Sufficient unto the day: Brexit and emotional health

Sermon On The Mountwith the Healing of the Leper Cosimo Rosselli, 1481
Sermon on the Mount with the Healing of the Leper, Cosimo Rosselli, 1481

‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. 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 can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.’

Matthew 6:25-34

It’s probably a measure of how sheltered and privileged a life I’ve led that it’s taken the Brexit vote to really bring home to me the value of what Jesus is saying in these famous words – particularly the final sentences, rendered in the Authorised Version as:

Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

Is this really good advice? Can Jesus really be telling us not to buy insurance (as some Christians apply this) or not to save for a pension? After all, “take no thought for the morrow.”

I don’t interpret Jesus’ words that way, but that’s an argument for another day. However, I think at least a part of what Jesus is telling us here is about maintaining healthy patterns and habits of thought. I know I’m not the only one who has spent more time than is healthy in the last few days reading and arguing about the implications of Brexit and the likely consequences and outcomes. And one of the things that has become apparent to me is how easily my thoughts run away with themselves, as I go chasing off down some line of thought about all the dire possibilities of one or other of all the vast complexity of issues now to be addressed as we prepare to leave the European Union, and end up anxious, jittery, scared.

Who knows how all these matters will be resolved, but it’s probably unlikely that all the worst case scenarios my fertile imagination can come up with will come true. In the meantime, these are not healthy patterns of thought.

I dare say that in the days and weeks ahead there will be reports on the impact of the Brexit vote on people’s mental and emotional health. The shock and uncertainty and confusion is likely to be having a highly detrimental effect on some people, especially those who already suffer from mental health problems. But perhaps there is a specific danger for those of us, lacking experience (so far) of mental illness, who don’t realise the mental and emotional risks of obsessive concern over matters in which we feel powerless and confused.

So it’s at this point, as our mental terriers go chasing another Brexit rabbit down another rabbit hole, that we need to listen to Jesus’ words here: “Today’s trouble is enough for today.” Worrying about tomorrow weakens our mental and emotional resilience to deal with what we have to do today – let alone the effects it has on our trust in God.

Yesterday I ended up having to turn off my phone and tablet during the afternoon to recover my emotional balance. In the evening I listened to classic disco music, processed holiday photos and started reading Three Men in a Boat (which I’ve never read, and which I discover – who knew? – is utterly hilarious). Whatever you need for your own #OperationHappyPlace, if you are distressed and anxious about the Brexit result, I commend a similar approach. Yes, engage with the news of what’s happening, but keep a watchful eye on your emotional state and your patterns of thought, and make sure you switch off and do something else when you need to (bearing in mind that, if you feel thirsty, that means you’re already dehydrated). Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

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Reading the Bible “ascetically”

Sermon on the Mount stained glass windowTo return to Martin Thornton’s English Spirituality (see previous posts 1 | 2), in an early chapter Thornton discusses the role of Bible reading in personal devotion. He begins by observing the difficulties that many laypeople now have concerning how to engage with the Bible:

The critical upheaval of the last century has convinced the layman that the Bible is a subtle and difficult book, put together piecemeal, out of all chronological order, repetitive, contradictory, and translated through two or three languages at least. Yet he is still glibly exhorted “to read it”, just like that. […] But if the Bible is an immensely complex record of God’s revelation of himself to mankind, then just “reading” is surely inadequate. How is it to be read, studied, approached, or used, for lay devotion? (p.31)

“Just reading” is therefore insufficient, and so (Thornton continues) is a form of Bible study that amounts to “no more than a watered down version of biblical scholarship, which, without long training in the disciplines of the craft, is not going to get the laity very far.”

One answer is to suggest that laypeople should focus on “imaginative meditation” rather than seeking “propositional truths” in their reading of Scripture. However, Thornton concludes that this is also inadequate: the English school of spirituality’s “speculative-affective synthesis” means that the question “What does the Bible mean?” should never be abandoned altogether. He continues:

The modern Christian is no fool. He knows that the Bible is a subtle volume which demands a modicum of care if it is to be used constructively, but he has a reasonable case when he accuses the scholar of turning it into an insoluble puzzle. If the English Bible is to remain “open”, the layman must be able to retain a certain confidence in it. (p.32)

What we need, in short, is “some simple key, some clear approach, which ordinary Christians can use with confidence”. Thornton suggests two ways in which ascetical theology – that is, the application of doctrine to prayer, rather than “being an ascetic” – can help with this.

The first is “affective meditation”, especially in relation to the words of Christ – which “can always safely be regarded as ‘irony'”:

[Our Lord’s sayings] must mean far more than is immediately apparent, not because scholars have played games with the text but because they are spoken by the Son of God. In other words we reject the search for direct tenets in favour of an empathetic union with Christ himself. “Whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” is either an exhortation to suicide or it is “irony”. This approach, within meditation, encourages rather than detracts from intellectual endeavour: it brings in the speculative side. (p.33)

The second approach to an “ascetical” reading of Scripture is to relate it to prayer – or, more subtly, to our whole Christian life as shaped by our prayer; in Lutheran terms, both devotion and vocation. As Thornton puts it:

More generally, we can look at the Bible ascetically: confronted with a saying or passage, we can ask the ascetical rather than the propositional or moral question. Not “What does this mean?”, or “How does it teach me to behave?”, but “How does it impinge on my total Christian life which is grounded on my prayer?”. (p.33)

He gives a brief example of this, in relation to Jesus’ instruction to “take no thought for the morrow”:

As a divine proposition, “take no thought for the morrow” suggests a reasonable possibility that this world is not going to last much longer. As a moral exhortation, we must be obliged to burn all our insurance policies. As ascetic, it leads to common-sense teaching on “surrender”, “abandonment to divine Providence”, habitual recollection, the sinfulness of anxiety, temporal-eternal relations in the sacraments of the threefold Church, and so on.

At the end of the chapter, Thornton sketches out further examples based on the Sermon on the Mount: for example, observing that while the Beatitudes “make something of a jumble as an ethical system”, considered in ascetical terms they lay out “the way to the Vision of God”: “detachment, penitence, intercession, humility, progress, union, mercy, fortitude, simplicity, harmony, cross-bearing”.

Similarly, the apparently paradoxical metaphors of being “salt” and “light” can, Thornton suggests, be read ascetically as describing different ways which are both right according to circumstances: the “salt of the earth” being a Benedictine spirituality, “the light of the world” Franciscan.