In these few weeks’ Sunday Gospel readings, we embark on reading the Bread of Life discourse found in John 6.
Last week, we saw Jesus asking Phillip: “Where can we buy some bread to eat?”
Obviously Jesus knew that the Apostles didn’t have enough money, neither did they possess the resources to go and get bread. Jesus knows it all.
Why then did Jesus “test” Phillip? What was He testing?
He was testing Phillip’s faith. He wanted to know if Phillip would believe that Jesus could do the impossible, He wanted to test if Phillip would respond with “Lord, this is all I have — 200 denarii. Take it. All I have is Yours. I know You can work wonders.”
Likewise, Jesus is asking us to do the same. In our lives, Jesus asks us to do something that we obviously don’t have the resources to do. Sometimes He asks us questions that we don’t know the answer to. And most times, we respond in a similar Phillip-fashion and tell God, “I only have this much, how can I do what You’re calling me to do?”
But the real test is this: can we respond to the Lord and tell Him “Lord, I only have so little. But the little I have is Yours. Take it, use it, and make it profitable for Your Kingdom here on earth.”
Are there times in our lives where we are so stricken with fear that we shut ourselves off completely to God? Are there times in our lives where we are like the crowd — we who only turn to God for the miracles and wonders that He can do? We often go to God for what He can give us, but we rarely go to God to offer what we have.
Some of us (me definitely included) fall into despair sometimes when we believe that we are too damned.
We detest sin — as we all should! — but we detest sin not because we desire the good, but we detest it out of frustration, out of a belief that God might not forgive us again.
Peter Kreeft in his book Three Philosophies of Life talks about the Treasure of Sin and he has basically given me hope again!
Wait. What?! Sin? A treasure? Yes, read on.
“But we are all philosophers, unless we are animals. Men live not just in the present but also in the future. We live by hope. Our hearts are a beat ahead of our feet. Half of us is already in the future; we meet ourselves coming at us from up ahead. Our lives are like an arc stretching out to us from the future into the present. Our hopes and ideals move our present lives. Animals’ lives are like an arc coming to them out of their past; they are determined by their past. They are pushed; we are pulled. They are forced; we are free. They are only instinct, heredity, and environment; we are more; we are persons.
The determinists, from Marx and Freud to Skinner, who deny this fact, insult us infinitely more than any preacher who shouts sin and damnation at us. It is a great compliment to call a man a sinner. Only a free man can be a sinner. The determinists mean to steal from us the great treasure of sin. They deny us our freedom, and therefore our hope, our ability to live not just from our determined past but also from our undetermined future.”
How many times in the Bible does God or one of His messengers say, “Be Not Afraid!”
Urban legend suggests that it is there 365 times although that is apparently not the case. I have never counted it myself. For me it suffices that the saying is there, many times. Perhaps someday I will find the time to do a more in-depth search of it, correlating admonitions to “fear not” with admonitions to “Fear the Lord.” That will be fascinating.
However, not really the point right now. For this blog I want to share a half formed thought that has been rattling around in my head for, oh, probably more than a year now, whenever I read a scripture verse that says, “Be not afraid.” Perhaps like most people, whenever I have heard that I have always taken it to be a suggestion, an exhortation, or even an admonition. But at some time a year or so ago the thought occurred to me: “What if it is not a suggestion. What if it is a command?”
I don’t remember the context of that thought, although I think it became a Facebook status for the day. But I remember the very strong impression, which remains with me to the present, that I had, in some sense, hit on the right track.
Now, I freely acknowledge that it is not a common position, and certainly not a theory without its issues. So far everyone I have suggested it to has responded with polite incomprehension, or (in the case of my brother) open disagreement. The immediate reaction of most people has been, “But how can you help being afraid? When something is frightening, fear just happens, you don’t decide to be afraid. The verse is more likely saying something like, ‘Buck up, don’t let the fear control you. Do the right thing in spite of being afraid.'”
This was the first thought that occurred to me as well, notwithstanding the impression of right-track-ness. As I said, this thought is half formed, and there is still unresolved tension even in my own head, so I do not expect it to be readily embraced by other people.
