I write this on the last evening of my annual retreat. You never quite know what God will propose when you head off to spend a week together… As it turned out this year, I ended up spending an interesting and inspiring week with St. Peter (and Jesus, of course!). Peter has always been a favorite of mine, anyway. And we actually have a lot of information about him in the New Testament – certainly more than we do about Mary, the mother of Jesus, for instance.
I suppose part of Peter’s appeal for me has to do with his modest origins as a fisherman. Being the son of a factory worker myself, I guess I regard Peter as a fellow “straddler” – that is, someone whose social class was effectively changed by his education (in his case, at the feet of Jesus). After all, it wasn’t every fisherman from the Sea of Galilee who ended up as a pope! And as far as I know, I’m the only son of a factory worker from Utica, NY who has ended up as a seminary/college professor, and eventually, as pastor of the oldest Catholic parish in the city of Philadelphia…
So what did I learn from Peter this week? First off, it seems clear to me that what caught Jesus’ eye about Peter was his great heart. Granted, in the scriptures Peter is often impulsive – like Ignatius Loyola centuries later, Peter only learned deliberation and discernment very slowly and gradually. He is also not a sweet talker – Peter is apt to blurt out his thoughts and feelings raw and uncensored. But oh, what a heart – full of courage, generous, ready to commit a hundred-and-ten percent! I hope my own verbal utterances are a little more careful and polished than Peter’s sometimes seems to be; but I like, in my daydreams, to fancy that I do share with him that large and loving heart.
Another place where I really connect with Peter is in his messiness, his humanity. The man is an amazing confessor and repenter, for instance. When confronted at his call (Luke 5) with a miraculous catch of fish, he spontaneously drops to his knees and cries to Jesus, “Leave me, Lord! I’m a sinful man!” Jesus doesn’t respond directly, of course; he just coolly says: “Come follow me and I’ll show you how to catch people!” What I imagine and hope Jesus is thinking to himself, however, is “Yes, I know you are weak and sinful; and the fact that you know it and own it so readily is exactly what makes you my guy…”
What do I admire in Peter that I would like more of for myself? He’s an action guy. Give him something to do, preferably with his hands or his body, and he is happy. “Distribute those loaves and fishes?” “Yes sir, Jesus, no problem. I’ve got it.” Or “Hey, it looks like Moses and Elijah have just appeared, and they’re chatting with you, Jesus, and all three of you are glowing like a halogen lamp. And by the way, I have no idea what’s happening, and I’m scared out of my mind! So… What if I built three tents for you guys, so you have somewhere comfortable to hang?”
You see, unlike Peter, I’m a words guy, and something of a “head case.” I think, I ponder, I deliberate, I discern… I imagine… Not that there’s anything wrong with any of that. It’s just that there are times when it would be helpful if I could get to the deciding and acting parts sooner… So I watched Peter closely in my prayer all week, to see what I might learn along those lines. And I asked him to intercede for me with our mutual friend and companion, Jesus, to move me along in that direction. After all, in the end, it’s all grace anyway. All is gift…
But far and away the most astonishing Peter – at least for me this week – is the post-Pentecost Peter of the book of Acts. Jesus has ascended to his Father’s right hand, and has poured out the Spirit on his fledgling church; and now, for better or for worse, Peter is left as the “head fella.” And boy, just look at him go, running on pure Spirit power! The awkward and plain-spoken fisherman becomes an eloquent preacher whose words convert thousands! The “sinful man” is now a ready instrument of God’s healing power – and even his shadow is known to restore people to health!
And having experienced his Lord and Master as risen from the dead and transformed – Peter becomes utterly fearless! The man who denied his friend Jesus three times out of fear now looks religious officials squarely in the eye and says, “Sorry, but I have to take my orders from God, not from you…” When he is imprisoned and flogged, he now rejoices at the “honor of suffering humiliation for the sake of the Name”! And that, brothers and sisters, is what I call freedom!
Of course, even as I asked Peter in my prayer where that sort of courage and freedom come from, I already knew his answer. They come from the Giver of All Good Gifts. They come from spending quality time with Jesus as a friend and companion – and from experiencing first hand that he is alive and at work. That’s why we need to pray daily. And it’s why those of us who are able to afford the luxury choose to make a week-long retreat every year. I hope that the fruits of my week with Peter will be evident in my dealings with others, at least for a little while. So pray for me that I have the good sense – and the hungry need – to keep on meeting the Lord Jesus (and Peter) in prayer…
©2012 Fr. Daniel M. Ruff, S.J.