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How The Peace of Christ Conquered My Anxious, Atheist Heart

Peter Laffin
April 20, 2023 No Comments

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life?” — Matthew 6:25–27

I’m an anxious person. It’s a condition passed down for at least two generations, and likely many more. I’m also a glad-handing extrovert, which is also a family trait.

It’s a misconception that the two identities are mutually opposed. If you saw me at a party, you’d think I’m the last person in the grip of preoccupation. I’m affable because I genuinely like people, especially their stories and idiosyncrasies — and because I’m terrified of silence. It’s made me an expert at keeping conversations going. I’ve made countless friends this way. It turns out that people are fascinating if you force yourself to pay attention to what they’re saying. This has been one of God’s many backhanded gifts to me.

Alcohol has always helped, and that’s why I had a problem with it as a young man. With drinks on board, I could speak without scrutinizing the sound of my own voice. I could listen earnestly without getting lost in the fog of my own thoughts. I could laugh spontaneously. Between my second and fifth drinks, I felt poised, self-possessed, fully integrated with the moment. I made countless friends this way, too.

The pitfalls of treating anxiety with alcohol are obvious, and I encountered each of them in time. Drinking regularly is bad for health and impedes forward momentum in life. Drinking too much increases the likelihood of foolish behavior. Drinking causes hangovers, and hangovers deaden core faculties of the soul, like imagination, comprehension, and memory. Alcohol is an effective short-term treatment for anxiety, but at a great cost.

Anxiety Meets Its Match

My anxiety finally met its match when I converted to Catholicism from atheism, which occurred just after graduating from college with a BA in philosophy. It would be impossible to catalog the many factors that led to my conversion — I doubt I’ll ever get to the bottom of it — but it’s enough to say that the Lord made use of my whole being, including my anxiety, to draw me into the heart of his love.

I had decided to quit drinking at the beginning of my senior year in order to focus on my undergraduate thesis, which argued an earnest and unoriginal point about Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. I’d wasted enough time partying with friends, and there was still a chance I could get into a graduate program if I buckled down. But without my self-prescribed medicine, anxiety made quick work of me.

I sought help at the campus medical center, where I was treated by a cheerful and diminutive old doctor who spoke in a strange dialect of British English, which I eventually discovered was due to his childhood spent in Jamaica. I immediately felt comfortable with him. It had been a long time since I’d felt that way around anyone without a drink in my hand. I began to open up about things I’d never spoken about before — my many regrets, my broken relationships, the emptiness of modern life and the bleakness of the future. He didn’t say much in response aside from the occasional, “You know, Pete, you may want to reconsider that.” His cheerful authority was oddly persuasive.

Our appointments never felt long enough. I always made mental notes about where we’d left off and what more I had to say. It was gratifying to release so much after so long to this man, whom I’d begun to call “Doc.” But once I’d leave, anxiety would have me back in its grip, and I’d be alone again.

This is the worst symptom of anxiety: how lonely it makes you. The Catechism describes Hell as a state of “definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed.” To be in Hell is to be utterly alone, and the only way to be utterly alone is to be concerned with only yourself. It’s impossible to imagine anything more tragically foolish than Sartre’s contention that “Hell is other people.” Sadly, it was just the kind of thing I believed before my conversion.

Doc intuited all of this. He began taking me to the local diner for burgers at the end of the workday. The simple pleasure of his company — along with his bottomless capacity to absorb my neuroticism — began to instill in me something like hope. He radiated good health and self-possession.

At some point I asked him if we could meet on a Sunday, and he told me that he could take me to lunch only after he’d gone to something called “Mah-ss.” The church he attended happened to be about 50 feet from the house where I rented a studio apartment. I knew exactly where it was. I walked past it every day on my way to class.

Following the Doctor’s Orders

It wasn’t just that I didn’t believe in God. It was that I hated even the idea of Him (it took me years to realize that hatred implied belief). I hated his arbitrary rules and his apparent indifference toward evils like the bomb and childhood cancer. I hated the idea of his perfection, and most of all his perfect goodness. My three years of undergraduate philosophy had convinced me that “good” and “evil” were the simplistic constructs of prehistoric rubes, and that the true nature of reality lay somewhere beyond both.

Of course, I had no idea what the Church meant by the word “God.” In my mind, science had put an end to that nonsense centuries ago.

One evening, while walking home after a late seminar, I stepped into Doc’s church in an attempt to reconcile my admiration for him with these preposterous beliefs. I’m not sure what I’d expected to see — perhaps old ladies lashing themselves and the darting eyes of sexually-repressed men. But what I saw instead, unmistakably, was peace. And not just in the candle-lit altar or in the stained-glass windows, but in the face of the Man whose mangled body hung pathetically from the Cross. I saw peace in the expression of the One who had unlocked the gates of Heaven by sacrificing all that he had for our sake. So much of Catholicism would take me years to understand. So much eludes me still. But I understood the Cross immediately. It was the perfect inversion of Sartre.

The enormity of his love washed over me, and grace forced me to my knees. I wept for so many things, but especially for the suffering my self-centeredness had caused those I loved. The remorse was powerful and awful, and the tears were bitter. But the last thing I felt was anxious.

Not long after, I found Doc at his office and asked if I could join him on a given Sunday at St. Joseph’s for “Mah-ss.” He responded with a look of such surprised delight that I genuinely wondered what I’d gotten myself into.

“One-duh-full,” he said. “Just one-duh-full.”