But let me explain some of what I mean by it. First of all, what do we mean by fear?
The word is not unambiguous. I will take the example of rock climbing, since I am, and always have been, afraid of heights, but since I was on a mountain team in 1st Special Forces Group, I had to go through an advanced mountaineering school and multiple training events that involved heights, high places, climbing up to them, and rappelling off of them.
When I stand on a high place, ready to rappel off, I feel sensations of fear. I sense my heart rate and respirations increasing, my blood pressure rising, my stomach unsettling, and my palms (as well as the rest of me) sweating. These are physical stress reactions. I can go into greater detail if you want, but I think you get the idea. We can call this feeling “fear” and it would not be inaccurate. However, there is a second component, which is a sense of apprehension, an unpleasant anxiety and discomfort with the current situation, similar to what I might feel the morning of a big test in school. This also could be called “fear” with justification. Finally, there is what I call a cognitive feedback loop going on in my head. I look at the drop below me, I feel the wind whistling past me, I smell my own sweat, and I experience my own uneasiness. I think about that, and I think “This sucks” or some variation of that. Then I think about the fact that it sucks, and I wish myself anywhere but there. Then I think about all the places I might be, in a small act of escapism (my favorite trick was to promise myself if I made it off the rock alive I would never climb again. So far I have always failed to keep that promise).
My flight into escapism would be cut short by reality, and the necessity of moving a step closer to the edge and backing into rappel position. I would review my procedures, mentally review my anchor, remind myself of the relative puniness of my weight compared to the rating of all of my equipment, but none of these facts ever seem to bear the visceral weight that the sight of the drop, the feel of the wind, the smell of sweat and that dang, jittery, uneasy feeling.
When I use the word “fear” in its full sense, I mean the combination of all three of these things: the physical stress response, the emotional weight of that response (including the shame attendant upon the knowledge of one’s own fear), and the cognitive feedback loop that recognizes, names, examines and perpetuates all three. The cognitive part is the tongue of the self-licking ice cream cone.
That cognitive component, which I sometimes call “worry,” is the part of fear that I think we are commanded not to do. It is the active part of fear, the part that doesn’t just happen to me, but that I actively participate in. I also suspect that it is a part of the fear that we humans tend to cling to, despite the fact that it sucks. We cling to it for a lot of reasons. It is a million miles away from real problem solving, but it gives us a sense of control. It doesn’t improve the situation, but if does give us the momentary relief of escapism. It makes us feel important because, if I am afraid then I must be Doing A Big Thing! If I dwell on the fact that I am afraid, and then do it anyway, then I can feel brave for it. In the last resort is an excuse to stop. It is the beginning of phobia, and the consequent weakness of saying, “I can’t do that because I have a fear of x, y and z.”
Fear sucks. The stress reaction is unpleasant enough, unless you happen to be an adrenalin junky. The discomfort with your situation is even worse. I have known many instances when I actually begged God to break my arm or leg or even just let me die, so I wouldn’t have to go through with this, but I also wouldn’t have to quit. The worst is when I dwell on the fear, perpetuate it and reinforce it.
When I first went through airborne school I complained to a friend of mine that I hate jumping out of airplanes, and I was glad that I wouldn’t have to do it as often when I got to my training unit. She asked whether I shouldn’t try to get on as many jumps as possible and try to overcome that fear. I laughed and said, no, it’s enough that I can make myself do it when I have to. Making myself comfortable with it is too much work.
She was right, and she was much wiser than I was. In retrospect I have many times found myself, paradoxically, clinging to the fear, refusing to put in the work that would have made me unafraid. I would rather be afraid, than force myself to endure the sheer mental stress and physical exhaustion that I would have to go through to get past the fear.
Perhaps that is what I mean when I say that, “Be not afraid,” is a command, rather than merely a suggestion. Do the thing you are afraid of until you are no longer afraid of it. Do not be afraid of being unafraid. Part of it anyway. I can tell you that I have never regretted doing something that I was afraid of doing. I have also never turned away from something I was afraid of, and not regretted later.
The view is worth it.
There is yet another layer of this, suggested by St. John’s assurance that “Perfect love casts out all fear” but this post is already too long, and it will have to wait.
