Fear or Hope?

When I opened the New York Times this morning (yes, we still get it delivered every day even though we’ve lived in the Twin Cities for eight years now) I was struck by the fact that two of the headlines had the word “fear” in them (and there were several other “fears” sprinkled throughout the rest of news section of the paper).

It seems to me there is a lot of fear going around on all sorts of political and social issues.  What particular individuals fear varies, but the fear is a constant.

What I see less of in our news and other social commentary – including that by Christians – is mention of hope.  And that is unfortunate.  I think Timothy Radcliffe, in his book What is the Point of Being Christian, is absolutely correct that hope is the central gift we, as Christians, bring to the world. If Christianity makes any difference in how we live and how we die, it has to include how we convey hope to the world, how we point to what is not yet present.

To be sure, hope is not an invitation to sit back and do nothing.  I read an article a year or so ago in America Magazine by Robert Maloney, C.M., former superior general of the Congregation of the Mission.  In the article Maloney cited a quote attributable to Augustine of Hippo: “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” Expounding on the quote, Maloney writes

Anger, Hope’s first daughter, reacts spontaneously in the face of evil, refusing to accept unjust social and economic structures that deprive the poor of life: unjust laws, power-based economic relationships, inequitable treaties, artificial boundaries, oppressive or corrupt governments and numerous other subtle obstacles to harmonious societal relationships. Then Hope’s second daughter, Courage, standing at Anger’s side and singing out persistently, searches for ways “to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield,” as Tennyson put it.

The union of the two is important. Too often, we see one daughter – Anger – unaccompanied by the second – Courage. After all, the anger part is a lot easier. It doesn’t take much effort to sit around and talk about how angry things make us. But anger without the courage (and energy) to act is unproductive.

Our call is not to sit in fear.  It is a call to spread hope.  And we spread hope not by sitting back and simply hoping all will be better, but  by letting our anger at injustice spur us to find ways to address that injustice.



The Peace of Wild Things

In today’s Gospel from Matthew, Jesus asks his disciples, “Why are you terrified, O you of little faith?”

Although we may not all be frightened of the same things, there are many things in this world that terrify us. Climate change. Gun violence. Wars. (You can make your own list.) We worry for the world we are leaving our children – and their children.

How do you let go of that terror? What do you look at to trust that you need not be afraid?

As I sat with the Gospel scene, where Jesus “rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was great calm,” I was reminded of Wendell Berry’s poem, The Peace of Wild Things.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

What Do you Fear?

I went to Mass at St. Hubert’s yesterday morning, giving me the opportunity, for the first time, to hear a sermon from their new Associate Pastor Fr. John Dress.

He began by focusing on a portion of the Gospel I did not address in my post yesterday – the opening line, in which Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not be afraid any longer little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom.” Fr. John suggested that before we can trust the invitation to not be afraid, we should ask “What are we afraid of?” With respect to the parable in the Gospel, he suggested the servant feared the master would not arrive, and thus sought to assuage his emptiness and need in various other pursuits.

Fr. John’s analysis of what the servant was afraid of may or may not have been accurate, but was not really what struck me. It is the invitation to ask what we are afraid of – to really examine our fears – that I think is so important. We all have fears; if we didn’t Jesus wouldn’t so often have said in the Gospels “Do not be afraid.”

As he said to his disciples, he says to us, “Do not be afraid.” I think we can trust that promise fully only if we know what it is that we fear in the first place.

I Am Not Afraid to Die

My cousin Bobby was a fireman for almost twenty years when he lost his life fighting a house fire on November 23, 2008. Since his death, family and friends have annually held a toy drive for children of the burn center where he had been treated after a previous job-related injury.

The website for this year’s drive, which is going on now, includes two videos, one of pictures of Bobby through the years (which was both sweet and painful for me to watch) and the second of which scrolled through a journal Bobby was required to keep in one of his 8th grade classes.

On June 2 of that 8th grade year, at the age of about 13, Bobby wrote an entry in his journal titled Life and Death! The post begins on a note I suspect resonates for most of us, whether or not we articulate it.

I’ll tell you right now, I don’t plan on dying for another seventy years.

Intellectually, we know we can die any time, but that’s not how we live our lives. We live with an expectation that we can plan for things that will happen next year….when we retire…when our children have children, etc. We don’t plan on dying – and we certainly do not plan on dying young.

Bobby went on to say

I would like to live to be about eighty or eighty-five. A lot of people would rather be dead than alive. I think that they are damn fools… Life is the most precious gift God ever made, and it should not be taken advantage of.

