Into God's Light | Fear: Who can I trust? Will I ever feel safe? - Seton Shrine
Into God's Light | Fear: "Who can I trust? Will I ever feel safe?"

Into God’s Light | Fear: Who can I trust? Will I ever feel safe?

Week Two | An Easter reflection series with Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton on the spiritual and mental health crisis afflicting young people.

Click here to read the Introduction to Into God’s Light.

It is July 13, 1966, and I am fourteen. My sister Gail and I are upstairs in our twin beds, propped up against the pillows reading. The adults—our mom and dad, our grandparents, our Norwegian bachelor farmer uncle—are downstairs watching the CBS nightly news. We can hear them murmuring.

The white curtains in our old farmhouse bedroom are beginning to billow. Maybe there will be another storm, a huge, cracking Minnesota thunderstorm like we never have at home in California. We are terrified of Minnesota thunderstorms, but also thrilled by them.

Suddenly, the adults go silent. Somebody turns up the volume on the TV. And in the sudden hush, we can hear what Walter Cronkite is saying, or at least enough to piece together what has happened.

Eight young nursing students sharing an apartment in Chicago have been stabbed, strangled, or had their throats slashed by an unknown assailant. A ninth managed to survive by hiding under her bed during the long night of terror. The killer is still at large.

Though Waseca, Minnesota, is a seven-hour drive from the scene of the crime, I am suddenly paralyzed by fear. Our second-story window is wide open. My grandparents never lock the doors of this old farmhouse. The murderer is desperate and on the run. What if he comes here?

And thus begin decades of vividly anticipating my own demise at the hands of a nighttime invader. The fear is so deeply ingrained in me that well into my early forties I’m still putting wooden spoons into the metal tracks of sliding windows and blocking locked doors with chairs when it’s time to go to bed. I can’t shake the image that shocked me that night in the old family farmhouse, or the dark message it seemed to convey: you are entirely vulnerable. We are all vulnerable. Terrible things can happen to us at any time.

I was a teenager when what has been called America’s first mass murder occurred. Since 1966, such horrific events have become common, and since the 1999 Columbine massacre, often take place in schools at the hands of assailants wielding automatic weapons. But for young people today, the specter of sudden violent death extends far beyond school shootings. From terrorist attacks to war to multi-car pileups to giant tsunamis, life can seem a fearful thing—especially when scenes of mayhem can be broadcast instantly via live television and social media.

However, viewing the world through this distorted lens can be harmful in itself. Thanks to violence-laden mass media, many people suffer from “mean world syndrome,” believing the world is more dangerous and cruel than it actually is. Violent video games only make the problem worse, yet nearly 40% of GenZers play them.

Young people exposed to a steady stream of graphically portrayed violence can become chronically fearful, anxious, and pessimistic, and more susceptible to serious psychological issues. According to the Mental Health Foundation, “fear is a feature of nearly all clinical mental health problems and is a root cause of some of the most common ones.” It is strongly associated with anxiety, depression, and suicidal thinking.


Elizabeth Ann Seton knew just how paralyzing fear can be. In April of 1788, when she is thirteen years old, the swirling rumors about what is happening at the New York Hospital where her physician father does his research suddenly come to a head. The word on the street is that doctors and medical students are robbing graves to obtain corpses for laboratory dissection. Though some researchers will indeed pay for bodies, no questions asked, Elizabeth’s father and most of his colleagues operate within the legal guidelines.

But when some people think they see human body parts hanging outside a hospital window, their indignation turns to fury. They incite an angry mob, which grows to four or five hundred strong, to break into the hospital where they do indeed find partially dissected bodies and skeletons.

Enraged, they start hunting down the researchers themselves. Though most of these doctors have by now been bundled into the city jail to keep them safe, their houses are easily located and the mob proceeds to ransack them in search of evidence. Though they never make it to Elizabeth’s home, she and her family expect the worst. “A night passed in sweat of terror,” she writes decades later, “saying all the while the Our Father.”

Given the ongoing political violence of her day—she is born in the middle of the American Revolution, which doesn’t end until she is nine—Elizabeth understands from an early age how vulnerable she is. And worse, how fragile are the lives of the people she most loves.