Remind me to get and read a good biography of Mother Angelica then next time I have a spare moment…
As you probably know, Mother Angelica died of a stroke on Easter Sunday. She was the founder of EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network) and one of the most well known and influential Catholic TV personalities since Venerable Fulton Sheen, with the difference that while he was known primarily for his own show and writings, she was known for the network she built which (God willing) will endure for many years to come.
If you’ve been on facebook at all since then, and your friend list contains more than two catholics, you’ve probably seen this quote, or a variation of it.
“I am not afraid to fail,… I’m scared to death of dying and having the Lord say to me, “Angelica, this is what you might have done had you trusted more.”
This quote caught my eye and I have been turning it over in my head for several days, because it rings true with me. Fear has been a close companion of mine for my entire adult life. In fact, much of my military career, especially my attempts at being Special Forces, has been about trying to conquer fear: fear of heights, fear of tiredness, fear of hunger, fear of humiliation, fear of discomfort, etc
But deeper than all those fears, the strongest fear in my life has always been the fear of failure. I have always been terrified of trying it and not making it, not having what it takes. This causes me to be hesitant in my decisions. When faced with a choice am very prone to “paralysis by analysis.” I want to analyze all of the facts, relevant or otherwise. I want to have all of the facts (most of the time that simply isn’t possible). I want time to figure out all possible contingencies, and that time is almost never granted. Even if all the time in the world were granted, I still would not be able to foresee and account for every possibility.
A key to success in the military, in Special Forces, and even in life, is to develop the ability to say, “—– it! We’ll do it live!” That is, an early step in the path from Hebrews 2:15 to 1 John 4:18 is learning not to fear the wrong things. We do this by learning to fear the right things.
So I learned to overcome the baser fears like fear of getting shot or blown up, fear of heights, fear of physical discomfort etc. by pitting them against the deeper fear of failure. I learned to overcome the fear of failure by recognizing that real failure more often involves not trying than not succeeding. Eventually I realized that the only failure that matters in the end is failing to please God.
Of course, the truth is that no one can ever quite succeed in perfectly pleasing God in all things. We fail, we stumble, we fall. This is where the parable of the talents comes in, in which the only person who was condemned was the one who, through fear of failure, did nothing with the gift he had been given.
This quote of Mother Angelica is the distilled essence of that parable. The servant was afraid of the wrong thing, failure, not afraid of the right thing, which was displeasing his Master. Failing on an investment would not have displeased His Master as much as not making an investment at all. Or as Mother Teresa would say:
“God does not call us to be successful. He calls us to be faithful.”
This is the next step, to move from fear of success or failure in worldly terms, to fear of success or failure in spiritual terms. Or as Jesus would say:
“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Matthew 10:28.
But even this is not perfect, and I do not think Mother Angelica would disagree. It is not perfect because it is not quite all the way to that perfect love which casts out all fear. The next step is full and unbounded trust in Jesus and His Will. It is the ability to look at and see our own littleness and weakness, and then to marvel at the fact that God can make whatever He wills out of that nothingness if we let Him. When we can recognize even our failures as part of His plan and not mope over them, but instead rejoice in His mercy through them, then we are well on His way to that level of trust.
A few months ago Kathleen and I began setting a service project in motion. We wanted to get together some of our Bible study friends and cook a meal at a local homeless shelter. Shortly after getting all of the pieces together and setting a tentative date, we found that I was going to be going to North Carolina for some National Guard training, leaving Kathleen solo to get the whole project moving along.
She did really well. She made all her coordinations early, she notified everyone involved well ahead of time, she had her menu and ingredients lined up. It was a masterpiece of prior planning…
And it all fell apart. The person she was coordinating with went on vacation. I was out of state. Most of our volunteers couldn’t make it. Her babysitting option had to be changed. Worst of all, no one took the meat out of the freezer, so at 7:00 the night prior the 30Lbs of ground chicken she had been planning on cooking were still 30 degrees below zero.