Bobby knew then – and continued to know as he grew to adulthood that life is precious. That it is a gift from God. And he lived that way.

The next line was chilling to me – Bobby’s hope for how he would die.

When I die, I would like to die in my sleep, because it is painless and peaceful.

Bobby didn’t die in his sleep. He was killed when an attic ceiling collapsed on him as he was fighting a house fire, knocking off his helmet and air mask. I’d like to think his death was painless, but it is hard for to me to imagine that possibility given the circumstances. In any event, it certainly wasn’t peaceful.

Even at that young age, Bobby understood that his hope was only just that – a hope. His next journal line reads

But, then again, I can’t control when or how I die.

An important realization, but one we have trouble acknowledging.

How did that lack of control make him feel? The final line – the last thing he felt he needed to add to his journal entry – gives all the answer that is needed. I read it and simultaneously smiled and cried:

There is one other thing too, I am not afraid to die.

The words of an 8th grader. How deep was his theological understanding of resurrection of the dead when he wrote those lines? I don’t know. But I hope as he grew he continued to know that the God who gifted him with life would also be there holding him when he died.

“I am not afraid to die.” May we all have the security of God’s boundless and eternal love, the security that allows us to face death without fear.

The Path to the Dark Side

I don’t tend to cite fictional movie characters for wisdom, but someone put on Facebook the other day a line spoken by Yoda in one of the Star Wars movies. The quote was: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”

I think there is much truth in that statement. Fear rises for many reasons. But often it is a response, not to an actual source of danger, but to something that is beyond our understanding: what we don’t understand we often fear.

Fear is not an easy emotion to accept. And so a not atypical response to fear is anger.

If we are sufficiently mindful, we see the link between lack of understanding and fear and between fear and anger. In the absence of mindfulness, however, all we realize is the experience of anger which, if left unchecked, can become hate. And the hate means suffering not only for ourselves, but for the object of our hate.

In the absence of mindfulness, that progression – fear…anger…hate…suffering – is, if not the, certainly a path to the dark side.

PS. My other favorite Yoda quote in the second Star Wars movie was: “Do or do not. There is no try.”

They Were Afraid to Ask

I’ve been teaching for eighteen years. Not a year has gone by where I haven’t had a student say to me something like, “I was afraid to ask this question in class because it is such a stupid question.” Not a year has gone by when I haven’t told my students they should always talk to me when they have questions. Yet I know they often don’t, that there are students who remain in their confusion rather than asking me a question.

In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, Jesus is clearly trying to convey something to his disciples he wants them to understand. “Pay attention to what I am telling you,” he tells them. Then he reveals that the “Son of Man is to be handed over to men.”

The disciples, however, did not understand what Jesus meant. Yet, “they were afraid to ask him about this saying.”

Every time I read or hear this passage proclaimed, I have the same reaction of frustration toward the disciples. Why didn’t you ask, I think to myself. If you didn’t understand what He was saying, why didn’t you say so? What were you afraid of asking this Jesus, who so often told you not to be afraid?

And I find myself asking similar questions to people who tell me they are having some area of confusion with God, dealing with something involving God that they do not understand. “Did you talk to God about that?” or “Why don’t you ask God about it?” I advise.

I think sometimes people are afraid to go to God with their questions. Perhaps they think it is a question they shouldn’t have. Or they may be afraid of the answer they might receive.

But there is nothing we can’t bring before God. No question we can’t ask, no hesitation we can’t raise. God wants always to draw closer and closer to us. And if there are things we fear to ask, places we are afraid to go with God, we keep God at a distance.

We never need to be afraid to ask.

O You of Little Faith

It is easy to assert that one has faith. We make expressions of our faith quite easily, whether it be in our recitation of the Creed at Mass each week or otherwise.

It is also easy to look at situations where the faith of others is tested and express confidence that we would have fared better in their situation – that we wouldn’t have doubts if we were in their place. Our faith, after all, is so strong.

I think that is the attitude with which we read passages like today’s Gospel from St. Matthew. The disciples are in a boat on the sea with Jesus when a storm comes upon them. And they are terrified. When we hear Jesus chide them for their lack of sufficient faith, it is easy to be self-satisfied and look with smug superiority at the disciples. We (we are confident) would not have been terrorized by the storm; we would have had more faith.

But as we go about our everyday lives, our faith is not tested all that often. And we don’t know how well we would react if it were.

Ultimately, faith is not measured by how well or how often we profess it with our words. It is about our ability to live lives that reflect our faith – in easy times and in tough ones.

