Does your faith help you cope with the stress in your life? Why do we get stressed and how does it show itself? What do we mean by faith and how does it work for us in concrete terms? In an attempt to address these questions, a discussion programme organised by the Blessington Interfaith Group will be held in Our Lady's Parish Centre on Wednesdays, 19th & 26th Nov, from 8pm to 9.30pm. The programme will be participative & inclusive and will encourage people to give their own responses, grounded in their personal experience. The main aim is to help us in our day to day lives and to relate in a meaningful way to the wider community. The term 'interfaith' is understood to embrace Christians of all denominations, members of other religions and people of goodwill everywhere. Enrolment and further info from The Parish Office (045 865327 ) firstname.lastname@example.org or Joan Griffith (087 9704832 ) or Gerry Curran (087 2841009 ).
Why do we get stressed and how does it show itself? What do we mean by faith and how does it work for us in concrete terms? In an attempt to address these questions, a discussion programme organised by the Blessington Interfaith Group will be held in Our Lady's Parish Centre on two consecutive Wednesday evenings, 19 and 26 November, from 8 to 9.30pm. The programme will be participative and inclusive and will encourage people to give their own responses, grounded in their personal experience. The main aim is to help us in our day to day lives and also to relate in a meaningful way to the wider community. The term 'interfaith' embraces Christians of all denominations, members of other religions and people of goodwill everywhere.
To begin we ask, what is stress? The Oxford English Dictionary gives several definitions, for instance, 'the condition of being compelled or unduly strained', or 'the overpowering pressure of some adverse force or influence'. The Dictionary goes on to link stress with key words and expressions like hardship, oppression, bearing a heavy load or being pushed too far. From the 1930s onwards, medical researchers have been particularly interested in studying the links between stress and illness in human beings, and in this context stress was defined in scientific terms as 'the physical, mental and emotional response to a demanding change in the environment. Three different levels of stress are usually identified – mild, which is barely noticeable and mostly harmless; medium, which is normally manageable and can on occasion be beneficial; and severe, which is nearly always harmful and can lead to disease. A final observation on the nature of stress is that sometimes its ultimate cause may not be obvious – it is this insidious element that makes stress so difficult to remedy.
Why are we stressed? There are many reasons, not the least of which is the hectic pace of modern living. Examples of this can easily be found – our frenetic approach to work and recreation, our fascination with speed and the passage of time, the constant bombardment of our minds and senses with alarming news stories and subliminal advertisements, and the raucous background of noise of one kind or another that usually surrounds us. Add to this, the economic worries and stress in recent years that many people had to endure, often behind the closed doors of their own homes. And at a general level, there is the accumulated effect of rapid societal change all around us – this is particularly noticeable in Ireland, where within the space of one or two generations, we have witnessed more physical, social, religious and economic change than in any comparable period in our history.
Is stress different from pain? Yes and no. In many cases stress and pain are identical but one important distinction can be made. Severe pain can never be ignored; stress, however, is often hidden or camouflaged, and the person who suffers from it may be the last person to recognise it for what it is.
When does stress occur? The answer is at any time, but if we look closely we may find that there is a conflict, often at a deep level, between our fundamental beliefs and values and what we actually do on a daily basis. Our ideals and our actions may be out of sync with one another. It follows then that any sincere effort on our part to relieve our stress may have to begin with a frank reassessment of whether our aims and values – what is sometimes called our world view – are realistically reflected in our day-to-day activities.
What role can our faith play in helping us cope with stress? To answer this question, however, we must first enquire what we mean by faith. The Oxford English Dictionary defines faith as the action, condition or habit of trusting or confiding in some person or thing.
From a Christian point of view, faith is primarily regarded as a gift from God, to be cherished and passed on to others. But it is also the gift of ourselves to God – it is more than a process of reasoning or an expression of feeling, it is a commitment we give based on trust. In this sense, faith is at work in all the important decisions of our life, no matter what our religious convictions may be. For instance, when two persons decide to get married, it is not only because they have made a judgement about each other's compatibility or because they feel a strong attraction towards each other. It is also and perhaps primarily because they are willing to make a commitment in trust to one another – they have decided to take what we call a leap of faith. And if we think about it, we will find that similar leaps of faith can be present in all the vital decisions of our lives.
The Christian response to stress is found in a special way in the traditional belief in the providence of God. We get a clue about the meaning of what this providence is if we examine the origins of the word itself. It comes from the Latin, providere, to look after or look out for someone. We talk of a father or mother being a good provider for their children – they are always on the lookout for their present and future needs, they continually watch over and take care of them, and if any danger threatens, they are near at hand to protect them against harm. This is a beautiful, consoling and powerful idea and when we apply it to the Almighty we are expressing our conviction that God also looks after his children with the same diligence, foresight and unfailing care. We are reminded of another definition of faith, this time from the New Testament – it is the hopeful conviction of things yet unseen (Heb 11:1).
Did Jesus have anything to say on the subject of stress? Quite a lot, only he usually used the terms 'anxiety' and 'worry', which in the end come to the same thing. We are told that the most frequent expression attributed to Jesus was the words, "Don't be afraid" – it would seem he was continually trying to calm people down and give them courage to keep going. The classic example of this concern can be found in the well known passage in Matthew's Gospel about the lilies of the field (Mt. 6, 25-34), where Jesus gave as many as seven reasons why we should not worry. The broad context of his teaching can be found in his own personal relationship with God, which is a recurring theme in all four gospels and indeed in the entire New Testament. Jesus regarded God as a father who would always look after him no matter what happened. Furthermore – and this is the essence of the Good News he brought – he wanted all of us to follow his example.
But what happens if our faith fails and our trust in Providence does not work out? How do we deal with the tragedy and despair of a blighted life? How can we explain the disasters and outrages which befall the innocent and defenceless? What answer can we give to the apparent triumph of evil in the world? Here, we are face to face with a profound mystery and must suffer the uncertainty that there are no answers, at least no human answers, in sight. But here too, we can find faith at its deepest level: we believe because we have no option, we trust, because there is nowhere else to go. Isaiah in the Old Testament made this point very well when he said: "if you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all (Isa7:9)."
Blessington Interfaith Group