How Do We Cope When Fear Overcomes Us?

I again offered the reflection at daily Mass at the Jesuit Retreat House in OshKosh, where I am a director for a directed retreat.  I spoke about the Gospel reading for today: Matthew’s account of the storm at sea.

Jesus is asleep in a boat with his disciples when a storm suddenly arises, and the disciples are terrified.

It is not so difficult for me to understand the disciple’s terror as this violent storm comes upon them.

Several years ago, I was kayaking up in boundary waters in Minnesota.  It was a beautiful day – sunshine and not a cloud in the sky and the water was completely calm when my husband and I first entered the water, each in our own one-person kayak.  But at one point, after we were quite far out from where we had started, with no warning, the heavens opened and the wind kicked up as rain furiously beat down.  I frantically began paddling toward shore, while also trying to keep an eye on my husband in his kayak (he is older than I am, and prone to getting tired from paddling much faster).  For a long time, it seemed as though no matter how hard I paddled, I made no headway, and I experienced real fear.

As a result of that experience, when I enter into an Ignatian contemplation of this scene, I have no difficulty imagining the disciples fear as the waves swamped the boat.  The Greek word for the violent storm (megale) suggests a kind of tornado.

Yet, there is Jesus, cool as a cucumber (as the expression goes), sleeping like a baby.  “Why are you terrified,” he asks, when they wake him.  And he gets up, rebukes the wind, and calms the sea.  (The Greek word Matthew use conveys not simply standing, but Jesus rising to his full height to confront the storm.)

At one level, the Gospel is about response to physical danger, the danger of harm to our bodies.  By natural disaster or natural forces, by disease, by the crime of another.  And it is about the danger to our psychological or emotional health from stress, from that state of our world, or from harmful personal encounters.

But at another, it speaks to the trials we face as disciples.  This passage in Matthew comes immediately after Jesus emphasizes the importance of following him.  And it opens by telling us that the disciples “followed Jesus” into a boat.

Jesus invites us into a way of being, a stance of living, that is completely at odds with the value system of the world in which we live:

– Love your enemies, not just those who are good to you.

– Blessed are the meek, in a world that rewards those who push their way ahead.

– Be compassionate, looking out for others and not only for ourselves, in a world where we can’t be sure our government always has our best interest.

– Be peacemakers, when the cost will be attack by both sides of any political or religious fight.

– Forgive – not just once, but over and over again (70×7), when every temptation is to want to respond in kind to those who hurt us.

All of that means that there is a cost to discipleship, something Jesus clued his followers in on at the very beginning of his public ministry.  The last of the Beatitudes: Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you (falsely) because of me.

Make no mistake, if we take our discipleship seriously, we will face hardships.  We individually.  And we as Church.

The question is: how do we respond when we face dangers of various kinds – be they physical, psychological, emotional or as a result of our adherence to Christ’s standard?       How do we cope when fear and trepidation overwhelms us?

Sometimes we just try to handle things on our own.  We are like the little child who insists,” I want to do it myself.”  We think we can muscle our way through hardship, and may not even think about God who is in our midst and ready to lend a hand.  (I don’t remember calling upon God in that kayak.)  For some of us, that is because we don’t like to admit we need help from anyone.  For some it may be that the places we have turned to for help in the past have disappointed us and made us fear we have to rely only on ourselves.  For some it may be that an absence of a felt sense of God makes it feel like there is no point in asking God for help.

Sometimes in our troubles, we call on God, but not with any real confidence God will actually do anything to help us.

And sometimes, like the disciples, we call out for Jesus to help, but with a restrictive notion of what that help should look like.  We call for help in the naïve hope Jesus will just snap his fingers and magically make everything better.  (In the case of the disciples, Jesus did kind of do just that; he rebuked the winds and the sea and there was great calm.  But that is not the norm.)

Where is our real comfort?  The real solace in the face of hardship?  Our real comfort is the continuing presence of Christ in whatever we face.

Jesus after all never promised us a rose garden.  He never promised that following him would be a walk in the part.  (In fact, as I observed a few minutes ago, he kind of promised just the opposite.)

The promise was that he would be with us always.  Fidelity is hallmark in God.

And it is our security in that promise that helps us to overcome our fear.

In the Allelulia verse during today’s Mass, we prayed, “I trust in the Lord; my soul trusts in his word.”  My trust is not that God will magically fix whatever is wrong.  But trust that God is with me.  That God is with me always.




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