It is a huge understatement to say that we are living in challenging times. Pandemics and variants, wars and environmental disasters, political strife and unrest dominate our news and media. All this together, combined with our personal struggles, losses, needs, and fears, make for a tough time for each one of us. In a sense, none of us are immune. The crisis is truly global, yet profoundly individual. In a spiritual sense, we need some sort of inoculation to build our resilience and fortify our souls.
My current situation is no different. I often feel overwhelmed as I watch my teenage son struggle with pandemic realities and the social isolation that has resulted throughout his formative adolescent years. I fear for my daughters who work in seniors’ homes and grocery stores. I bring to these worries my own personal struggles, failures, and desires for a better future. The pressure on our moments is real and intense. My personal solace, and spiritual sustenance, are rooted in my faith and the wisdom of saints and saintly people who have lived and endured much, fortified by their hope in Divine companionship throughout their trials.
One saint who brings me much solace is St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622). As Bishop of Geneva, his gentleness and wisdom guided his contemporaries in times of deep religious division and animosity. Famous for his wise spiritual direction and writings, he used the media of his time (books and newspaper broadsheets) to reach out with a guiding heart deeply imbued with his unwavering trust in God’s mercy, God’s grace and God’s Providence. It is no small wonder that he is the patron saint of writers and journalists. Reaching back to the wisdom of St. Augustine, he reminds us all, “We leave the past to God’s Mercy, the present to God’s Grace/Love and the future to God’s Providence.” This statement allows me to breathe out and release the tensions I hold in these times of immense fear and strife. I find in these words an invitation to step back, breathe calmly, and trust that God is truly in charge. This makes me less panicky. It helps me to be patient with others and with myself in this time of social isolation, danger, and worry. I am comforted by the “permission” all of us need that is found in the words of St. Francis de Sales: “Have patience with all things, but first of all with yourself.”
This perspective is not one of hopeless surrender to circumstances, nor an invitation to unload all our stuff onto God and give up on what we can do to make a difference. It is a resting place to calm our spirits; to ease the pressure; and to rejuvenate our souls for action. Struggles are real and fears are overwhelming, but God’s mercy, grace, love and Providence ease the intensity and release the pressure. From here, we can move forward and continue the work that needs to be done as “calmer heads prevail.”
At the risk of presenting a patriarchal cliché, as a child, I found much of this wisdom in my saintly mom, Elizabeth (Liz) Skinner, as she approached the worries and hardships of her life. Liz was a mother to 10 boisterous and sometimes out-of-control children. All of us were born with the help of the same midwife, Aunt Liz Mackey, in a small upstairs bedroom with a tiny window overlooking the harbor. We lived in a house without running water that was heated by a wood stove in the kitchen.
When I was five years old, my father (Bill Skinner) was crushed in a mining accident and disabled. Mom was left to raise us and care for her husband. It was clear to me throughout these catastrophic times, that Mom was girded by her faith and deep trust in God. She was a woman of exceptional strength, deep, comforting love, and a rock-solid faith that has always inspired me. I have tried during the most difficult times of my own family life, to remember her gentle way of disciplining and her constant challenge to us to be thoughtful, kind, and prayerful.
Because of Liz, I associate the time after my father’s accident with phrases like, “the wolf at the door” and “hard times ahead.” It was during this period that I learned how to surrender, trust, and hope. In the face of bill collectors, my Mom would say, “Well, ya can’t take da shirt off a naked man’s back and ya can’t pick a bald man up by da hair.” Or, “Ya can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip.” She just didn’t have the money and she could not give what she did not have. She wasn’t going to waste time worrying about it. There was too much work to do!
Mom’s response to everything was “Why worry?” Whenever we were faced with losses or challenges, she would ask:
” What are you worried about, my darling?”
“I am worried that _________.”
“My dear, there are only two possibilities. One, it will all work out. So, why worry? Two, it will never work out. So, why worry?”
As she rocked back and forth in her rocking chair, knitting, she would offer, ”All in God’s time, my darling, all in God’s time. There is no need to worry.”
That was Mom’s response to all anxieties. Anxiety and worry, in her view, were much like being in a rocking chair; you go back and forth a lot, but it gets you nowhere. You need to be patient and trust God. You need to get up from the rocking chair of worry and fear and do what is necessary and needed.
For me, St. Francis de Sales and Elizabeth Skinner offer wisdom that helps us thrive in times when we are struggling to survive. We are in God’s hands, God’s heart, and God’s mind. This can inoculate us as we build resistance, resilience, and hope to sustain our action in our world. We pray for Divine mercy, grace, love and isdom in these times so that when all seems to be too much, we find the strength we need to do what we can.
Michael Way Skinner is a retired Coordinator of Religion, Family Life, and Equity with the York Catholic District School Board. He received a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy (1st Class Honours) degree from St. Francis Xavier University and a Master of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School. He also completed the Program in Religion and Secondary Education (P.R.S.E.) with the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Michael was a contributing author to World Religions: A Canadian Catholic Perspective, and co-authored There Must be a Pony in Here Somewhere with his wife, Christine Way Skinner. Michael is a public speaker and award-winning educator who is deeply committed to faith as a source for inclusion and justice.
This blog post contains revised excerpts from Michael Way Skinner and Christine Way Skinner, There Must Be a Pony in Here Somewhere: Everyday Stories of God’s Goodness(Toronto: Novalis, 2020).