“Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter said to him in reply, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water?” He said, “Come.” 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!” Immediately Jesus stretched out his head and caught him and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
Matthew 14: 28-31
When Peter “saw how strong the wind was he became frightened.” What is it, at moments when the reality of death and the end of our lives as we know them confronts us, that most terrifies us? For me, I think, it is the fear of losing the possibilities that I have left unactualized for living my own life. It is the time I have been given that I have wasted in pretending to be who and what I am not, and as a result not being and giving the little that I really am. It is the fear that I have too often allowed to dominate my choices and that has led me to flee from the reality of life and the call of that reality to become the one I was being summoned to be. The fearfulness of the end is that it is the end of possibility, of the opportunity to choose the life we have been given and to come to know ourselves as we are known.
Today’s story of Jesus and Peter walking on the water, however, is one of reassurance. Jesus tells Peter, and us, that when we are terrified it is because we lack faith, not faith in ourselves but faith in his steadfast presence and mercy. Faith is the opposite of cynicism. Our inability to remain faithful to our call, both as individuals and as communities, can lead us to cynically give up the effort. What’s the point of maintaining an effort that never seems to succeed in the end? Cynicism is the option to live without the hope that we should, until the end, continue to step out on the water even though our fears will again overwhelm us and we shall, once again, begin to sink under our own weight.
Last evening I spoke with a close friend. We are contemporaries in age and share a common call as consecrated religious, although belonging to different congregations. He has just finished some very taxing months of directing a program of ongoing formation for young members of both of our congregations. Following the program he made a trip to one of his congregation’s formation houses in Africa, and then visited communities in several adjoining countries. As we spoke last evening, it was evident to me that after merely a few days of rest, he had begun, once again, to imagine new possibilities for deepening the life and connection of especially the younger members of his congregation throughout the world. The life, possibility, and hope to serve in new ways the actual life and call of the members of our congregations served to awaken and challenge me. Far too often for me the experience of difficulty and failure, of the apparent futility of many of my efforts, lead me to tiredness and withdrawal. I can experience a kind of subtle “giving up,” a cynicism about possibility that distances from those persons and situations that call for my involvement and care. Yet, I experienced last evening, as often with my friend, the life and energy that comes from keeping alive the love and passion in our souls. The reality of faith that is expressed so well by T. S. Eliot: “For us, there is only the trying./The rest is not our business.”
The fear of never having lived one’s life comes in part from the inevitability of our never having fully done so. But perhaps what we see as our life and our original calling is not a ‘thing” to be actualized. Perhaps it is always, whatever our age or physical condition, possibility. Maybe it is our pride form that makes effort dependent upon success. As I spoke with my friend last evening, I could (thanks to video chat technology) see that he looked as young as he had when we first met in our very early 30’s. With but the little rest he needed to restore his physical strength, he was ready to serve the possibility that he saw in so many of the young people he had spent the past weeks with, and he longed to discern how best to serve that possibility. For each of us, the challenge throughout life is to keep moving toward and serving the light and the love that, as Dante says, “moves the sun and the other stars,’ and so is also the possibility of our spouses and partners, our children and grandchildren, and all God’s (and our) children.
We recently read in Exodus of how Moses had to veil his face after speaking person to person with God. His radiance was too much for the people to bear. When we speak of contemplative living and action, we are not speaking of becoming ethically superior and fully actualized. Rather we are speaking of the graced capacity to recognize the radiance in others and in the world, even in all the ways it is so effectively disguised. It is not naive optimism. It knows well and lives with the limit, failure, and evil in life. Yet, it is a steadfast willingness to spend oneself as a servant of the possible, of a truth that is often, perhaps usually, veiled from our sight but that remains the truth of who we are called to be.
It is no doubt true that living in faith, hope, and love and rejecting cynicism even in the face of so much disappointment and failure is a challenge in every age. Yet, for those of us living in this time where technology’s capacity to bring the whole world into our consciousness on a daily basis seems to have outstripped our evolutionary capacity to deal with life on such a scale, the challenge can seem impossible. What Marshall McLuhan, some 50 years ago, thought would make of us a “global village” instead threatens to overwhelm us with a fearful xenophobia and a cynical self-centeredness. In our own homes, perhaps we can sense our ability to do something helpful. In the face of global poverty, uncertainty, violence, greed, and self-destructive behavior, however, the overwhelming sense is of personal impotence. It is little wonder that the most universal of reactions seem to be increased withdrawal and an inexorable erosion of empathy.
Adrian van Kaam teaches that the world or global pole of our formation field is necessarily mediated to us through the pole of our life situation, which is immediate. As formable, we are a capacity to receive and to give form. We can only give form to the world, however, through the immediate situation in which we find ourselves. To be flooded with information from all corners of the world can result in our forgetting the call to receive and give form from and to the immediate persons and situations around us. We are a capacity to hold the whole world and its possibilities in our hearts and to suffer its pain in our souls, but we are only a capacity to give form out of that hope and empathy to those who are before us. In the Roman Catholic liturgical tradition, there is a ritual performed at every Easter Vigil celebration in which the light from the pascal candle is passed from one small candle to another. In time, a church which was a darkened space becomes filled with the light from the pascal candle. As each person shares the flame from his or her candle, he or she helps to actualize the possible light of each of the persons around him or her.
My greatest fear about dying is that I might die never having lived the real life that is mine. Yet each moment of our lives affords the possibility of realizing that life, not primarily by a solipsistic effort at self-actualization but rather by serving the life as possibility of those around us. This is what our tradition calls love. As soon as his energy begins to return, my friend, as he has every decade of his life, experiences the faith, hope, and love that “compels” him to work in ever new ways to serve the possibilities of the young members of his community. There is lots of suffering and sinking into the waves involved in such a way of living. The discouragements and fears, the misunderstanding and cynicism of others are the storm winds that arise and evoke doubt and terror. Yet, to keep trying and to be willing to seek new and unknown ways of serving is living our “real life.” Our life is, as van Kaam says, “a task, an assignment, a mysterious call.” It is actualized and realized in doing what we can in service to the call of others. If, even as we are dying, we are somehow continuing to do this, we can trust, in faith, that we shall die living the life that has been given to us.
When the angel of death has gutted our spirit of all the useless rubbish we call our history (the essential core of freedom attained remaining); when all the star of our ideals with which we have presumed to adorn the heaven of our existence fade and are extinguished; when in faith and hope we have accepted the vast and silent emptiness of death as the true essence of our being; when our life up to now, however long, simply appears to us as but one brief irruption of our freedom which took place in a moment of time extended as it were under a magnifying glass, an irruption in which question turned into answer, possibility into actuality, time into eternity, Freedom offered into freedom attained; and when in a shattering shout of joy it turns out that the vast spent emptiness which we experience as death is filled with the Mystery of mysteries which we call “God,” filled with His pure light and His all-embracing and bestowing love.
And when out of this fathomless Mystery the face of Jesus, the Blessed One, appears to us and looks at us, and this concrete individual is the divine surpassing of all our correct surmises about the incomprehensibility of the fathomless Godhead—then, much as I would like to be able to describe more accurately what happens, I can only, stammering, point out how one can in anticipation await “the One who is to come” by experiencing the descent of death itself as the very ascent of what is coming. Eighty years is a long time. However, for each one the life span allotted to him is but a brief moment in which what should be becomes.
Karl Rahner, “Experiences of a Catholic Theologian,” Freiburg, February 12, 1984