Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Randy Greve, OHC
Feast of Saints Peter and Paul - Tuesday, June 29, 2021
The mystery of human life is the inescapable “both/and-ness” of our nature. It is expressed in various ways. Saint Paul, in Romans 7, laments that he cannot do what he wants and does what he does not want. The Rule of Saint Benedict inspires and motivates the monk toward the heights of moral goodness and maturity in humility while at the same time much of the text is about what to do when the inevitable faults and conflicts occur. Luther says we are simultaneously justified and sinners. One of my favorite sayings, attributed to Saint John of the Cross, is “God has so ordained things that we grow in grace only through the frail instrumentality of one another.” Therapists and spiritual directors may use language of consciousness and the unconscious to remind us that we do not know everything about ourselves and we often react out of fear to old patterns and wounds.
All these voices are saying the same thing which is that we are thrust into dealing with the discrepancy between who we want to be or think ourselves to be, and who we actually are. The tension between our justification and our sin, our vow and our imperfection, is unbearable to our egos. This is why we are so prone to repressing or projecting those rejected qualities within us we do not want to acknowledge. To just ignore our imperfection or blame someone else brings some relief, if only for a while. This splitting is tempting but goes against the deeper desire for union and wholeness. Even within our resistance to the truth, we long to be able to accept God’s acceptance of us and to know in every part of our being the healing mercy of Christ.
The witness and example of saints like the Apostles Peter and Paul is valuable in that we can watch this reality lived out. Peter and Paul, both complex, passionate, and driven men are presented to us (and in Paul’s case, his own self-description) in all their technicolor imperfection and their giftedness. The purpose of including Peter’s impulsive reactivity and then his denial of Jesus on the night of Maundy Thursday and Paul’s history of having arrested and persecuted Christians before the road to Damascus vision, is to heighten the power of God within and through these frail instruments. Peter’s call to follow Jesus does not immune him from his own fear, but takes him further into it. Paul’s Christian-hunting does not disqualify him from being an apostle, but prepares him to identify with the least and lost. These lowest points in their lives, when they know in graphic and undeniable ways their capacity to cause harm and do evil, become the entry points into lives lived in embodied witness to the reality of forgiveness.
In their respective crises, they came to the end of themselves – the end of their understanding of how the world worked, what was true, where to find purpose and meaning, how to use power – and discovered in that vulnerable place where going back is impossible and moving forward is unimaginable, the tenderness of Christ who not only was present and forgiving, but desired to send these very humbled men out into the world to proclaim the good news. We are witnesses to and participants in the kingdom of God turning the world upside down in the change of heart in both of these saints: they are delivered out of the world of strength as force and violence into the kingdom where true strength is love, power is humility. In their greatest suffering, the confrontation with their own rebellion against the love of Christ, when they may have thought of themselves as God-forsaken, rejected, abandoned, they actually meet the Christ who is patiently waiting to heal them. They could have opened to that healing before their crises. But for the stubborn and willful among us, sometimes we have to hit the weeping and blindness before we get the message.
The Lord is doing something like this when he and Peter meet on the beach after the resurrection. In four words, “Do you love me?”, Jesus acknowledges the pain and failure of his denial, offers healing, and points the way toward the rest of Peter’s life and death. In this question he is bringing Peter into the present, into the power of his choice, and into personal, intimate relationship with Jesus.
Peter and Paul shed light on the nature of our vocation to be frail instruments who are never beyond the potential to fail and continually invited to place ourselves in God’s hands. The monastic call is a call to witness with our whole lives, with all that we think and say and do, to the glory of Christ present and moving, even groaning, within us. Peter and Paul are faithful and holy martyrs in lives lived in receptivity to God’s compassion, even in death, because they knew that compassion in the humiliation and vulnerability of their sin.
As much joy and contentment as we discover in this life, each of us has had moments or periods of crisis when we wondered whether we could say “yes” to what was being asked of us by God and the community, whether this was really God’s call or what we desired. These crises are a natural part of the unmasking and offering of our false self. Within the regular routine, when it is easy for the process of conversion to idle, a crisis rattles us out of complacency and reorients us toward what is true and real in a way nothing else can. I know for me and perhaps for some of you, it was within the times of being broken open, of being stripped of our defenses and strategies for avoiding that a more authentic self has emerged. Life in God will lead us to the end of ourselves, the place we least want to go, but the place we must face if our self-gift is to be total. Our pain is not the absence of God, but the invitation into martyrdom, a life of witness to God’s beauty and glory in our own stories.