The pastor of St. Joseph’s was an elderly Capuchin named Father Barnabas. He had a long, stringy beard and varicose veins on his cheeks. I had never met a priest before, but I had expected a more impressive figure. Father Barnabas stammered as he spoke and spit a little through his yellowed teeth. It would soon become apparent that he was no intellectual powerhouse, either. His homilies only ever seemed to touch on two topics: the importance of prayer and reverence for the Holy Eucharist. Doc would often lovingly joke about whether we were going to hear “homily A” or “homily B” on a given Sunday.

Father Barnabas wore a Boston Red Sox baseball cap as he greeted parishioners outside following Mass, which was a legitimate risk during the month of October in New York. When confronted, as he often was, he would laugh and say, “No, no, the ‘B’ stands for Barnabas,” with such joyful innocence that one would question his planet of origin. Father hugged me tightly each time he said hello, and he hugged me when I brought him cheesecake on his birthday, and he hugged me when I cried in his office after he taught me the prayer of Jonah, “But you brought up my life from the pit, O Lord, my God,” and he hugged me after the Easter Mass in 2007, at which I received my First Communion with my sponsor Doc at my side.

Heart of a Father

Father’s love was ever increasing and never stale. It was like a superpower. All he seemed to do was give himself away: love and give and give and love. Aside from the occasional cigar I’d catch him enjoying at night in the parking lot behind the church, I never saw him cater to his own needs. He was old and frail and penniless and free.

Some of the sweetest memories of my early conversion are of being silent and still at my bedside, praying as Father Barnabas had taught me. And of sitting on the stone bench at the campus lake watching the sunlight glitter off the rippling waters as ducks and geese bantered and busied themselves, floating effortlessly through the afternoon in perfect harmony with Creation. That’s what struck me most, once belief took hold: the Divine Order of nature. Before my eyes, a chaotic jumble of atoms transformed into a sublimely choreographed dance. It’s impossible to overstate the effect this has on anxiety. It is the difference between living in constant fear of having life snatched away to living in constant gratitude for the gift of existence, which God gave to us, as the Catechism states, “in a plan of sheer goodness.”

Just thinking of it now is enough to make my heart explode.

My anxiety would still bubble up on occasion, but the health of sacramental living and the company of my new friends wore it down over time. I no longer needed to dumbly suffer through rough patches as they occurred. I finally had a place to put my anxiety. I could make practical use of it by offering it to Christ. “Here is my anxiety, Lord. Take it. You can make good from this. Only draw me closer to you.”

As a young man, I’d always had the nervous feeling of not quite knowing what to do with myself — how to proceed, where to put my energies. I was a wandering puppy, “free” to the extent that I had little control over my impulses, little self-awareness, and no idea who my Master was. The calming effect of the sacramental life was immense — similar, I’d imagine, as training school for a puppy. I could finally move forward with confidence and purpose and security. The Catholic life seems legalistic and rigid to some. But to the anxious, its structures are liberating in the extreme.

A Home for the Anxious

Doc continued to take me out for burgers after graduation. We continued to attend Mass together each Sunday at St. Joseph’s, where he served as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion, and I as a cantor. I found an internship with a nearby arts-and-culture magazine, where I wrote articles on local theater productions and art gallery exhibitions and other things about which I pretended to be an expert.

On Saturdays, some combination of the three of us — Doc, Father Barnabas and myself — would take the train into the city to visit museums and great old churches like St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where Father Barnabas knew people who could give us the “behind the scenes” tour. He seemed to have many friends in peculiarly high places. I can still see him charging in front of us (Father was an extremely fast walker) in his brown cassock and fraying leather sandals as we negotiated the crowded Manhattan sidewalks. Only in New York could such a figure seem alien and perfectly in place at the same time. Doc and I relished the role of being his assistants, roaming the city streets on a mission of goodness and charity and love.

I began to see Father Barnabas in a fuller light during these trips. I had mistakenly understood him as something like an enlightened teacher or a guru for interior peace — though he certainly was those things. But he was a warrior, too. It wasn’t until we’d gone beyond our tranquil upstate town that I understood this. New York City suffused him with focus and resolve; it set his pale-blue eyes to alert for the dark forces that projected from the billboards of Times Square and the shrieks of the disturbed on the subways and in the streets.

A Tale of a Doc and a Priest

One time I asked Father why he carried his black “last rites” case to the city. He simply turned and said, “You never know when you’ll need it.” One day, after Mass at St. Patrick’s, he nearly put it to use.

We had just descended the stone steps when a rush of people swarmed to a spot on the sidewalk about a block away. Father Barnabas darted in their direction with great long strides from the tops of his toes — you’ve never seen an elderly man move so nimbly — and wound through the crowd toward a middle-aged woman who had fallen. By the time Doc and I had made it through, it was clear that she was alert and fine. Father Barnabas knelt beside her, holding her hand, his little black kit beside him on the pavement. Doc took it from there, interviewing the woman with standard medical questions until the EMTs arrived.

I stood back in awe of my two mentors. Here were men who knew where to put their energies. Men who’d been formed by the sacramental life. Which is really just another way of saying that they’d been formed by regular contact with Truth. Neither was shackled by anxiety, but both were free to operate deftly across the many planes of reality. And though their areas of expertise were different — Doc the body and Father Barnabas the soul — their enemy was the same: the death that had entered the world when Adam fell. Neither feared it, neither hid from it. Both proclaimed Christ’s victory over it and carried themselves as such.

I wanted to be just like them. I still do.

Peter Laffin

Peter Laffin is a contributor at the Washington Examiner. His work has also appeared in Real Clear Politics, The Catholic Thing, the National Catholic Register, and the American Spectator. He currently resides in New England with his beautiful wife. They eagerly await the birth of their firstborn son this spring. This story was first published in The National Catholic Register December 12, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

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