Every other year I gather with some of my former classmates from university. They are all priests who serve in dioceses throughout the country. Our routine is always the same. We spend a week in one of our national parks or forests. During the day, we hike, mostly in silence as we rejoice in God’s creation and try to hide our increasing fatigue from one another. In the evening we make dinner and engage in theological debates and discuss church politics.
This year we had the great opportunity to spend a week in Zion national park. The weather was just perfect. The hikes were invigorating. The sights were magnificent. And our conversations were unusually deep.
Being in nature, away from all electronic distractions I always seem to learn something new about myself. This time around, facing the prospect of climbing up to Angel’s Landing I realized I simply could not do it. I was almost dizzy with fear even at the thought of climbing the very narrow path with a steep mountain on one side and a deep ravine on the other. Feeling defeated I sheepishly convinced my friends to turn around and walk back to the trailhead. All the way down we observed our customary silence. This time, however I did not delight in the sights but rather pondered my fear. It did not take long for me understand my fear of heights to be emblematic of all the fears we face in the course of our lifetime.
There are so many different kinds of fear. On the one hand there are the kinds of fear that impact no-one else but ourselves. On the one hand, there are the fears that impact others, sometimes even in a truly adverse way.
Some of us are afraid of growing old. Some of us fear becoming ill. Others are afraid of losing their job or not finding a new job. Most of us fear the loss of a loved one. And who does not face the fear of death? These kinds of fear are very real and they can consume us entirely if we allow them to do so. These fears, however mostly affect ourselves. My fear of heights, e.g. did not really affect others, apart from the fact that it prevented my friends from reaching Angel’s Landing. They did not seem to mind too much as it provided them with great material for endless teasing.
Other fears include the fear of people who are different from us in race, creed, gender, sexuality. This kind of fear is often translated in hatred and discrimination. Some of us are afraid of speaking up when we don’t agree with something. We may even be afraid of challenging a wrong. Clearly, these kinds of fear do not only affect us, they also affect others.
Overcoming a fear of heights is not easy to do. Overcoming a fear of people who are different from us or overcoming a fear to challenge wrongs is even more difficult to do.
The prophet Isaiah tells us not to be afraid not matter what we are facing as God is always with us. Jesus also teaches us not to fear as he assures us that he is with us until the end of time. So, when facing any kind of fear I recall one of my most powerful mantras as I repeat to myself: “Be not afraid.” It is a great and absolutely freeing mantra. It makes me realize that I am not in this by myself. I have my sisters and brothers who stand by me. And I have God who is on my side.
Though it may not have helped me as I was facing a sure death at the bottom of the deep ravine in Zion National Park I still believe in it. This mantra gives me strength. These words shield me and guard me. They give me peace.
Today I wish I had not given in to my fear of heights but rather would have climbed all the way to Angel’s Landing. Maybe some day I will get another chance. Until then I will try to strengthen my faith in my Biblical mantra as I repeat it over and over again: “be not afraid.”