Dear Peregrinus (7:30 PM, Sunday):
Our mutual friend, Fr. Rick Ganz, has journeyed to Coeur d’Alene for the summer to begin composition of his masterwork and to save the souls of wayward Idahoans. In his absence, he proposed that you and I might correspond, continuing the work of friendship that began when we were first introduced. Fr. Ganz is one of the fellow pilgrims I cherish most in this life, and any friend of his is, as they say, a friend of mine (as long as they like Italian food and The Beatles, which Father has assured me, you do). And so, it was with great enthusiasm that I accepted his suggestion that I might write to you this month, to tell you more about what it is I’ve been thinking about. Perhaps through this correspondence you and I will come to develop a rich friendship of our own.
Our friend Fr. Ganz said that you have taught him quite a bit about the nature of fear, and so he encouraged me to open my thoughts to you. I am hoping that you will write back your thoughts. It is fear—or more precisely, freedom from fear—that God has been calling my attention to lately, as I sense He is working to untangle me from fear that has for so long invaded my way of being.
I was a sensitive little one who noticed everything, and I noticed far too early that the world was ravenous, broken, and cruel. I was blessed to have parents who raised me in safety and love, but because we were not a religious household, I had no awareness of any authority greater than my parents. They were the be-all and end-all of my wellbeing. So when things began to happen in my life that evaded the protective net of my parents, my sense was that I had no one to look out for me; I felt alone amongst the wolves. A nagging feeling of danger and fear settled itself deep into my little body and never quite let go.
And so, Peregrinus, when I became a Catholic at age twenty-two I was most fascinated to learn that “be not afraid” (in a variety of forms) is the most common phrase in all of scripture. (Uttered 365 times according to numerous internet sources, which we will have to presume are correct for I myself have never bothered to count.)[ii]
What I understood from this was that, although there is much in the world that is frightening, the children of God are not meant to be afraid. But how? Are we meant to walk through life with blinders on, resolutely oblivious to all that might scare us in order to be pleasing to God?
This struck me as a rather flimsy approach to tackling the problem.
So what I have wondered, Peregrinus—and let me know your thoughts on this—is if the language chosen in the scriptures is far from arbitrary. The scriptures admonish us to “be not afraid”; they do not say, “do not feel afraid”, suggesting that this is more of an ontological command than an emotional one. Perhaps there is a difference here between feeling fear at the level of the affect, and becoming fear, in such a way that it overtakes our entire will.
Let me explain what I think that I mean. We often talk about love, for instance, as if it were an emotion, something that primarily happens through feeling. Yet I’m sure that anyone who has ever loved someone, and loved him or her deeply, would agree that this lacks insight. Love that exists solely at the level of the affect is doomed to wither and die, because inevitably we will not feel like doing the hard work that love requires. If I fed my children only when I felt like it, or changed their diapers only when I felt like it, I would be a rotten mother indeed; therefore, real love requires more than a feeling. It demands an act of the will that says, “Yes, today I choose to serve you, regardless of how exhausted or heartbroken or distracted or lazy I’m feeling, because I love you, my dear one”. In other words, I am love, and have love, when I am loving no matter what I actually feel.
I wonder, Peregrinus, if it is true that there are two ways of experiencing fear- feeling and being. When we feel fear, this is a natural—and essential—power of discernment that God has granted to help us make wise choices. The reason we do not go shake hands with a bear is that we have a healthy fear and respect for a power that is beyond us. God wants us to have an awareness of our sphere of capability as humans but also an understanding of what is above our pay grade- we need to know when it is time to call for Divine back-up. Fear is that alert system.
The other gift hidden inside feeling fear is that without it the phenomenon of courage could not exist. I am no hero when I clean the litterbox (maybe my husband would disagree) because it does not frighten me to do so. However, when we feel afraid but choose to act anyway, ah! This is something different; this is bravery. Consider, for example, when the angel Gabriel visited a young virgin and asked her to become the Mother of God, and the terrified girl responded, “be it unto me according to thy word”[iii]. She felt afraid, yet gave her holy yes in spite of her feelings because of her great faith and trust in God. That is an act worthy of being called a Cardinal Virtue: courage.
Mary’s “yes” is in contrast with the other kind of fear, the kind that I believe God is warning us about when He tells us to “be not afraid”- the being of fear. Being fear means that our entire ontology is overtaken by a fearfulness rooted in a fundamental lack of trust in He who is trustworthy. There is danger there, Peregrinus; danger of forgetting who God is, and giving up hope. When we agonize over a news headline about a car plowing into a crowd of innocent people, we are feeling fear; when we start to believe that Darkness has overcome the Light, we are being fear.
Since having Cirocco and Sabina (my two dear little ones, who are ages four and nearly two) I’ve wondered a lot about how to live out the call to “be not afraid” in a way that is genuine, knowing that my children will immediately recognize and reject any sort of insincere piety that I might try to trick them with. If I say I am not afraid, but I am, they will see it, and will themselves take on that fear even when they do not know why they should be afraid. And oh Peregrinus, I do not want them to learn how to be afraid from me.
