Spiritual whiplash and the dance

by Virginia Herbers

View Author Profile

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

I suppose being tossed from one side of the emotional spectrum to the other shouldn't really come as a "spiritual surprise," since it seems to have happened even to the disciples as they journeyed with Jesus. Who can forget the fantastic response Jesus gives to Peter after his "profession of faith" in the Gospel of Matthew: "Blessed are you, Simon!" to be followed quickly by, "Get behind me, Satan" only a few moments later! Or Jesus' response to the Canaanite woman seeming to compare her to a dog as she asks for healing for her daughter, only to be followed in quick succession by, "Great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you have asked!"

How are we to make sense of these seeming 180-degree changes? I'm not sure there's an easy answer to the question, but it does allow for some rich reflection. Indulge me for a few moments as I describe some of my more recent experiences of this same kind of whiplash.

Facebook. I'm not the world's most adept social media practitioner, but I do enjoy scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed to see what's happening both in the world and in the lives of the people I care about. Wow, has it been a ride these past few weeks. Just the other evening, as I was casually scrolling through, I found myself emotionally, spiritually and even physically reacting in ways that were as varied as the issues themselves.

"Starting the day off celebrating—happy birthday to me!"

"Please join me in prayers for a friend who is dying of cancer."

Picture of food.

"The Cardinals spring training is underway!"

"25 snapchats of cats being human."

"Not my president!"

"Hundreds of thousands in the Sudan in danger of dying."

"Which dress should I wear tonight?"

Picture of food.

"Remembering my baby girl on the anniversary of her death."

Picture of food.

"Which Disney princess are you?"

"Happy Lent!"

"Melissa McCarthy's a better Sean Spicer than Sean Spicer!"

"Calling on everyone who wants to come with me to Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery to help with the cleanup. Meet at the student center at 10."

Picture of food.

"Anyone want to zipline through Vegas with me?"

"Just been accepted for ordination — woot!"

No wonder health professionals advise against screen activity before trying to fall asleep!

I find it an intricate balance to stay invested and attuned to the goings-on of the nation, the world, and the environment while also trying to maintain some semblance of perspective and commitment to whatever is in my own small sphere of influence. It seems I tilt one way or the other either when I become paralyzed by the volume of information and enormity of the realities or when I become so overwhelmed by them that I turn away and focus on what's for dinner. Neither response feels balanced to me — and quite frankly, neither feels very "gospel-esque."

So what is Gospel? The four evangelists spend most of their words describing the ministry of Jesus — he teaches, he preaches, he heals. And… all throughout those pages of ministering, he also "goes up the mountain," "goes off by himself to pray," retreats. So maybe when I feel the need to turn off the TV or shut down the computer simply because my psychological system is saying, "Overload!" — maybe that is a spiritual invitation to rebalance so that I can get back in the dance of life.

Two people who really help remind me of how to handle these kind of "whiplash" experiences are Popes John XXIII and Francis. When I've become either overwhelmed or disgusted by the crises in the Middle East, Washington D.C., or my own religious community, I am tempted to do one of a few extremely unhelpful things: complain, escape or judge. Any one of these choices simply adds to my angst in the long run. What do I seem to forget to do? Pray! So I have John XXIII's picture near my bed, with one of my favorite of his own prayers, which I say before retiring each evening: "I've done my best in your service this day, Lord. I'm going to bed. It's your church. You take care of it!"

On the flip side, when I've become absorbed in my own little world and my own small problems, I am likewise tempted to do one of a few extremely unhelpful things: complain, escape, or judge. (Surprising, I know.) Again, none of these responses makes any significant difference in the long run. What do I seem to forget to do? Act! The world is bigger than my address, and has problems bigger than those at my front door. So I have a picture in my office of Francis with one of his answers to the question about how prayer works: "You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That's how prayer works."

It is a dance, isn't it? Sometimes the music will be reggae, and sometimes it will be a waltz. Maybe the point is that we try to enjoy — and be grateful for — both.

[Virginia Herbers is an Apostle of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She has an M.A. in pastoral studies and has ministered in education at both the elementary and high school levels in Connecticut, New York, Missouri and Taiwan. She currently serves as the vice-provincial and vocation director for the United States Province of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart.]