Sunday, August 10, 2008

One Of The Roots Of Fear And How To Deal With It

The moment when fear took control of Simon Peter

(Nineteenth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on August 10, 2008 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Matthew 14: 22-33.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Nineteenth Sunday 2008]

It’s a well-known fact that more people fear flying than driving (and that was the case even before September 11, 2001!).

This is because, as psychology professor David Myers has said, “We fear what we can’t control. We fear flying more than driving because we feel we are in control of the car, but we know we’re not in control of the plane.”

In today’s well-known gospel story from Matthew 14, Peter walked on the water in faith, but then sank in fear. And that fear was rooted in what he could not control, namely the weather! Scripture says, “Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened, and, beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’”

“When he saw how strong the wind was . . .”

Before that moment he was doing just fine; in fact, he was doing a lot better than “just fine”—he was doing what was humanly impossible! He had his eyes on Jesus—meaning that he was totally unconcerned with what he could not control—and he walked on the water.

But once he took his eyes off the Lord, the “uncontrollable” suddenly grabbed his attention—and that was the beginning of the end of his little stroll on the lake.

There are many things in life that we cannot control no matter how hard we try: certain aspects of our health, for example. We can do our best to take care of our body through diet and exercise and yearly check-ups with our doctor, but in spite of our best efforts it’s still possible to come down with a serious disease. We can’t control the other terrible drivers on the highway; we can’t control the price of gas; we can’t control the weather. We can’t control what other people say about us; we can’t control what other people do to hurt us (I’m sure you parents wished you could control your children in this way, but you can’t. They will disobey and hurt you at times in spite of all the good things you teach them, and the good example you try to give them.)

If we really stop and think about all the events and circumstances of our lives, we’ll realize that the vast majority of what we have to deal with each and every day is totally beyond our control.

But “the majority” is not “all”! That’s good news, because it means that there are some dimensions of our lives that we can control successfully if we choose to. And these, believe it or not, have a direct impact on how we deal with all of those uncontrollable things in life that sometimes cause us to be fearful.

Here Peter serves as a great example. As I noted at the beginning of my homily, he could not control the weather that day on the Sea of Galilee: he couldn’t stop the wind; he couldn’t calm the waves that were tossing around the apostles’ boat. But he did have the power to control his mind—his thoughts—in the midst of it all! And he actually did that very well—for a brief time.

That’s when he walked on the water. He had his mind centered on the Lord; he had his eyes riveted on Jesus; he put his complete and total focus on his Savior—and he acted fearlessly! Even though he was in the midst of a situation that he could not possibly control, he had no fear in his heart!

But then he chose to focus his attention somewhere else. He made the decision to take his mind and eyes off Jesus, and allowed himself to be distracted by what was uncontrollable.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Like Peter, we can also control our choices—especially our choices regarding Jesus Christ and our Catholic faith. We can choose, for example, to take the teachings of the Church seriously every day and apply them in every circumstance we face; we can choose to nourish our relationship with Jesus through daily prayer and frequent reception of the Eucharist; we can choose to read at least one passage from the Bible every day so that our thoughts get in line with God’s word; we can choose to read books that will build up and not undermine our faith; we can choose to strengthen (or repair if necessary) our relationship with Jesus by going to Confession on a regular basis.

If we choose to take positive, spiritual steps like these every day (all of which are under our control), they will have a direct, positive impact on how we deal with the many things in our lives that we cannot control. We will be spiritually stronger in the midst of those uncontrollable events, and less fearful.

Once again, look at Peter. The man who freaked out in the midst of some bad weather on the Sea of Galilee, later went to his death fearlessly! He obviously had changed. He obviously had grown spiritually. And his was no ordinary death, remember: Peter was crucified upside down near the obelisk that now stands in St. Peter’s Square in Rome.

Jesus had said to him, “When you were a young man you fastened your belt and went about as you pleased; but when you are older you will stretch out your hands, and another will tie you fast and carry you off against your will.”

Peter could not control Nero and the Romans who condemned him to death. But he could control his inner response to their condemnation.

This time he made the right choice—and stuck with it! This time he chose to keep his eyes—the eyes of his soul—firmly fixed on Jesus till the end.

So today’s lesson is simple: By controlling what we can control in life, we strengthen ourselves to face the things that we cannot control. And this can eliminate—or at least lessen—our level of fear (perhaps even our fear of flying!).