“Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.” And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.Mark 6:50–52
Having fed the multitude, Jesus sends His disciples off ahead of Him, lest they get caught up in the crowds in Galilee. Meanwhile, He steals away for some solitude and a chance to pray about all that is inevitably weighing on Him.
In the last light of evening, with the darkness encroaching upon everything, Jesus notices something — the boat on the sea with His disciples in it. The wind has kicked up. As fishermen, they must have been accustomed to bad weather. Yet this storm proves to be adverse. They strain with painful exertion to row the oars in a quest to reach the shore. Clearly, they are in trouble. But He stands far off, alone on the land.
Taking the initiative, Jesus moves toward the boat during early in the morning. With the divine power that belongs uniquely to Him, Jesus goes walking on the waters. He who saw them in trouble draws near, so that they may see His concern for them.
Yet He means to pass them by. Why? Where is He going?
But before He walks any farther, they see Him, though in their confusion, they initially believe they are looking at a ghost. Not surprisingly, they are terrified. In their perplexity, they can only cry out in fear.
Then they hear the words so oft repeated by their Master, a favored utterance meant to change their plight: “Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.” Then He joins them on the boat, and the storm ceases.
In the midst of troubles, Jesus exhorts His followers to “take heart.” More than a pleasant wish for good cheer, the expression calls for a daring choice amid circumstances beyond one’s control. It requires the boldness of belief. It necessitates seeing things in a new light.
In divinely dramatic fashion, Jesus shifts the focus of concern from the troubles His disciples face to Himself. He encourages them not to be afraid. Owing to His salvific presence, He invites them to think and feel differently, to have the courage that conquers fear.
With this invitation, Jesus encourages people in a variety of difficult circumstances.
If those with Jesus take heart, their plight will change. If they recognize His presence and see how His Heart yearns for their well-being, they can face their fears, their sins, their sufferings, their concerns. If they take heart — take His Heart — they can have the courage to overcome their troubles, the courage to live in peace no matter what.
Anxiety, fear, despair — we inevitably contend with all these at some point during this frail human life. These human realities also figure prominently in our spiritual lives.
From a young age, St. Francis de Sales knew these painful aspects of life. In fact, one such experience would prove to be defining, both for the saint and for the formulation of his thoroughly optimistic spirituality.
While a student in Paris, Francis experienced a profound spiritual crisis when his personal devotion and his formal education collided. Listening to university lectures about predestination, he was overwhelmed by the theological dilemma of God’s foreknowledge concerning man’s salvation. In 1586, he became fixated on the idea that he would be forever damned. He suffered great anguish, in a personal “crisis” brought on by the confluence of fatigue, intellectual consternation, and anxiety. Eventually, with fervent prayers to the Blessed Virgin, he “took heart” and made a prayerful act of abandonment to the divine will. Doing so, he experienced a complete release from his troubles. From this encounter with grace, he learned in his heart and soul not to be afraid; instead, he would always hold on to hope, his courage forever to be based on the merciful presence of God rather than on his own accomplishments.
Based on that formative experience, St. Francis would advise others about the dangers of worrying and of the sorrow that derives from it. The former, he notes, “is not a simple temptation but a source from which and by which many temptations arise.” In fact, he claims, anxiety “is the greatest evil that can happen to a soul” because “if our heart is inwardly troubled and disturbed it loses both the strength necessary to maintain the virtues it had acquired and the means to resist the temptations of the enemy.” With a familiar image, he explains how we ought to proceed:
Birds stay caught in nets and traps because when they find themselves ensnared they flutter about wildly trying to escape and in so doing entangle themselves all the more. Whenever you urgently desire to escape from a certain evil or to obtain a certain good you must be especially careful both to put your mind at rest and in peace and to have a calm judgment and will. Then try gently and meekly to accomplish your desire, taking in regular order the most convenient means.St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life
Sadness accompanies anxiety as the result of experiencing the evil we feared; in turn, it becomes the cause of future worries. St. Francis de Sales paints the painful picture of this emotion when he writes that sorrow “disturbs and upsets the soul, arouses inordinate fears, creates disgust for prayer, stupefies and oppresses the brain, deprives the mind of prudence, resolution, judgment, and courage, and destroys its strength.” Among the ways to combat anxiety, he suggests prayer — “a sovereign remedy for it lifts up the soul to God who is our only joy and consolation” (Introduction, 4:12).
St. Francis de Sales counsels courageous and vigorous opposition to these natural tendencies to worry. But how? As it did for him, the strength for such steadfast courage comes through supernatural grace, which remains ever present to us in the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In prayer to Him, we can learn how to “take heart” and be not afraid.
- Arouse in your heart a holy fear. Realize that the agitation brought on by our conflicts, our sufferings, and our sins risks separating us from the God, the ultimate source of our goodness and our happiness. Like the disciples alone in the boat on the windswept sea, we are powerless on our own. Yet the Master is nearby.
- Allow your heart to be consoled. See Jesus coming toward you, the Lord who notices all that you suffer and takes the initiative to save you, just as He has saved the whole world. Envision the power of God at work in the heart that He created within you. Hear His voice and take to heart His words: “It is I. Have faith. I have conquered the world. Do not be afraid.”
- Stir your heart to a supernatural confidence. Be encouraged by the divine presence and the love flowing from the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Realize the truth of what St. Francis de Sales taught: that humility about our own insufficiencies should beget courage, because “the greater our knowledge of our own misery, the more profound will be our confidence in the goodness and mercy of God” who provides for our every need. In the Sacred Heart we find the root and source of unfailing courage, for even when we do not feel confident, we can look to Him and see in God’s Heart a love for us that never changes (Spiritual Conferences, 16–19).
Having been touched by the encouraging Heart of Jesus, and realizing that inspiration finds its completion in action, consider what you might do to practice the devout life today.
- On a personal level, what might you do to attune yourself to the saving presence of Jesus, who is ever walking toward you? Knowing your everyday struggles, you could make an act of abandonment to the divine will, with words of prayer that express your faith in God’s Providence and mercy. You might learn to take what you cannot control and “offer it up.”
- On a relational level, what might you do to be a person of encouragement to your family and friends? Perhaps you could reach out to someone and spend some of your precious time simply being in his or her company. Perhaps you could be more positive when talking to someone who could use a boost to his or her confidence.
- On a societal level, what might you do to spread some hope to a world that needs it? Perhaps you could strive to be more positive in your social media communications, purposefully injecting optimism where there is so much pessimism. Perhaps you could find a way to help the materially downtrodden, or to assist those who suffer with distress.
- In adoration before the Lord, give thanks for the gift of His presence and the encouragement of His Sacred Heart.
- Remember the inspirations you received in this meditation by calling to mind the image of Jesus walking toward you and with you. Pause to hear Him say to you again, “Take heart.”
- Recall throughout the day this Salesian maxim: “Walk joyously and open-heartedly as far as you can, and if you do not walk joyously, at least walk courageously and faithfully” (Letters to Persons in Religion, 25).
This article is adapted from a chapter in Fr. Daily’s latest book, Behold This Heart: St. Francis de Sales and Devotion to the Sacred Heart. It is available as a paperback or ebook from Sophia Institute Press.
Also check out Fr. Dailey’s previous book, Live Today Well: St. Francis de Sales’s Simple Approach to Holiness.