Madonna House

Fear, Faith, St. Peter, and I

by Renée Sylvain

I was asking myself what is my greatest obstacle to faith: I think the answer is fear.

I think that fear is something that operates in all of us. Jesus knew this, and when he came he said many, many times in the Gospel, “Be not afraid.”

How does fear work against faith? It stirs up a lot of distrust and doubt. And this results in a loss of relationship.

For me, it gets to the point where I can’t depend on God and I can’t depend on others. So I can only depend on myself.

For me, fear is always brought on or generated by a lie. This is what happened to Adam and Eve. The serpent showed up and said, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?

The woman said…, “God said, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden … or you will die.’”

“You will not die,” the serpent said, “for God knows that when you eat of it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:1-5).

That’s the lie: you can’t really depend on what God told you. Adam and Eve believed the lie, and they disobeyed. So for the first time, they felt fear: fear of God.

I’ve experienced that kind of struggle a lot in my own life—the struggle between believing a lie and believing in the Word of God. And fear certainly enters into that: what if what God is saying is not true?

When I act in fear, whether it’s fear of rejection or loss of approval or fear of failure, it’s because I feel I have to earn love. This is based on the lie that I’m not lovable, that I’m not worth anything, and that I have to earn love. And that God is not going to take care of me.

I’ve had people in my life who have kind of “proved” this point for me, and so I have a wound that this lie has attached itself to.

Now I want to walk a little bit with St. Peter in some moments of fear in his life and look at where I’ve seen that same thing in my own.

The first moment is when Peter was in the boat that was battling a headwind, and he saw Jesus. Peter said something that I would never dream of saying. If it’s you, tell me to come to you across the water (Mt 14:28).

And then he did! He got out of the boat, but as soon as he felt the force of the wind, he took fright and began to sink. “Lord, save me,” he cried. Jesus put out his hand at once and held him. “O you of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” (Mt 14:30-32).

Peter did have a little faith; he had enough faith to get out of a boat and enough faith that when Jesus said, “It is I,” he believed him.

But he didn’t have enough faith in the face of the wind.

I had a dream the night before I asked to become an applicant of Madonna House. I had been struggling with this decision for quite some time, and now I had made my decision. But I still had a lot of fear and doubt.

That night I dreamed that a friend of mine—he had never been a boyfriend, just a friend—had written asking me to come home and marry him.

And in my dream, I walked around with the letter and went up to different Madonna House staff workers and to fellow guests saying to each of them, “Look at this letter. Do you know what should I do?”

And I came across Jean Fox, who was the director general of women at the time, and showed her the letter. “So, what do you think?” I asked her. “I mean, Madonna House will always be here. This guy won’t. Maybe I should go home. Maybe I should go home and check this out. Right?”

She said, “That would be living in fear, wouldn’t it, dear?” Then I woke up.

It was something like 3 in the morning, and suddenly I knew that it was fear that was holding me back from peace in my decision.

I was afraid of a few things, but mostly, I was afraid of making the wrong decision.

Here was this guy wanting to marry me, and what if I joined Madonna House and in two or three years I no longer felt that this was my vocation?

What if? What if? What if? I asked so many what ifs and had so many doubts that I had lost the whole point.

The point was that I was supposed to keep looking at Jesus. What brought me back were the words from Scripture: they saw only Jesus (Mt 17:8). I asked myself, “If I saw only Jesus what would I do?” The answer was that I would join Madonna House.

The next event in Peter’s life that I want to talk about is when Jesus asked him, “Who do you say that I am?” (Mk 8:29). And he made the wonderful and true statement,“You are the Christ” [the Messiah] (Mk 8:30).

He made an act of faith; he proclaimed the truth. But when immediately after that, Jesus started to say, “Okay, I am the Christ, and I am going to be betrayed and suffer mightily, and I am going to suffer the horrible death of a criminal,” Peter said, “No, no.” He said to Christ that it can’t be like that (cf. Mk 8:31-33).

There are lots of times when I, like Peter, try to tell God that it can’t be like that—many times when I tell him how to run the world. Not in the big things; I don’t tell him what he should do about the Middle East.

No, it happens like this: I go to prayers in the morning and I pray and I make my act of faith and trust in Christ. But then, when I get to the kitchen where I work, I have a nice plan, a nice to-do list, and I find out that so and so is sick, and so and so is on a trip, and oh no, someone just spilled milk all over the cooler.

Then when I phone the farm to ask for more milk, they tell me that they don’t have any available right now because there’s something wrong with the pasteurizer.

I scream out to God (inside myself): “Father, why did you let this happen? It shouldn’t be like this. This is not how my life is supposed to be!”

At such times, am I accepting what God has given me? No. What I am feeling is fear, fear because I have lost control. Fear likes to control things, and I’m not trusting that God has a plan, that he wants to work through the spilled milk in the cooler.

Another time in Peter’s life that speaks to me is that night when Jesus was brought before the Sanhedrin, and people were saying to Peter, “You are one of them” (cf. Mt 26: 69-73) and he denied any knowledge of Christ.

There are times when I, like Peter, turn from the Lord because of fear. But I think the bigger message is that though Peter was a man of little faith at that point, still he did have some faith. Even though he was afraid, he didn’t despair like Judas.

There are times when I have been faced with a choice: Am I going to be Peter, or am I going to be Judas?

At one point when I was a teenager, I committed a sin that I decided was the ultimate sin. There was no coming back from this, I thought; there would be no forgiveness. Basically I decided that I could continue to go to church, but I could never be forgiven.

My heart became a stone in my belly. Even though I didn’t commit suicide like Judas, there was a way in which I just died.

Somehow Peter knew something about Jesus that Judas didn’t. He knew that there was some hope, that there was a glimmer even in all that darkness. He cried bitter tears, but he didn’t despair.

And thanks be to God, I, too, came to this. God put in my path some friends who showed me that mercy is real. All I could see was justice, but they convinced me that mercy was real and very available. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here.

But all of this was not the end of the story for Peter—or for me.

At Pentecost, Peter received the Holy Spirit. Now he was willing to stand up in any crowd.

Forget three lowly servants around a fire in the dark. Now he stood in front of a crowd and proclaimed in broad daylight, “God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). This statement could have cost him his life.

He was also bold in terms of reaching out and healing, and he was at peace doing so.

Peace came to him, and it is this peace that, when it comes into my heart, reminds me that my faith and my relationship with Jesus are gifts. They aren’t my work.

I have to choose to be open and to consciously choose faith when I have doubts, but it is the power of the Holy Spirit in my life, not mine, that brings my faith alive and enables it to be active. And it is that power that can conquer my fear and transform my life.

to be continued

Excerpted from Lubov, (1985), p. 67, Living Flame Press, out of print.