Breaking Point

“…even though our nerves may seem to be at breaking point and the pain impossible to bear.”
St. Josemaría Escrivá, Friends of God, no. 311

Does everyone have a breaking point? A point beyond which too much pressure causes collapse?

Things break because they cannot withstand a certain intensity of pressure, tension, or force of impact. In any instance of breakage, one thing is weaker than another, and its fragility is exposed under strain. If life circumstances constitute the heavy weights or pressures that could potentially break us, as human beings and disciples, is reaching our own breaking point inevitable?

This is more than an academic question. Many of the sins, bad habits, and addictions people fall into are occasioned by how they choose to manage stress, when nerves are stretched tight and pain seems near impossible.

We cannot avoid the normal stresses and conflicts of life, nor should we ordinarily try to. But what makes the difference between a broken disciple and one who remains intact, and even grows and thrives, is not the absence of problems. In fact, it’s nothing external to us at all. We are warned by the Scriptures not to let the external world dictate our level of peace, happiness, or holiness. But it never stops trying to. And sometimes circumstances seem to conspire against our best efforts to serve the Lord in peace and joy. Keeping ourselves together can demand swimming against the current, so an internal source of strength is demanded.

While no one is immune from the burdens of life and the danger of breaking, we do find in the saints a remedy for minimizing the likelihood of collapse. Saints are flexible and adaptive when it comes to God’s will. They surrender to it instead of kicking against it or trying to steer it down a sunnier street. All resistance is gone—the very resistance that creates the tension that could snap us at any moment. “Habitually yielding to God,” says Hubert Van Zeller, “eliminates snap.” [1]

In life of the spirit, as in the life of the body, flexibility comes through stretching—or, sometimes, being stretched. Biblical language calls this being tested and enduring, which together make for steadfastness and faithfulness (see James 1). Likewise, yielding in body as in spirit amounts to the same thing: no pushing back or pulling against the movement of God’s will, even while resistance always remains possible for free people.

If both psalms and saints exhort us to trust in the Lord, that should clue us in to the difficulties involved in this. The idea is simple; but the act demands the full surrender of heart and mind—habitually. Not only in life’s watershed moments, in times of transition or loss, but in the less conspicuous circumstances of which daily life is made.  And often the only preparation we have for making this surrender is the wholeheartedness and generosity of our last prayer.

Let us say again, in word and in action: “Lord, I trust in you; your ordinary providence, your help each day, is all I need.” We do not have to ask God to perform great miracles. Rather, we have to beg him to increase our faith, to enlighten our intellect and strengthen our will. Jesus always stays by our side and is always himself. (Christ is Passing By, no. 160)

Isn’t prayer, our prayer, all about seeking God’s will and doing it? Then why is it when His will arrives in a disagreeable form we often act like we want something else, some other tidier and sensible version of God’s will? Something that immediately makes sense, is convenient, and clearly defined? Or, on the other hand, not clearly defined, leaving enough room for interpretation as to excuse ourselves from doing it?

We tend to do that because we don’t yet fully trust God’s wisdom in the particulars of our life. We believe in a universal providence, but our faith sometimes founders when it gets too personal, too concrete. Or when the tension of stretching to meet the challenge seems unbearable.

St. Josemaría acknowledges the reality of tense nerves and unbearable pain. This is all too real. Sometimes it is so real as to drive us to tears, just as the Master Himself was driven to tears in His agony, even to the sweating of blood. But even in Gethsemane there was the deep peace of One totally given over to the Father’s will—the only peace possible amidst snoring apostles, violence, fear, escape, abandonment, and arrest. Sometimes the only peace possible is “Father, not my will, but thine be done,” and that, if we fully mean what we say, is enough.

People will inevitably break if pressure continues for too long. An apocryphal story of St John the Evangelist from the earliest centuries makes the point with directness and simplicity. A bystander was scandalized to see the great apostle recreating with his disciples. To this, St John asked the man, who was carrying a bow and arrow, what would happen if he never relaxed the tension of his bow. It would break, he said. Just so, St John reportedly said, will a man break if he never relaxes mind and body.

This goes further than advocating rest and relaxation. Rather, it is the faith perspective that recognizes that we are born into this world at a disadvantage—a disadvantage against which God alone has the remedy. We are always vulnerable. Avoidance and self-protection are automatic for fallen people. But when we walk in faith and trust, although we will still feel our human feelings, we see how they integrate into the wisdom of His loving providence. My tears, sorrows, and struggles, are pieces of a larger plan where they all have a place and are honored by Him who changes sadness into joy through my surrender to His will.

I was speaking before about sorrow and suffering and tears. Without contradicting what I said then, I can affirm that the disciple who lovingly seeks the Master finds that sadness, worries and afflictions now taste very differently: they disappear as soon as we truly accept God’s Will, as soon as we carry out his plans gladly, as faithful children of his, even though our nerves may seem to be at breaking point and the pain impossible to bear. (Friends of God, no. 311)

St. Josemaría’s promise is borne out by the testimony of many saints not because they agreed that surrender to God was a good and inspiring idea, but because they did it. They suffered, surely, but also tasted and saw how good the Lord is. Through their suffering they learned “where there is wisdom, where there is strength, where there is understanding, … where there is light for the eyes, and peace” (Baruch 3:14).

[1] Hubert Van Zeller, The Choice of God, 1956, p. 36.

Image “Saint John the Evangelist on Patmos” (c.1465) Dirk Bouts via WikiArt

Rev. John Henry Hanson, O. Praem. Rev. John Henry Hanson, O. Praem.

Father John Henry Hanson, O. Praem., is a Norbertine priest of St Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, California. He entered the community in 1995, earned his STB and Masters in Theology at the Pontifical University of St Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome, and was ordained to the priesthood in 2006. Currently, he is a formator in his community's seminary, preaches retreats, is chaplain to several communities of women religious, serves Armenian rite Catholics at the Cathedral of St Gregory the Illuminator in Glendale, California, and is author of Praying from the Depths of the Psalms , Home Again: A Prayerful Rediscovery of Your Catholic Faith and Scatter My Darkness: Turning Night to Day with the Gospel. Father's latest book is Coached by Josemaría Escrivá (Scepter Publishers 2023). He and his community are cooperators of Opus Dei.

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