Protect us from all anxiety

There’s a moment at every Catholic wedding that outs the Protestants. It wasn’t intentionally designed that way, and it only occurs because the Lutherans, Methodists, and others think they (finally) understand what’s going on. They hear words that are familiar, so they boldly join in (thereby distinguishing themselves from the non-religious folks, who are too bored to care who is praying what, and can’t believe this thing, which has gone on longer than 20 minutes, has no end in sight.)

Our Father, who art in heaven… the Protestants say, a decibel above the mumbling Catholics.

The majority of the prayer goes well, with only a slight pile up when the Presbyterians opt for “debts/debtors” while everyone else lisps their way through the mess of “trespasses/trespassed against us”. But all is mended by the time of “temptation”, and after “evil” the Protestants are ready to bring the whole thing home with the doxology. And that’s they they realize that they, alone, are now speaking over the priest’s surprise solo act. Because he’s saying a prayer they’ve never heard before. Few of the Catholics even know that the prayer has a name (embolism). Here’s the version that was used in English language masses up until 2011:

Deliver us, Lord, from every evil, and grant us peace in our day. In your mercy keep us free from sin, and protect us from all anxiety. As we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our savior, Jesus the Christ.

Then the rest of the Catholics chime in to complete the Protestants’ premature “kingdom, power, and glory”, and then stand awkwardly by, as the priest details how few people at this wedding are actually going to be allowed to receive communion.

As a United Methodist pastor, I, like you, can see that the entire situation is ridiculous. Also, as someone who is, according Canon Law, still Roman Catholic (what’s a gurl gotta do to get an excommunication?), I must confess that when I pray the Lord’s Prayer alone, I cannot help by include the embolism. Because while Protestants may point to this as Catholics modifying Jesus’ words (FYI Jesus also never said the doxology) I find the embolism to be an essential exposition. And not unlike the Jewish Midrash, these few extra lines help us mortals make sense of words that are beyond our everyday lives.

After all, the Lord’s prayer (from scripture) ends with “deliver us from evil”, and, at least for me, evil is difficult to pin down. Sure, our financial system is evil. Yes, tyrannical governments are evil. But most people I know who pray the Lord’s Prayer do not do so with a focus on global revolution. This leads me to imagine the “evil” we name is a closer sort – the kind of evil that can seep into our everyday interactions. But that, too, is difficult to name. The handful of people I have heard call themselves “evil” were mentally ill and suffering from a deep self-hatred. Almost one of these individuals was living on the streets, and looking for an answer as to why this was so. The circumstances led me to believe that “evil” was a word that had been visited upon them, not by prayer, but by the cruelty of passersby who all too often fail to recognize unsheltered people as human beings. But the passersby, of course, can’t imagine their indifference as “evil”. We might not even be able to call it “sin”, because this is a sin of omission (what we fail to do). And in a day full of busyness and endless updates set the soundtrack of our omnipresent devices, who notices what didn’t happen on any given day?

The embolism connects the dots: Deliver us… from evil… keep us free from sin… Protect us from all anxiety.

Anxiety is the most accessible word in the prayer. Almost every pastoral conversation I’ve had in the last six months centered on the anxious person. That person might have thought they were coming to me for an administrative purpose, or they were just making small talk, but inevitably, they ended up pouring out their anxiety.

Why is everyone taking off their mask? I still lose sleep over Covid.

I’m not worried about being safe from Covid anymore, because I’m spending all of my anxiety on the fires.

I know that there is still Covid, and now fire everywhere, but what I’m really worried about is not being able to afford rent.

I know others are excited about the world reopening, but my social anxiety is off the charts.

I’m excited to reengage with people, but work has made me so anxious that I can’t even respond to emails anymore.

Such anxiety is everywhere. It is person shouting out of their car, unaware that they are scaring the children passing by. It is the person who is frozen to the point that they can’t pick up the phone when a friend needs them. Sometimes, this an origins are frivolous, but they are just as often ambiguous. Yes, the panic attack may have started with a mess in the kitchen sink, but the unwashed dish only became too much to carry when it joined the weight of the mortgage, the family, the patriarchy, the moral coil etc, etc. These days anxiety is the smoke in the air, and in the nervous breath we take in a crowded room.

There may have been a time in my life when I could control my own anxiety. I have a memory of sitting down to meditate, and having the capacity to build a wall between me and my fears . But I was fooling myself, then, just like I am now – every time I say that my anxiety is mine alone to deal. Because the truth is, anxiety is all of our problem. Anxiety is the source of social sin. Anxious people snap at each other, and turn on each other. Anxious people fill up plastic bags with gasoline, thereby creating a crisis for their neighbors. Because when our anxiety is all-consuming, it consumes all that we have to share.

Keep us free from sin, and protect from all anxiety. The embolism acknowledges the harm that anxiety does, and perhaps even its inevitability. Because the prayer doesn’t ask for a cure or eradication. Rather, the line is ‘protect us from all anxiety’. Shield us, Lord. Soften enough the blow of this internalized fear that we may learn to withstand it. Give us enough strength that our anxiety may not topple us into the oblivion, or divide us from one another.

This protection is not fortification. It is not a wall that blocks out the cares of this world. I imagine it more like a shield, or a vaccine. It has been made available, but we must choose to pick it up. We must choose to allow ourselves to be protected from the anxiety that desires to overwhelm us. Some days, it is as simple as putting my feet flat on the floor, or intentionally putting down my phone for a moment. Other days, it is realizing that my anxiety has pushed me to check my email before I was even out of bed, and so I must go back and try to start the day over with prayer. On the most difficult days, it is seeking out the wisdom of a friend who can remind me that while there reasons to be anxious, joy and hope are also present in this world.

Today is the day to do it. Take a walk. Get outside of your own head. Pause for a moment to truly see the person who is standing in front of you. Because this is how we acknowledge that there is something that we can do to resist the evil of this world, or at least, resist our part in it. This is the way that we flip the script, and say that while in this moment, our fears have isolated us, there is something greater; and that something longs to protect us, so that we may live (in joy and hope) for others.

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