Some years ago, I put one of my younger sisters onto Douglas Adams’ science-fiction work The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The book’s taste for the fantastic and the absurd was just my sister’s kind of humor, but an unforeseen consequence of the recommendation was that an important piece of advice became a permanent part of our conversations. Whether one of us was freaking out over an exam, a paper, a relationship, or finding a summer job, the advice remained simple and straightforward: “Don’t Panic!”
For those who are unfamiliar, Adams’ own novel takes its title from a fictional guidebook of the same name which, despite containing “many omissions and… much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate,” is indispensable for his main characters. In fact in Adams’ world the Guide remains more popular than the Encyclopedia Galactica for two very important reasons: “First, it is slightly cheaper; and secondly it has the words DON’T PANIC inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover.”
Since we don’t live with our parents these days my sister and I often find ourselves texting “Don’t Panic!” to each other. And when we do it’s a usually a joke or a response to heart palpitations brought on by overcaffeinating for the umpteenth time. But sometimes its not. Sometimes “don’t panic” cuts right through a tense situation. Sometimes “don’t panic” is exactly what one or the other of us needs to hear. Sometimes it stops us, calms us, and lets us get our feet planted firmly underneath us.
“Don’t panic” is ludicrously practical advice. The best spiritual advice often is. Most often, when we ask someone not to panic, we’re reminding them that there’s absolutely no situation ever, in the history-of-everything (no, seriously), that can’t be made worse by pounding adrenaline and a frenzied mind. Unless we’re exceptionally lucky, panicking does nothing other than make us far more likely to do precisely the wrong thing at precisely the wrong time for precisely the wrong reasons.
In this important sense, our prayer lives are absolutely no different than any other part of our lives. When confusion or fear creep into our prayer lives it can be easy to back away from prayer or of a life lived in a community of faith. There are certainly times when I just want to be away from the chaos of it all, away from the kind of confusion that causes people to doubt themselves, their jobs, their life choices, to doubt their relationships, marriages, or calls to priesthood or religious life – all the innumerable commitments that make up our lives. It’s just then, though, in the midst of those moments of confusion, that it’s most important for me (dare I say all of us) to remember that confusion, fear, and worry are simply a part of our lives, our spiritual lives not excluded. Our bigger decisions should be made over time, and ideally during times when we feel free, not harried, worried, or anxious.
St. Ignatius of Loyola left pretty extensive information behind about the spiritual life, especially advice for those guides and mentors we Jesuits call spiritual directors. One piece of advice he left for spiritual directors to pass on to spiritual seekers who were in a time of “desolation,” spiritual confusion or distance from God, was this:
In a time of desolation one should never make any change, but stand firm and constant in the resolutions and decision by which one was guided on the day before the desolation, or in the decision one had reached during the preceding time of consolation.
In other words, the times when we are going through the sharpest inner turmoil, the times we’re feeling most separated from God are probably not the right times to make major life decisions.
Put even more succinctly? Don’t panic.