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Starting Point

[Human uncertainty on the mountain]


I was composting weeds from our flowerbed when, suddenly, I saw a black tail slither under the pile. I gasped and jerked back because I am afraid of snakes. I always have been, ever since I was a child and accidentally stepped on one barefoot. My recent snake encounter caused me to reflect on some of my past fears and what I have learned from them.

Most fears are a result of inexperience, lack of education or spiritual trust. I asked my husband what his greatest fear in life has been, and without hesitation, he said that it’s fear of taking a risk and stepping out in faith regarding his career. He stayed in a job he strongly disliked, which caused him stress for 30 years because he says he was afraid to leave what was familiar for the unknown. Now, at the age of 49 he has returned to college to study psychology and has begun searching for a new job that is right for him. I can see the new light in his eyes and the sense of adventure he feels regarding this major life change. He has stopped berating himself for not doing this sooner and, as he lets go of his many regrets, he explains, “I can see now the light of encouragement was always there.”

We have found that light to be patient, consistent, revelatory and piercing, the more our faith matures and as we spiritually come of age. When I was younger I encountered a vibrant, young nun who had begun to include the feminine nature of God in her prayer services. I remember how scandalous it seemed and how closed to it I was at the time. Now I wonder how I could have been so narrow. It was fear and the desire to please people by following crowd consensus and not daring to ask questions or be unpopular. My earnest yet unseasoned faith did not yet know what an evolution the journey of faith entails for everyone.

My greatest fear was that of losing a child. I remember many imploring prayers for protection for my children, the fear like a rock in my chest. Somehow I felt that if I bargained and pleaded enough with God so that I was absolutely convinced God knew how I felt, it could never happen. Yet the unthinkable happened. Our youngest son died by suicide. I no longer had to face my greatest fear because it had happened. I felt my life was over and that along with our son, fear, God and faith had died, too. Three years later, after suffering the deepest grief I ever hope to know, I have a whole new concept of fear and faith. I also understand that we need to talk to our fears, spend time with them and not run from them.

I was reminded of this when I was frightened of the little snake under my weed pile. From a short distance away, I could see his head sticking out, thinking perhaps that he could see me but I couldn’t see him. Even though I still felt fear, I found myself talking to him out loud. I could see his bright eyes calmly observing me, seemingly curious. For the first time in my life, I found myself feeling benevolent toward a snake.

We all have lists of founded and unfounded fears that are a part of our inner landscapes. Like seeing the sudden, slithering tail of a snake, they fill us with dread, trepidation, withdrawal or prejudices; yet, these fears are only a small part of our life stories and history.

Faith, like the head of the snake peering out of the weed pile, calmly looks back at us, reminding us that there’s always more to the picture than we think. That faith is broader, deeper, more comforting, instructive, dependable and life giving than we can ever imagine.

Joni Woelfel’s newest book, Meditations for Survivors of Suicide (Resurrection Press), is being published this month.

National Catholic Reporter, September 6, 2002 [corrected 09/27/2002]