“I was in my thirteenth year when God sent a voice to guide me. At first, I was very much frightened. The voice came towards the hour of noon, in summer, in my father’s garden.”
According to The Encarta Book of Quotations, this quote comes from St. Joan of Arc. She reportedly spoke those words at her trial.
It is encouraging to read that St. Joan felt fear; people tend to paint her as fearless. After all, this is the young woman commonly quoted as saying, “I am not afraid… I was born to do this.” She gives me hope that I will have the courage to serve God despite my cowardice.
As I have written earlier, I tend to contemplate how quickly my life has passed. A recent birthday put me into another decade. As the youngest of my siblings, and also younger than my husband, age never bothered me before. This year, though, there is no denying that I am no longer young. I am certain I have fewer years ahead of me now than behind me.
I often lament that time passes too quickly and ask what I have contributed. Like all of us, I am sure I served God well in specific moments but totally missed (or refused) His call at other times. Looking back only does me good if I learn from it. It is much more effective to consider my future and how to grow in holiness.
We think of vocations as something for young people. By my age, we are supposed to know what we are going to be when we grow up, and how God is calling us to serve. Yet as we change and as the world changes, God may ask more of us.
Christians often share stories of how they heard God’s call. Often they tell of a desire to do something, with the assumption that the desire was God’s leading. I do not deny that God works in that way. It must be difficult, though, to discern whether that desire is God’s leading or your own. After all, does He need to call us to do something we would do anyway?
Scripture shows us something else. There we see that when God calls, He asks us to do something difficult, something we have no desire to do. Some biblical greats even ran away from God.
Recently, my husband and I were watching a movie about the prophet Jeremiah. I noticed that when God spoke to him, his first response was not “Speak, for your servant is listening” (1 Samual 3:10, NABRE). Instead, he said, “I do not know how to speak. I am too young!” (Jeremiah 1:6, NABRE).
God’s response was not something I would consider comforting. He said
“Do not say, “I am too young.”
To whomever I send you, you shall go;
whatever I command you, you shall speak.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you—oracle of the Lord.” (Jeremiah 1: 7-8, NABRE)
If God tells you to “not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you”, there must be something to be afraid of and something to be delivered from. The rest of Jeremiah’s story shows that, indeed, obeying the command of God can lead to a fearful life.
In Jeremiah 1: 16, 17 (NABRE) God says this:
“I will pronounce my sentence against them
for all their wickedness in forsaking me,
In burning incense to other gods,
in bowing down to the works of their hands.
But you, prepare yourself;
stand up and tell them
all that I command you.
Do not be terrified on account of them,
or I will terrify you before them;
Prepare yourself and do not be terrified. If God ever says this to me, my likely response back would be something like “But your words, Lord, strike fear in my heart.”
Ultimately, Jeremiah suffers much persecution for obeying God’s commands. If you have not read his story, you should. Jeremiah 20:7-18 (NABRE) is especially moving. Jeremiah starts with this, in verses 7 and 8:
You seduced me, Lord, and I let myself be seduced;
you were too strong for me, and you prevailed.
All day long I am an object of laughter;
everyone mocks me.
Whenever I speak, I must cry out,
violence and outrage I proclaim;
The word of the Lord has brought me
reproach and derision all day long.
In later verses, Jeremiah will speak of God’s greatness, and in verse 13 adds “Sing to the Lord, praise the Lord, For he has rescued the life of the poor from the power of the evildoers!” Yet immediately after that, in verses 14 and 15, he laments:
“Cursed be the day
on which I was born!
May the day my mother gave me birth
never be blessed!
Cursed be the one who brought the news
to my father,
“A child, a son, has been born to you!”
filling him with great joy.
Given all of this, it is a mistake to follow Christ as a means to a happier life in this world. In fact, it can be scary to think about what it may cost to be a disciple. The only reason to be His follower is out of love, and because we recognize that He is God.
As I consider what Jesus might desire in my later years, I am reminded of His words to Peter in John 21:18-19 (NABRE):
Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me.”
It is interesting that these words come right after Jesus three times asked Peter if he loved Him. Then, after telling Peter what will happen to him, Jesus adds the invitation, “Follow me.” This tells us what to expect as His disciples.
We all know the end to that story. St. Peter heard Jesus’ words and instead of turning back, he stayed with Jesus. Ultimately it cost him his earthly life. In fact, eleven of the twelve apostles were martyrs.
This makes me ask, do I have enough courage to follow God?
It is helpful to remember that Peter experienced fear, too. This is the man who stated he would die for Jesus, and hours later denied Him three times. If Peter could deny Jesus, yet later develop the courage to do as God asked, maybe one day I can also become brave.
An internet meme I recently saw begins by saying Jesus never requested anyone to form a church or ordain priests. It follows with several other items Jesus supposedly never asked. In the end, it says that Jesus’ two greatest requests were to “love one another as I have loved you” and to share bread and wine together.
I do not even know where to begin. Ignoring the first part, I could not help but notice that when Jesus talks about loving one another, He does not word it as a request. He specifically calls it a command. Then there is the second part of that sentence, “As I have loved you.” Jesus loved us enough to die a painful, humiliating death for us. Loving as Jesus loves does not just involve some warm, fuzzy feeling.
Somebody reading that meme commented that Jesus asks so little of us. Scripture would indicate otherwise. Jesus asked us to take up our crosses and follow Him. He made it clear where following Him can lead. Prior to that, the lives of Jeremiah and other prophets show us that obedience to God can come at a cost. If you are looking for a God who would ask little, you will not find Him in Jesus.
Aging has displayed my flaws to me. Among them is the knowledge that I do not handle suffering well. Most of us suffer more as we get older. I often wonder what I will endure one day and if it will turn me from God. Then I look at Peter and take heart.
Peter knew Jesus on a very personal level. Despite denying Jesus, Peter developed the strength to follow Him, even after being warned where it would lead. Earlier in the story from John that I quoted above, Peter and some others were fishing during the night. At dawn, they saw Jesus on shore but did not recognize Him. After Jesus told them to cast their nets again, this happened:
So the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord.” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tucked in his garment, for he was lightly clad, and jumped into the sea. (John 21: 7, NABRE).
Simon Peter loved Jesus so much he could not wait to get to Him. I cannot help but think this love is what gave Peter the courage to follow Him for the rest of his life, even knowing what was ahead.
Right now I do not know if God has plans that would be difficult for me, but it seems that to follow Jesus always involves hardship. Where will I get the courage if times get rough? I have heard it said that God gives us the strength we need, but I also know that Peter denied Jesus.
Yet in the end, Peter found his strength, and his courage. Maybe that look that the Lord gave him after his denial seared Peter’s memory and heart in such a way that it permanently changed him.
In a recent homily, a priest said this:
Now, here’s my question. How did the story of Peter’s denial get preserved? The other disciples weren’t there, remember; surveillance cameras hadn’t yet been invented. The whole thing could easily have been suppressed. Why wasn’t this shameful tale of lying and cowardice at the heart of the Gospel suffocated in its crib? The answer seems obvious: because someone wanted it remembered. And about the only “someone” I can come up with whom it might have been is Peter himself. Without the story of his collapse, there’d be no depth to the account of his rehabilitation … and we would miss the breadth and depth of Easter.
I am grateful that this story is preserved. People like me can take heart. Next time I wonder if I can change, I need only remember that the apostle Peter, who denied Christ three times, is now referred to as St. Peter. I believe it is his great love for Jesus that gave him courage. He loved Jesus because he knew Him. Through scripture, prayer, and the sacraments, it is not too late for me to also develop a closer relationship and grow in holiness and courage. We were all born to do this.