May we all grow in faith, praying in the words of the man who came to Jesus for healing of his son, “I do believe, help my unbelief!”

The Risk of Pursuing Freedom

One of the final things I did before leaving the Buffalo area was to see an exhibit on the Underground Railroad at the Castellani Art Museum at Niagara University. The surrounding towns in that area of New York State served as a convenient crossing into Canada for runaway slaves after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act made staying in the northern “free” states too dangerous.

I was struck by the courage it took for so many slaves to make their way north via the Underground Railroad. Although they benefitted from the kindness (and courage) of the “conductors” along the way, the slaves still had to travel hundreds and hundreds of miles with great difficulty, always facing the danger of capture and physical punishment or death. So strong was their drive and courage that they took tremendous risk to obtain their freedom.

My guess is that many other slaves stayed behind out of fear, their own drive for freedom overshadowed by the fear of what they would face if they tried to escape. As painful as slavery was, the pain of lack of freedom seemed preferable to the risks that seeking freedom would entail.

So it often is in our spiritual lives. Growth is painful. Our movement toward freedom from the shackles that bind us is on the one hand spurred by our natural drive for union with God and on the other, hampered by our fears of the pain and difficulty we face along the way. As I’ve said in other contexts, our false self is a delusion, but it is a delusion we’ve grown comfortable with. Giving up the false self and replacing it with our true self requires a painful awakening and therefore great courage. Let us pray for that courage to move constantly toward freedom from our false self and union with God.

Lessons from the Mist

During my visit to Buffalo to see my friend John, we visited Niagara Falls State Park.  One of the things we did was ride the Maid of the Mist, a boat journey that travels to the Horseshoe Falls.  The boat rides into a space where the falls come down in three directions, creating an enormous mist in the open space inside the three falls.

As the boat comes closer to the falls, the water we traveled through was wild and completely white-capped.  We were all soon soaked (albeit somewhat protected by our rain ponchos).   As we got even closer, we went from being able to see only about 10 feet in front of us to not being able to see anything at all.

It was an intense experience.  It is a bit daunting to be moving forward in a boat when you can’t see what it is in front of you.  It was impossible to tell how close we were to the falls or to any obstructions that might have been in the water.  We had to simply trust that the pilot of the ship knew where he was going. 

I later watched from above the Horseshoe Falls as another boat like the one I had been on took the same trip.  This time, I watched as the boat itself almost diasppeared from view into the mist.  I knew it was there, but I could not see it at all.

You know where I’m going with this…where my thoughts were as I spent time first in and then outside watching that mist.  First, my experience on that boat is a good metaphor for our lack of sight.  So often we can not see the road ahead, we don’t know where the next step will take us.  We go forward anyway, step by step.  Sometimes we are a little fearful and sometimes perhaps more than a little fearful.  Yet we know that we can rest secure in the knowledge that God is our pilot and that even if we can’t see the road ahead, God can.

Not that we can always see God, and that is the second part of the lesson.  Just as I knew that ship was still there even though I could no longer see it in the mist, we can count on God being there even in those moments when we can’t see or feel God’s presence.  We can be as sure of that presence as I was that the boat was still there, simply hidden by the mist.

You can learn a lot watching the mist of a waterfall.

Do It Afraid

In Psalm 23 we recite, “I will fear no evil.” The risen Christ twice told his disciples, “Be not afraid.”

No matter how steadfast our faith, how strong our prayer life, there are occasions when fear will rise in us. We can’t stop ourselves from feeling fear, any more than we can stop ourselves from experiencing any other feelings. Feelings rise and vanish without our control. Thus, the line in Psalms 23 about not fearing evil can not mean one literally that one will never have any fear, nor is Christ’s instruction to his disciples intended to suggest that they will have failed in his command if they ever experience any fear.

Fear will arise. What matters is how we respond when it does. What St. Ignatius calls the evil spirit loves when fear arises because fear can be used to stop us from acting and to stop us from making progress. When fear takes over, we are hesitant, we pull back, we fail to act.

I think what Jesus was really telling his disciples is: don’t let your feeling of fear stop you. Know that I am with you and can help you through despite your feeling of fear. Don’t let your fear keep you from following me.

In a book I’m currently reading, the author uses the expression “Do it afraid,” which she defines as “feel[ing] the fear and do[ing] what you believe you should do anyway.” It is a great expression of what Jesus asks of us. And so when we pray, “I will fear no evil,” what we want to be saying is, “Let fear not stop me. Help me do it afraid.”