Tuesday, February 08, 2011

THE MIRACLE OF LOVE - SAINT PETER AND THE HOUND OF HEAVEN

SAINT PETER


This post had an unusual origin but I believe it will be useful, perhaps to a particular person I shall never meet.
Saint Peter is of particular importance in the long history of the Church. We know a reasonable amount about him. He came from Capharnaum where he lived with his wife and mother-in-law. He was a fisherman together with his brother Andrew, and it seems they had more than one boat , so they may have been significant among the local fishermen. Fishermen are proverbially rough and tumble folk , hardy and hard living. So it might seem surprising that Jesus chose Simon Bar-Jonah - for that was then his name, to be an Apostle.Jesus knew all about Simon of course, but Simon did not yet know that.
 Such was the power of God's grace at work, that when Jesus bade Simon and Andrew to "Come follow Me, and I will make you Fishers of men", they dropped their nets and followed Him. In those earliest days their following of the Master was evidently not full time. For a day or so later , we find the two have been fishing when Jesus comes to them and bids them to push out into the deep , and put down their nets for a catch. Here, the Fisherman in Peter comes out fully and he tells Jesus they have been out all night and caught nothing, but, God's grace gets the better of the Fisherman, and because it is Jesus who makes the request, Simon will do it.
And what a catch it is! The nets are full to breaking!
Simon is no fool- he knows that what he is seeing is supernatural and that Jesus is the Person responsible for it. He still does not understand that Jesus knows everything. He kneels before Our Lord and begs Him in great humility :"Depart from me, for I am a sinful man O Lord".
Centuries later , the poet Francis Thompson ( 1859-1907),  because of the misguided medical practice of his day, became addicted to the tincture of Opium, called Laudanum , then very widely used for the relief of pain. Thompson was a devout man , and haunted by his addiction, which after repeated relapses killed him. He was always conscious of God's love and of God's pursuit of him no matter how seriously he fell. He wrote the marvellous, harrowing poem "The Hound of Heaven" to describe the unremitting character of God's love for him, even when -  in the grip of his addiction - he was rejecting it. He wrote of the Hound of Heaven pursuing him "down the labyrinthine ways". He was aware that this loving pursuit was part of a process , and cried out in anguish "Must Thou char the wood, ere'st Thou can limn with it?"

Saint Peter was at the beginning of the discovery of the constant faithfulness of God's Love, at the beginning of being "charred"that the Lord might "limn"with him.

We know even more about Saint Peter, for his personality radiates strongly from the Gospels and his Epistles. Saint Peter is seen to be a man of burning enthusiasms which cause him to often commit himself beyond the strength of his will or common prudence.He is a spontaneous, big hearted man .He means well but often stumbles. Jesus in due course let Peter know that He had him summed up all along. For He said to him "Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not,: and thou being once converted confirm thy brethren."

This was a remarkable Revelation of the Life of the  Trinity in effect, but Simon's personality has no time for reflection on Divine wonders : his gratitude and enthusiasm wells up and he positively gushes : "Lord, I am ready to go with Thee, both into prison, and to death." We will return to this exchange in due course - but for the moment it clearly reveals the generous, well intentioned  character of Saint Peter.

Earlier on , Our Lord had given Simon Bar - Jonah  a new name - the beginning of the ancient tradition of adopting "names in religion" - e.g. Brother Albanus, Sister Austin, Father Antonio and Pope Pius XI. In many areas this custom begun by Our Lord has been abandoned by those who say"I gotta be ME". Be that as it may, Our Lord gave Simon the name "Cephas"( in Greek) that is "Petrus"(in Latin) and "Peter"(in English).
The word means "Rock" and Our Lord went on to say "And upon this Rock , I will build My Church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it."

There are two times in the Gospels when it seems to me anyway, we can, between the lines see a loving affectionate smile likely on Our Lord's face. One is when the rather short, rich publican Zaccheus clambers up into a sycamore tree in his enthusiasm to see the Lord. He must have looked ridiculous, short, rich , no doubt overweight hanging up there in a tree like some street urchin. And Jesus bids him by name to come down quickly "for this day I must abide in thy house". Each time I read it I cannot avoid the thought that Our Lord was gently, kindly looking upon this man who was in haste and desperation to know Him. Similarly, Our Lord chose the name "Rock"for Simon to reflect the historic role this improbable man was to have in the history of the world. Yet, knowing Simon as the Sacred Scripture presents him to us, warts and all, is there anyone who could be in essence less like a "Rock"? Solid, reliable - that is not the Simon we come to know. But Jesus knows EVERYTHING about Simon Peter and knows all his weakness, and He also knows what he can become with the Holy Spirit's help. Jesus loves Simon Peter, he loves that big-heartedness, that generosity of spirit, and even that weakness that brings all the positives so often undone.It is hard to resist the thought that there was a certain gentle, loving irony in Our Lord's choice of "Rock"for His very wobbly Apostle.

Time and again we see Saint Peter revealed in  various situations, acting in the same way. On the Lake the Apostles  see the a figure walking on the water as they fear their boat will sink in the storm. "Be of good heart : it is I, fear not"Jesus says. Peter as usual in moments of stress or trouble is the one to speak up :"Lord, if it be Thou, bid me come to Thee upon the waters."

Now, a more natural response would have been " Lord , come here and save us ". But Peter was no doubt inspired to say what he did in order that a salutary lesson could be taught.Jesus simply answered "Come"" and that was enough for Peter, over the side he went and began to walk on the water toward Jesus! His Faith drove him. But, what was this? The wind was howling in his face and the sea was lashing him and :"seeing the wind strong, he was afraid: and when he began to sink he cried out saying : "Lord save me".And immediately Jesus stretching forth His hand took hold of him , and said to him : "O thou of little faith, why didst thou doubt?"The lesson is plain for the Church and for all of us, our Faith must be strong and constant in good times and in the face of horrendous opposition, and Our Loving Lord will always see us through!