Now, those who know Kathleen know that she hates that sort of thing. That is why she plans so hard, so that all of those things won’t happen. But she laughed (over the phone, since I was only able to help via long distance) and she trusted and she winged it. It worked out. She drove Evie up to stay with her parents the night before. She and our friend Jenn went out hunting good deals on bulk ingredients the night before instead of going to see a movie as they had originally planned. Enough people showed up. They even found that they had extra ingredients and made two more pans than she had been planning on, and almost all of it was eaten.
There was enough. It was not the flawless execution she had been hoping for. It came limping in with a bit of duct tape here and there, so to speak, but it was (I firmly believe) the success God was looking for. The people were fed, and the credit went to Him, not to our prior planning.
Was it stressful? Kathleen informs me that yes, it was, but it wasn’t too terribly stressful. She plans on doing it again, and while she will take some lessons learned from what went wrong last time, she isn’t going to let the stress and the falling apart of plans stop her from trying to serve God. Of course she still wants to perform competently to have things come out well, but the real goal is to be faithful to God and let the outcome rest in His hands.
Fear. It paralyzes us to immobility. We’ve all experienced it to some degree.
we hear a friend saying something skewed about someone else; we want to correct them, but…
we see a stranger who obviously could use some assistance, and we hesitate…
someone we love tells us a hard truth, and we lash out because we weren’t ready to listen…
we want to share our faith with someone really in need of the Lord, and we stay silent…
The list goes on. What are some fears you would add to the list? When have you experienced, those moments where you want to do good for the benefit of another, feeling quickened to act, yet, drag your feet, second-guess yourself. You hesitate, unable to act.
There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment, and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love. (NAB: 1 John 4:18)
Saint John gets it right. He answers the question, “Why do I fear?” saying, “the one who fears is not yet perfect in love.” It makes sense if you think about it. We have all experienced this too, to some degree, having done things for others because we love them. When there is love, obstacles don’t stop us; we find a way to overcome.
This is what we are called to by baptism. Jesus summed it up:
“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (NAB: Matthew 22:37-40)
Love God and love your neighbor. The saints and martyrs understood this. Because of their experience of God’s love, they were moved to love God in return, and to express this love by extending it to their neighbor . We have all met people who do this.
In the six-plus years of working as part of the formation team for VOICA (Volontariato Internazionale Canossiano), it always amazed me when I would ask our volunteers arriving in Rome for their preparation, “Why did you come?” Many came to have an experience of mission, to travel, to ‘give back to God’ in thanksgiving for what they have received.
But it would happen from time to time, someone would arrive at our door to begin their preparation for two years in the missions, and when asked, would reply, “I don’t know why I’m here. I was compelled somehow. It was all I could think about.”
But that doesn’t sound rational, does it? Yet, love is like that. It makes us do things that take us beyond our fear because we are immersed in another reality. In the case of these volunteers, they had no plan what they would do when they would get back home after mission, only that they had to respond.
This reality (virtue of love) is the root of vocation (which will need to be discussed in a forthcoming post!). Vocation is what makes it possible for the heart to commit to something greater than itself; to give of itself to another. We get a sense of such a capacity in meditating on the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary. God’s angel presents himself, tells the person(s) not to fear, and then gives news which will change their lives (commit them to something not currently in their plans):
Luke 1:13 “But the angel said to him: Fear not, Zechariah, for thy prayer is heard.” (Zechariah and his wife were to expect a child in his old age)
Luke 1:30 “And the angel said to her: Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God.” (Mary’s great response, ‘I am the handmaid of the Lord; do unto me according to your word!)
Luke 2:10 “And the angel said to them: Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy that shall be to all the people.” (The shepherds left the comfort of their fires to go to seek the baby Jesus)
Is it possible for us, too, to respond in love, and put aside our fears? Let us, then, ask the Lord to help us to grow in love for Him, that we too will be compelled to be agents of love; always grounded in that of God. A love that drives out all fear, allows us to commit to the Lord’s plans, and that makes us courageous witnesses to His glory and goodness.
Therefore, I tell you, too, “Fear not.”
“Let nothing trouble you
Let nothing frighten you
God never changes
Patience obtains all
Whoever has god
Wants for nothing
God alone is enough.”
St Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)
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