Peace the world cannot give
May 9th, 2016
By Father Mark Doherty
In our observance of the Ascension and Pentecost the Lord asks us: “what is it that you fear?”
You may have noticed that in the Gospel of the Sunday before Ascension Thursday (Jn. 14: 23-29) Jesus tells his apostles that he is leaving them for a while and that they should not as a result be seized with fear. “Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid,” he says. What is it that the apostles fear? What is it that I fear when I hear Jesus tell me that he has to return to the Father for a time?
In the depths of our heart we harbor the fear of abandonment. Because God made us for communion our happiness depends on strengthening the bonds that unite us to God and our fellow man. We fear being abandoned by others because the loss of relationship leads to misery, to hell. C. S. Lewis sketches a vivid description of this in his tale “The Great Divorce.” Hell is the place of a million kingdoms. Each inhabitant has his own kingdom in which no one is allowed. For some the fear of abandonment is especially sharp and gut wrenching. Those among us who have been abandoned or neglected by their parents or family members may be especially shaken by Jesus’ declaration that he must return to the Father.
The question arises: Have I ever felt abandoned or neglected by God? Has there been a time when I felt that my prayers and shouts fell on deaf ears? Do I bear with me the scar of not having been protected by God in a moment of great vulnerability?
Jesus’ words of reassurance are meant for me precisely in these moments: “Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” Jesus never abandons us. He is always with us in the touch of the Holy Spirit.
But isn’t there another fear that lurks deep in our hearts? As we celebrate the solemnity of Pentecost doesn’t it behoove us to recognize that we fear the love of God? Am I not worried that God loves me more than I want him to? That he wants to be in deeper relationship with me than I am ready for? As he walks through the door of my inner room to offer me his peace, as he sends down the fire of the Holy Spirit upon my little house and shakes the foundation, do I not cower in the corner because I fear that I will lose my identity. Don’t I find myself protesting and saying that I have to keep hold of this or that part of my life without his meddling? What parts of my life do I want him to stay out of? What territory do I consider mine, only mine?
Aren’t these fears contradictory? How can I fear being abandoned by God at the same time as I fear God’s excessive intimacy? I wonder if one of the reasons isn’t that I fear being disappointed again. To the extent that I have experienced the pain of abandonment, neglect, or lack of appreciation, I tend to fear that it will happen again. So I put up my guard and am afraid to get my hopes up. As I fear abandonment or neglect I also fear intimacy because I fear that the intimacy will not last. Just as I begin opening myself up again, just as I make an effort to trust God again, I fear that he will let me down yet again. So I would rather keep him at arms’ length. As a result, my life may be lonelier and grayer, but at least I will not feel so sharply the pain of disappointment.
Jesus knows all these fears and he wants to extend his peace to me in answer to them. He comes before me to show me the signs of his own passion, and as he does so he breathes on me the Spirit of peace and reassures me that he is always with me as he sends me out into the world to preach the good news.
Father Doherty, parochial vicar at St. Peter Parish, San Francisco and chaplain for Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory, begins moral theology studies in September at Fribourg University in Switzerland.
From May 12, 2016 issue of Catholic San Francisco.