The Word Embodied
Do not be afraid of them. (Matthew 10:26)
The objects of our fears usually have names: something, some event, some person. They are the things we worry or fret over: the precious possessions we might, like Job, be divested of; the health of body that, like Job’s, could disappear; the loved ones we might lose.
We know the threats we fear. We see them in nightmares, muster our forces against them, plan our defenses and counterattacks.
Yet in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus advises us not to fear the things or people who can harm the body. God attends to the needs of the sparrow, knowing every one that drops to the ground. As for us, every hair on our head is counted. We are not to worry.
The most fearless person I have known took these words of Jesus seriously. Physical discomfort, strife, censure, disappointment, foolishness in the eyes of the world, none of these could intimidate her. Even the sight of violence, whether in ugly war or mean streets, seemed not to daunt her.
She once saw a rape in progress. She did not try to hide, did not worry or fret. She simply pulled her old Volkswagen over to the sidewalk close to the sordid scene and looked at the man—his foot on the stomach of his victim. He was frozen by her light, by her sight. He insisted that she leave, escape, mind her own business. Yet she stayed with her terrible light, her fearless gaze.
After many minutes, the rapist ran. And she, with the victim, came to me and my secure community to seek help.
This woman had no fear of those who deprive the body of life. It was only later that she would fear the enemy that can destroy the soul.
After years of courageous service and stark poverty, after enduring dangers to health and safety, she came to face a deeper darkness. It was something within, a crisis of meaning, a questioning of love itself. She wrote in the journal of her last retreat:
I felt horribly maimed inside: resigned, reduced to a very twisted, minimal sort of living, going through the motions of kindness out of habit, without hope that any kindness of mine could any longer bear real fruit.
Trying to love, because there still seemed some truth in love but mostly failing in real love for all my trying.
And all around me the relentless pressure of everyone else’s pain, making my own seem so trivial. … I come to this time in life gasping for God as if for air, needing desperately some tangible sense of God’s presence with and in me.
My life only makes sense if God is alive at the center of me.
It was only a little “shoot of hope lifting up amid the rubble” that she could mount against this enemy not of the body, but of the soul. “Although I am still afraid to trust the fragile reality of this experience, I think that God’s love is being kindled again at the core of me. Oh, may it be so.”
The last words of her journal, inspired by Archbishop Oscar Romero, spoke her desire to give that tiny bud of hope, it being all she had, to God. She took as her own the prayer of Christ who died that others might live. “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” From there she began her final, most daring journey. And she was accompanied on it.
John Kavanaugh, SJ
Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.
**From Saint Louis University