But it is challenging to be a parent in an age where schools, churches, concerts, movie theaters, wherever are all places where somebody might decide to just show up and randomly commit mass murder. How do you look at a kid with a straight face and tell him or her “be not afraid” in a world like that? I remember being a little girl, sobbing after the Oklahoma City bombing, and when my Mom promised she would never let anything happen to me I responded, “I bet those children’s mommies told them that, too.” I saw right through that false comfort, just as I know my children would. The promise is untrue and not good enough. I have to give Cirocco and Sabina something more to believe in, something to hang their hat on when even Mommy and Daddy can’t protect them from hurt.
So there are two things I must teach my children about suffering, Peregrinus. The first is that I believe, truly, that if we love God then suffering will never have the final word. When I was twenty-five, my Grandma, Angelina Piccolo, who was the most pure and saintly Catholic woman I have ever known, died suddenly. Her death was ugly. She died alone and naked on the floor of her bedroom in a pile of feces. I was deeply troubled that God would let such a kind and faithful woman die an undignified, terrible death all alone. Then my friend Andrew, who is now with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal[iv] and known as Br. Joseph Rufino, sent me a message saying, “I know Mary came to take your Grandmother by the hand and lead her to Heaven.” I will never, ever forget the gift of that image. It meant that she did not die alone and afraid, but hand in hand with someone whom she loved deeply, and trusted. Fear did not have the last word on her life; God did. It is a great comfort to me, Peregrinus, to know that God needs only a nanosecond of our earthly time to transform fear into peace, and I can promise my children that no matter what happens here God will not let them leave this world afraid.
The other thing I want my children to know about suffering is that God is not in the habit of letting it go to waste. I have learned both in my own life and in my time as a spiritual director that while we might prefer God to erase our pain and fix up our wounds, this is not usually His way. In my experience, God is much more interested in using our wounds and making us wise and deep because we have them. When we entrust our suffering to He who is good, it is given meaning, and dignity, because we suffer it in communion with Christ. It matters, and it changes us. We most fear pain that we perceive to be meaningless. Pain that has a purpose in the working out of the salvation of the world is a cross we can bear more willingly.
Now please do not misunderstand, Peregrinus. I do not mean to trivialize the tragedies of our lives, or to suggest that believing in God “fixes” everything. What was awful in our past is not turned into flowers and rainbows. What I mean is that, while faith will not change our wounds, it will change our relationship to the wounds. Notice that even Jesus still bears the marks of crucifixion after the resurrection[v]. Though He is in His glorified body his wounds are not all healed up, which tells us that God relates to wounds very differently than we do. Wounds are not contrary to Heaven, they are welcome there. We earned our wounds in life, and we will be richer, deeper, thicker in Heaven because we have them.
This is why God has the audacity to tell us “be not afraid,” because salvation is something that works backwards through time, such that when we come to know Heaven, even the sufferings of Earth will be understood to have been a part of Heaven all along. I have always loved this image, taken from C.S. Lewis’ fantastic novel The Great Divorce:
Ah, the Saved… what happens to them is best described as the opposite of a mirage. What seemed, when they entered it, to be the vale of misery turns out, when they look back, to have been a well; and where present experience saw only salt deserts, memory truthfully records that the pools were full of water.[vi]
And it would seem kind of cheap, wouldn’t it, if when we arrived in Heaven we came under a sort of “amnesia” such that we forgot all the suffering of our lifetime and only remembered ice cream and birthday parties. That’s a phony, imitation paradise- not Heaven. No, Heaven is the realest thing there is, and there our wounds will not be erased but will be revealed as glory. This I believe, really believe, at the core of my being, and it gives me the courage to say to my children, with all the strength, peace, and confidence of one who has the hope of Christ: “be not afraid, my love, for when we reach the Light of Heaven what seemed to be a dry and lonely desert will be shown to have been a beautiful ocean all along, and you and I will play in the shimmering waters and all will be all.”
And now, Peregrinus, it is time for me to go dance with those little ones, who have been beautifully patient and generous in letting Mommy spend so much time writing to you. Please do write back and let me know what you think of all I’ve said here. Next time I’d like to write to you about a girl named Marilena, a beautiful and mighty soul who I think you should know.
I hope you have found me worthy of being a friend and colleague of the legendary one known as Fr. Rick Ganz.
Always Your Friend in Christ,
[i] This painting of the annunciation is one of my most treasured possessions, a gift from my mother on my first Mother’s Day.
[ii] Apparently, this Jesuit guy did count, just to make me look bad: http://catholic-resources.org/Bible/HaveNoFear.htm
[iii] King James Version, Luke 1:38. Although I know it is not the most scholarly version of the Bible, the King James is my most favorite translation for the beauty of its language.
[iv] Check out franciscanfriars.com. My friend has served the Lord in amazing ways, though I admit at the time I was devastated that he wanted to become a monk more than he wanted to date me.
[v] John 20:24-29. Thank God for the Gospel of John- it was the first book of scripture I ever read, and will always, always be my favorite.
[vi] Lewis, C.S. (1946). The Great Divorce. New York, NY: HarperOne. Oh, it’s a good one- definitely worth a read.