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?

On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone

when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?”

This line of questioning, while beautiful and poetic, is intensely articulated. As God continues this dialogue for a significant period, one cannot help but take comfort in the overwhelming evidence of God’s competence in handling all that might make us anxious. In the end, Job humbly accepts God’s wisdom and is restored, receiving double the blessings he had lost. The book explores profound themes of suffering, faith, and divine justice.

In our gospel lesson, Jesus and his disciples are crossing the Sea of Galilee when a mighty storm arises, threatening to break their boat apart. The disciples exhibit textbook anxiety—they are terrified and cry out to Jesus in their desperation. And, what is Jesus doing amidst the chaos? He’s sleeping; sleeping like a baby. They wake him and he speaks a calming word that stills the storm. He questions them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

In the Prologue to John’s gospel, Jesus is referred to as the ‘Word of God made flesh,’ present before time began and enduring beyond its end. Jesus, the Word of God, remained a calm presence amidst the storm and continued to be so after it passed. He was with his disciples ‘in’ the storm but he was not ‘of’ the storm.

Bernstein went on to compose his second symphony, titled “The Age of Anxiety,” which premiered with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1949 under the baton of Serge Koussevitsky. Bernstein described his symphony in this way: “The essential theme of the poem (and of the music) is the chronicle of our difficult and problematical quest for faith.”[ii]

Indeed, faith could be seen as an antonym to anxiety. If anxiety is “an apprehensive uneasiness or nervousness usually over an impending or anticipated ill,” consider this definition of the word faith: “complete trust or confidence in someone or something.” A quest for faith might thus be seen as a path toward release from anxiety.

Yet, at face value, I experience this as delusive. If we’re honest, we can never be entirely immune from anxiety. When we embark on our journey of faith in Jesus Christ, we expose ourselves to the assaults of Satan, who seeks to undermine that faith. What Bernstein referred to as the difficult and problematical quest for faith (or the anxiety that is produced in that quest) is actually where our intentional commitment to faith is tested. Anxiety does not necessarily indicate a lack of faith.

Sixteenth-century theologian Richard Hooker argued that while spiritual joy often accompanies faith, it isn’t essential, and its absence can even be beneficial. He writes: “Better it is sometimes to go down into the pit with him, who, beholding darkness, and bewailing the loss of inward joy and consolation, crieth from the bottom of the lowest hell, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ than continually to walk arm in arm with angels, to sit as it were in Abraham’s bosom, and to have not thought, no cogitation, but “I thank my God it is not with me as it is with other men.’ No, God will have them that shall walk in light to feel now and then what it is to sit in the shadow of death. A grieved spirit therefore is no argument of a faithless mind.”[iii]

Richard Meux Benson, the founder of our community, put it this way: “The fallen host, although they see us involved in the realm of death, know that we are inheritors of a hope which is not theirs. They come up in every form to struggle with us. We must not expect to walk in peace in our uniform through the camp of the enemy.”[iv]

So, what can we, who live in the age of anxiety, take away from all of this? First, reflecting on our gospel lesson, I find it ironic that Jesus questions the disciples’ faith. Considering that many of them were experienced fishermen and sailors, they concluded they couldn’t save themselves from the chaos threatening to capsize their boat. They called out to Jesus, who saved them with a calming word. Perhaps when Jesus questions their faith, he’s actually asking, “Why are you anxious?”

From the disciples, we can learn to turn to Jesus in prayer first when our emotions overwhelm us, rather than trying to manage everything on our own. When we face anxiety, apprehension, uneasiness, and self-doubt—assaults from “the fallen host”—we should instinctively call on Jesus. Jesus is Emmanuel, “God with us,” who brings calm to our chaos and prevents us from being consumed by anxiety.

Second, difficult and problematical as it may be, we must be bold in confronting the anxiety which tests our intentional quest for faith. When tested, the way we can keep from being consumed by the anxiety is to counter it with charity. Nothing diminishes Satan’s power than to do exactly the opposite. When Jesus was tempted by Satan after his baptism, Jesus countered each of the devil’s temptations by acknowledging the exact opposite: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”; “Do not put the Lord your God to the test”; “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”[v] In following Jesus’ example, we can quell anxiety. When tempted to hurl stones at those who challenge us, be true to the image of God within you and exhibit God’s compassion, mercy, and love.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta is attributed to have said: “If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives; be kind anyway. If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you; be honest and frank anyway. What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight; build anyway. The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow; do good anyway. You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and your God; it was never between you and them anyway.”[vi]

And last, when you’re feeling anxious, it could be that your simply hungry—or as we say these days, “hangry.” Ask God for nourishment. In a few moments, you will be invited to come forward to receive the sacrament of Christ. Bring your anxiety and offer it to God, and in return, receive a piece of bread and a sip of wine—the essence of God’s compassion, mercy, and love in the presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. Then, step out once again—without anxiety—not on your quest for faith, but on your quest in faith. Amen.

[i] “Leonard Bernstein at 100.” Works | Works | Leonard Bernstein, Accessed 22 June 2024.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Rowell, Geoffrey, et al. Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness. OUP Oxford, 2003.

[iv] Benson, Richard Meux. A Cowley Calendar. London: Mowbrays, 1932.

[v] Mark 4:1-11

[vi] “A Quote by Mother Teresa.” Goodreads, Goodreads, Accessed 22 June 2024.

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