There was, in the Holy Land 2000 years ago, a chasm out of which the river Jordan ran, and which was widely known as a gate to the underworld.
Legend holds that here was a “cavern measureless to man,” worthy of the imagination of Coleridge, and that the natives of that part of the world had never been able to plumb its depths.
Among the pagans, this was considered a holy place, ideal for the worship of Baal and Pan. It was here, before this chasm, in the district of Caesarea Philippi, that Christ gave to Simon the name of Peter, and declared that the gates of hell should never prevail against his Church.
Most Christians today seem to imagine the Church as a sort of fortified garrison on the hill, like Minas Tirith surrounded by the black horde of orcs. A refuge, where we may all put on the armor of God and cower in the pews, secure in the knowledge that Satan will never get in. There is one small difficulty with this image: A gate is not an offensive weapon.
The idea is not that Satan will never be able to get past the gates of the Church and prevail against the Bride of Christ in her sanctuary. What ridiculous nonsense. The idea is that Christians may march out against the greatest strongholds of the evil one, and bring the legions of hell to their knees.
Martyrdom is always a possibility, of course. It was a possibility that the earliest Christians faced with faith and courage, and it was through that courage that they were able to convert their own culture of death — the Rome of Tiberius, Caligula and Nero — into the greatest historical force for the spread of the Gospel.
If Christianity is losing the so-called “culture wars,” is it because Christ spoke falsely? Have we tried our strength against the gates of the modern bastions of hell and found them unshakable?
Or have we found that it is frightening to unsheathe the sword of the spirit, and left the battle untried?
I know that whenever I fail to shine the light of truth on any matter, it is because I am afraid. I am afraid that I will be screamed at, or shunned or black-listed as a writer, or some more nebulous apprehension that always lurks in the background when cowardice is afoot.
Some of the time I like to refer to this fear as “prudence” or “kindness” or “clemency,” but even if I am usually able to convince others, and occasionally able to fool myself, in the darkness, alone before the image of Christ crucified, I know that my motives are nothing more than timidity.
There is no way to avoid feeling afraid. Theologians have pointed out that even if we could, a complete lack of fear is not a desirable characteristic; it almost invariably arises from a certain kind of pride, and leads to foolish bravado and lack of compassion.
Besides, bravery does not lie in doing the right thing when it is easy, but in standing strong under fire, when your heart is palpitating like a ghost-teller’s drum, and your knees have the consistency of buffet Jell-O.
The question, then, is what do we do about fear? How do we keep it from overturning our courage and disrupting out lives?
It is useless to pretend that one is not afraid.
Some fears you can talk yourself out of, as, for example, when you are afraid that your new kitten might have knocked over your favorite Kermit mug while you were out.
But if you are afraid that the economy is going to collapse, or that your husband has gotten himself and your children killed in a car crash, or that they’ll declare hate-speech a national emergency and start rounding up Catholics in FEMA camps for refusing to proclaim that homosexual sex is a beautiful alternative to heterosexual marriage, then it’s a different matter.
You can tell yourself a thousand times, “It probably won’t happen. I’ll probably be okay,” and the fear will still remain. The fear, after all, attaches itself to the projected event, not to some statistical ticker that tells you how probable the event is.
The solution, therefore, is simple.
Accept the suffering in advance.
Turn to God and say, “If it is your will that I lose my entire family to flood and famine today, I accept this, and I trust that you will give me the grace necessary to be sanctified by it.”
Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it won’t happen. Generally, the horrible things that actually take place in our lives are things that we would never have thought of in advance.
But fear, when turned over to God, becomes an occasion not of cowardice and paralysis, but a means of advancing in hope and confidence in the Lord.
Melinda Selmys is a staff writer