“I am convinced of one thing: the great changes in history were realized when reality was seen not from the center but rather from the periphery. It is a hermeneutical question: reality is understood only if it is looked at from the periphery, and not when our viewpoint is equidistant from everything.”
– Pope Francis (in “Wake Up the World! Conversations with Pope Francis about the Religious Life.” An interview with Antonio Spadaro, SJ in La Civilta Catolica 2014 I 3-17)
At masses around the world will be celebrated today the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, companions and spiritual brothers. In fact these two are often called the founding pillars of the Church. In this brotherly dyad Peter is regularly read as the rock, the steady one at the center, the leader of the Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem and Antioch and Rome. And Paul, then, is the one sent to the margins, the peripheries, to bring good news to the gentiles in Galatia and Athens and Thessalonica.
But just like most brothers – and just as other passages from both the book of Acts and another of Paul’s letter (to the Galatians) tell us – they also ran headlong into conflict with one another. Take Galatians 2:11-12 for example. There Paul writes, “and when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he clearly was wrong.” There it is, plain as day. Conflict between the saints we celebrate on a single day. Even more, this wasn’t the first time Peter had been called to conversion.
We see another example of Peter’s need for a change of mind and heart immediately after the close of the Gospel we just heard. Peter, in what must have been one of those rare moments of being fully absorbed by the Holy Spirit, has just named Jesus “the Christ, the son of the living God.” And Jesus, always breathing deeply of that same Spirit, has in turn bestowed a name upon Simon son of Jonah: “You are Peter,” he said, “and upon this rock I will build my Church” (Mt 16:18).
And then five verses later (Mt 16:23) Jesus calls Simon not Peter, the rock, but “Satan,” the tempter. What happened in the thin gap between those two names?
What happened is well described in a homily given on this same feast day two years ago by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. There he talked about the difference as a spiritual one, saying:
“The acknowledgment of Jesus’ identity made by Simon in the name of the Twelve did not come ‘through flesh and blood’, that is, through his human capacities, but through a particular revelation from God the Father. By contrast, immediately afterwards, as Jesus foretells his passion, death and resurrection, Simon Peter reacts on the basis of ‘flesh and blood’…The disciple who, through God’s gift, was able to become a solid rock, here shows himself for what he is in his human weakness: a stone along the path, a stone on which men can stumble – in Greek, skandalon. Here we see the tension that exists between the gift that comes from the Lord and human capacities.”
Peter, so says Benedict, names Jesus the Christ in particular revelation, that is, while living close to God, while feeling the Spirit move through him. In that moment Simon truly was Peter, he was a rock because he was the one who had shown the ability to trust that what he had experienced in Jesus was true, that the living God was a God of mercy, a God who looked and acted like Jesus. And then, five verses later, he falls back into fear and so tries to prevent the one in whom he has experienced the living God from continuing to listen to that God. It is this attempt to prevent Jesus from being himself, and from accepting the consequences of being himself, that turns the rock into a tempter.
If we are honest we all know this experience of falling into fear, of turning from a rock into a tempter. It is the experience of – for a moment – being caught up in the holiness of God, of being able to breathe deeply and freely and of living for that moment tenderly toward those we love and ourselves… and then having it slip away. We know the hollow sadness of having been full to the brim… and then exhaling, expelling that tender Spirit. We know what it is to have chosen to create that empty prison, that lack.
But our readings on this feast day today will not allow us to wallow in such an empty hollow. No. In fact we are explicitly shown the path to freedom in our first reading, in which Peter escapes from prison.
If we look to this jailbreak for tools that can help our own we find ourselves well rewarded, because there is a spiritual pattern in the interaction between Peter and the angel. We can see it by looking this way: three times the angel speaks to Peter, saying: get up, get ready; follow me. And three times Peter responds readily: the chains fall from his wrists, he readies himself; he follows. This is what we too are called to do when we have fallen back into the prison of fear, we are to get up, get ready, and then follow the Spirit who wants to free us.
Notice one other thing before we move on from this reading, that Peter does all this without quite “realizing that what was happening… was real,” without first grasping what it is that he is doing. That is, Peter first trusts the familiar voice of the good spirit – the same voice of mercy he breathed in and which allowed him to call Jesus the Christ. He first trusts, and only later “recovers his senses.” A path out of prison and back to the living God is opened up for Peter not by plotting his escape on his own, or by asking where he was being led before following, but by trusting the angel of the Lord.
It’s not only Peter who knew this experience; St. Ignatius did as well. Ignatius’s own experience of following the Spirit was once described by an early Jesuit this way:
“Ignatius was following the spirit, he was not running ahead of it. And yet he was being led gently, whither he did not know. He was not intending at that time to found the [Society of Jesus]. Little by little though, the road was opening up before him and he was moving along it, wisely ignorant, with his heart placed very simply in Christ” (Jerome Nadal, Dialogi 17, FN II, 252).
Wisely ignorant. Following the voice of freedom and mercy before we know where it is leading. Ignatius did this. Peter did this. So ought we to do this.
What is it like when we do this, when we follow the Spirit? Just like for Peter, it feels like a jailbreak. It feels like being set free.
A final point (written because I feel a loose thread in myself if for no other reason) about how we can know we are following the living God and not being misled by ourselves or the enemy of our human nature. It is a point that comes from our second reading.
How will we know we have followed the good spirit? Yes, by the example of Peter, from remembering the sound of that voice. But also we will know that we have followed the good angel if we end up in the same place as Paul.
That is, if we are able to look back at what we have done, at the path down which we have been led, and say: “following this voice has meant pouring out my whole life in the service of God, of the poor, of the marginalized. It has led me to stand at the periphery and look at reality from there. It has cost me, and called me to give more of myself than I thought possible, to be emptied completely – yet not left feeling hollow.”
This where angel that frees us from prison leads, to a self-emptying that rescues us “from the lion’s mouth” and bring us “safe to the heavenly kingdom.”
This is how we know that we lived like Peter, that our lives look like Paul’s.
Saints Peter and Paul, pray for us.