Still later, very late in the day , as Our Lord , in the Upper Room, goes to wash the feet of Peter, we see typical Peter - he has looked askance as Jesus  washed the feet of the others - this is not fitting he thinks, and he  cannot stop himself saying "Lord, doest Thou wash my feet?"  Unworthy me - and you the Christ - the Son of the Living God! But Jesus answers simply : "What I do thou knowest not now;  but thou shalt know hereafter."Peter is determined and emphatic : "Thou shalt never wash my feet."

Jesus is calm , but resolute : "If I wash thee not, thou shalt have no part with Me." The response is typically Peter - the big heart, the great enthusiasm : "Lord, not only my feet, but also my hands and my head". Jesus answers him gently, correctingly, as one might speak to an excitable child: "He that is washed, needeth not but to wash his feet, but is clean wholly. And you are clean, but not all of you."( The discourse goes on to deal with Judas Iscariot.)

Later in the evening, in the Garden of Gethsemane, when the Temple police/soldiers come to arrest the Lord, and they move to lay hands upon him, Peter - ever excitable- forgets Jesus' foretelling that He must suffer, and whipping out a sword lashes out and cuts off the ear of one of the Temple police. Instantly Jesus commands him to put up his sword and heals the man's ear. Peter is slow to learn , but very quick to act and talk. Earlier he had, as we know assured Our Lord that he would gladly go to prison or to death with Jesus. And the Lord had promised him that before the cock crowed Peter would deny Him three times - not once, but - systematically - three times.

So it happens ,in the outer courts of the High Priest's home, whilst the Lord of the World is being questioned and insulted by the proud High Priests who had bought their offices from the Roman conquerors, and assaulted by their crude troops, Peter is hovering safely outside hoping to hear what happens. Not so safely, as it transpires. For three time in succession he is challenged as a follower of Jesus by common servants of the household.The cock indeed crows and as the Lord is being led out . He is to be imprisoned for a few hours until they can hurry Him as early as possible on Friday before the Roman Procurator Pontius Pilate. The Gospel is dramatically sparse in recording the scene. Here is Peter, still in the panicky flush of his third denial of Christ - Jesus is led out past him, and Peter sees his sorry, bloodied condition and the rough handling He is receiving. He is stricken and sick with guilt. And Jesus... and Jesus.. the Gospel tells us simply two words : "Conversus Dominus". The Lord turned and looked at Peter. No words of reproof, no accusation, no correction. The Anointed One - the Christ -  simply, sadly looked at Peter. And Peter, we are told, burst into bitter and uncontrolled tears. Tears which were to recur and recur as the years passed and he absorbed the horror of what he had done. Tradition has it that his tears created great furrows down his face.

SAINT PETER - El Greco 
Time passed, the Resurrection, the Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and Peter is transformed - there he is , the Leader preaching to and converting thousands, speaking out boldly in front of the Temple authorities and defying their strictures not to preach about Christ.He is transformed - largely - but still human. When there are no Jews around Peter rightly ignores the now displaced old Law dietary restrictions. But when some Jews come to town, rather than risk a confrontation with them, Peter conforms to those dietary restictions. Saint Paul , not without his own human weaknesses , as he tells us elsewhere,and we see for ourselves, will have none of this and confronts Peter on the point and wins the day. A little glimpse of the old weak willed Peter had been seen and put down.

Peter is now no longer a young man. This work of evangelisation had obviously not come easily to someone who had known nothing but catching fish. But he had walked with Jesus Christ and learned from Him and he had received the Holy Spirit, and years on the Mission had made the most of him, from Capharnaum to Jerusalem, to Antioch and finally to Rome the home of the Beast the monstrous pagan Empire. Now as an old man, he works on in the heart of the Evil Empire when persecution breaks out. It seems that the whole future of the Church ( Christ's promise to be with her always forgotten perhaps) is at risk. It is decided that Saint Peter and numbers of the didciples should save themselves by escaping the City. Out they tramp along the Appian Way, until Saint Peter meets, he meets Jesus Himself carrying His Cross in the opposit direction! Peter cries out to Him "Quo Vadis , Domine?" "Where are you going Lord?"

The answer is concise "Iterum Romam Crucifigi!' "I am going to Rome to be crucified again!" Saint Peter, even in his old age is still being pursued and humiliated by his failings. He turns about and returns to Rome against all human wisdom. Here traditionally. he was martyred on the very same day as Saint Paul. Paul a Roman Citizen - that proudest boast of the ancient world - had the "privilege"of being beheaded. But this Jewish Fisherman Peter is to be Crucified as befits aliens. But now he has courage in word and in deed : he asks that he be crucified upside down, saying he is not worthy to be crucified as was Jesus Christ. And so it happened on the Circus of Nero across the road from the Vatican Hill and he was taken across that road for burial in the cemetery there which can now be seen in the Scavi or Excavations under Saint Peter's Basilica.
Crucifixion of SAINT PETER - Carravagio

The Hound of Heaven , the Love of God , had pursued Peter across the Roman world and won the conclusive victory at what is now the Heart of Christ's Church. The lesson is immense for all of us, God's Love for us is relentless and ardent. No matter what our weaknesses, no matter how often we stumble, God loves us and pursues us for our salvation .The Miracle of Love - how could we fail to respond?

TONY DIXON 

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