Later, when she is married, and Elizabeth’s firstborn child William is three years old, he falls prey to a potentially fatal illness. She is once again nearly done in by terror. As she writes afterward to a friend, “What is there in the uncertainty of human happiness to repay the agonizing convulsion of those twenty-four hours in which I witnessed his sufferings?”

Existential dread is part and parcel of being human. At its core, it is the deep, primal fear of death, whether of ourselves or those we love. But if this perfectly normal emotional response to the reality of our mortality looms too large in our lives, as it did in mine for several decades, it can shut us down. We develop a habit of avoiding any situation that might become dangerous. We pass up job opportunities, refuse to make long-term emotional commitments, and choose safety over all else.


Jesus, who is both fully human and fully divine, is not spared the chill of fear. As he prays in the Garden of Gethsemane, he already knows full well the violent death he is about to face. Roman centurions in metal helmets, carrying long pikes and broadswords, will seize him. He will be flogged, mocked, spat upon. And then they will drive iron spikes through his hands and feet and nail him to a towering cross, where he will hang, a black silhouette against the sky, until he finally suffocates.

Like a child crying out to a parent for help, he implores, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me.” Suffused by dread, he prays so fervently that “his sweat [becomes] like drops of blood falling to the ground.” (Luke 22:41-44). But then, “still not my will but yours be done.” Jesus accepts his utter vulnerability to suffering and death while at the same time placing total trust in his loving Abba.


Elizabeth learned to deal with her fear through a discipline of constant vigilance over where her mind was leading her. In the monastic tradition, this practice is called “watching the thoughts.” It involves noticing what arises in our consciousness, and then figuring out where it came from: ourselves, the Holy Spirit, or the Evil One. When the thought of fear arises, we ask ourselves whether we are simply thinking in our habitual anxious way, whether the Holy Spirit may be trying to warn us, or whether this sense of dread is coming to us from the dark side.

Elizabeth becomes practiced at the art of watching her thoughts. When she finds herself entertaining the thought of fear, she redirects her thinking. After a grueling transatlantic voyage to Italy with her sick husband Will and daughter Anna Maria, she is weighed down by grief and dread when they are isolated in a cold, stone prison which serves as a quarantine station. She finds herself watching sea gulls and imagining them flying toward the children she had to leave behind in America. The image of the gulls triggers anxiety about her little ones. But “that thought will not do,” she tells herself. Instead, she pictures the graceful white birds “flying towards Heaven—where I tried to send my soul.”

Elizabeth is learning to lean on God’s presence rather than on her bustling, ever-active mind. By carefully watching her thoughts, she is learning to “let Divine Love cast out Fear. Fear nothing so much as not to love enough.”


After going through his crisis of fear in the Garden, Jesus does not swerve in the face of what comes next. He stands calmly before the Sanhedrin, Pilate, and Herod, knowing exactly what violence they are plotting. Steadily he stands there, a young man in the prime of life, accepting what is to come and trusting in divine love to vanquish his dread.

In the end, Jesus’ example is what got me past the wound inflicted on my psyche the night I overheard Walter Cronkite describe mass murder on that farmhouse TV. Nearly forty, I was sick of arranging my life to avoid potentially dangerous situations. I hated the way I always held back a part of myself, simply because I feared losing those I loved.

To confront my fear I decided to make a retreat at the New Camaldoli Hermitage in the Big Sur wilderness. There on a mountainside, alone in a small trailer under a black, star-spangled sky and nervously twitching at every sound, I prayed with all my heart that God would help me sleep without the wooden spoons in the window tracks.

I woke up the next morning feeling drenched in divine love and free of the old terror.

To learn more about this series of seven Easter reflections click here.

PAULA HUSTON is a National Endowment of the Arts Fellow and the author of two novels and eight books of spiritual nonfiction. Her essays and short stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories and in the annual Best Spiritual Writing anthology. Like Mother Seton, Huston is a convert to Catholicism. In 1999, she became a Camaldolese Benedictine Oblate and is a lay member of New Camaldoli Hermitage’s community of monks in Big Sur, Calif. She’s also a former president of the Chrysostom Society, a national organization of literary Catholic writers.