Fear, Joy, and Peace: Encountering and Turning Towards God
Today is Easter Sunday, and my first full day of being Catholic. At the Easter Vigil last night, I received the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist. Looking back on last night and the previous days, weeks, months, and years of my own faith formation, I can recall a wide range of emotions along the way. As my own relationship with God has unfolded, I have felt so much gratitude, both towards God and towards my beloved family, friends, and mentors who have offered me so much guidance and patient support. I felt humility before the outpourings of love from my loved ones and God, and of course I have also felt joy, sorrow, regret, and peace.
One particular emotion that seems to stand out is fear. For those fortunate enough to have been baptized into the church at a young age, it may be difficult to imagine the fear that accompanies joining the Catholic Church as an adult (or just a large child, in my case).
From an objective standpoint, fear is a strange thing to feel. Many people fear death or retribution or aggressive geese. Why would somebody fear life in God, forgiveness of sins, and boundless compassion? Why would somebody fear freedom from sin and worldly desires, the peace of God and knowing that death has been conquered? Like all great writers, allow me to defer to someone else. Specifically, the scriptures.
We find that in the Bible, fear is indeed a very real, natural, and common response to an encounter with the divine. When Joshua is commissioned by the Lord to engage in his military campaign to take the land of Canaan, a land with hostile nations with military superiority, he must have been terrified. And yet, we find that God is continually encouraging Joshua, imploring him to “be strong and courageous, [to] not fear and [to] not be dismayed” (Joshua 1:6-7, 9 NRSV). When Manoah and his wife, parents of Samson, discover that the man they were speaking with was actually an Angel, they “fell on their faces on the ground” (Judges 13:20). We find that when Daniel encountered Gabriel, the people around him were so terrified that they ran away, hiding themselves. Daniel “grew deathly pale, and [he] retained no strength” (Daniel 4:9). And truly, when the Angel arrives in Matthew 28 to announce the news, the wondrous, glorious, incredible news of Christ rising, the guards are knocked out cold and his first words to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary are “Do not be afraid” (Matthew 28:5).
When we encounter the Divine, or rather when the Divine encounters us, it can be a frightening experience. Indeed, many things involved with following Christ are quite terrifying. Being baptized into Jesus’ death, to give up financial security, and to live a life in which we are called to suffer and die if need be are all fairly daunting prospects.
I can say with confidence that I had my fair share of fears and anxieties when first approaching God, an experience I am sure many coverts also share. At one point in my life, Catholic Mass was a foreign and inaccessible mystery. Nobody ever explains what to do, or what one is allowed to do. Is sitting during the Eucharist considered disrespectful? Can I touch the holy water? Do I say the creed? Mass was an uncomfortable experience in which I felt like an outsider, in fear of being judged or being wrong or being disrespectful. How could this strange place ever feel like home?
By the Grace of God.
Jesus promised His apostles to make them fishers of men, which I supposed would make me an exceptionally stubborn tuna. Somewhere along the line God saw fit to plant in my heart the desire for Him, and in gentleness and kindness He pulled me towards His Church.
I was on a silent retreat once, hoping that my restless heart would find God to rest in. The retreat was called Manresa and to this day I owe a heartfelt thank you to the incredible ministers who helped put together that retreat, for it was through them that God created the conditions to move my heart. I’ve always been ambitious and productive when I had limited internet access, so I expected and planned for this to be a fulfilling, prayerful, and productive six day. I had books, bibles, a journal, and a sturdy pair of waterproof boots to go for long, rainy walks.
One morning, I sat at breakfast with a cup of coffee and a book, attempting to plan my day and create a mental checklist. Would I be able to finish The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything today, or should I start Tattoos on the Heart? Maybe I should pick up a poetry book, or just journal. Could I do that outside, or would I have to find a corner in the retreat center? Do I really need to shower today? Do the Celtics play tonight? I began to trail off mentally, which should surprise nobody, and was staring absent-mindedly at the wisps of steam dancing off my coffee.
In that moment, a very clear voice cut through my anxieties, expectations, and mental franticness. “Relax. I’m glad you’re here. Have some coffee.”
God’s voice was one of welcome, comfort, and kindness. I was humbled and surprised by the experience, and thoroughly amazed at the sense of peace I felt afterwards. For a brief moment, my heart was able to rest.
Attending a Catholic Mass can be scary. It can be confusing and crowded and if you have clammy hands and a voice prone to cracking line mine, the sign of peace can be a nightmare. Your brain may run a hundred miles an hour as you try to keep up with the singing, the reading, and the responses, and you may feel like a benched player in your middle school basketball league when you do not go and receive the Eucharist. But it doesn’t matter. I learned that God, eternal, living and boundless in love, yearns for you and I, clammy hands and all, to join his body.
In God’s love, fear falls away. The fear that I felt was real, but it melted to nothingness like spring frosts before God’s warmth. As I stood before the congregation of St. Clement’s Church last night, I felt many, many emotions. I felt humility before God and the wonderful community that welcomed me so warmly, as well as a deep, deep gratitude for my dear loved ones in whom I have seen the love of God reflected quite profoundly. I felt gratitude to God for calling me, and for blessing me with the grace and will to respond to His call, a grace I did nothing to deserve.
At the beginning of the vigil, I felt fear. This fear became nervousness and then jitteriness as I approached the Baptismal font. A switch turned, and as I watched Father Ken sneak off to the side, hike up his robes and pull up his pant legs high around his thighs and take his shoes off, nervousness was replaced by laughter, then joy. This briefly became fear again when we learned that he would be dumping not one, but three pitchers of water on us, and when we saw how large the pitchers were. The joy that I was blessed with was accompanied by a gentle, engulfing wave of peace that washed over me during confirmation, and for the rest of the vigil, my restless heart found peace in God.
For anybody reading this being drawn to the Church and to union with God, and for anybody who can relate to my own fears, I will tell you the following with full confidence: God longs for you to be there. You have nothing to fear, because Christ yearns for you and to be there with him more than we can even fathom. Rest and trust in God, and know that you are welcomed with open arms and fullness of heart by everyone in the community (which I can now say I am part of!). Take a deep breath, relax, and simply be. God will take care of the rest.
Happy Easter, and God bless you.