Ignatian Insights: Embracing Fear in Order to ‘Fly’ in Faith
For Brother Sullivan McCormick, S.J., his most memorable experience with the Spiritual Exercises, a guiding tome of the Society of Jesus, came as he embraced the fear that can accompany faith, the fall that comes before one takes flight.
A native of Lewisville, Texas, studying for his master’s degree in philosophy, McCormick recalled praying about the Pentecost during the fourth week of following St. Ignatius Loyola’s Exercises. The fourth week, McCormick explained, is centered on the resurrection of Jesus and the Gospel stories that accompany his resurrection. It’s a theme that pairs faith and fear in hopes of finding renewal and restoration in Christ.
In Sullivan’s Words
I once was convinced Jesus wanted to murder me. Again, and again, in my experiences of imaginative prayer, Jesus would thrust me off the edge of a cliff.
After walking up a mountain side with Jesus he would typically lunge toward me, extend his arms outward, and thrust me off the edge of the mountain side, plunging me into free fall. This all occurred during the beginning of my Jesuit novitiate (beginning two years of Jesuit formation) and I was distressed and confused.
Fast forward about a month and a half later: I am approaching the very end of the 30-Day Spiritual Exercises (Long Retreat), and once again find myself with Jesus on the top of a mountain during my imaginative prayer. While expecting and dreading the worse, I wait for the resurrected Jesus to lunge forward and push me off the cliff.
He does lunge forward, pushing me off the cliff, but something different happens. Instead of experiencing free fall I experience flight. I imagine myself flying, transformed into a hawk that I had seen days before, gliding with wings open in the clear blue sky with another hawk.
After the death of Jesus, we learn that the disciples are enveloped in fear, hidden in an upper room where “the doors were locked . . . for fear of the Jews,” (John 20:20-21). I realized towards the end of the Long Retreat that most of my life I had been locked in my own upper room of fear, dominated by a fear that prevented me from fully embracing the life God offered.
Leaving the safety of our upper rooms can feel as if we are being pushed off the edge of a cliff and entering free fall. Vulnerability approximates an inner free fall, a kind of powerlessness and lack of control.
I am still convinced Jesus was trying to murder me. But I now realize it wasn’t exactly the same kind of death I once thought. Instead it’s the kind of death we are called to in the Gospel: “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit” (John 12:24-25).
While we might be literally forced to stay locked indoors during this time of pandemic, we can take solace knowing that freedom is experienced inside. Jesus is the one who empowers us, pushing us into new life, thrusting us through fear into flight.
To fly with Jesus is to let ourselves be guided by the wings of the Holy Spirit, trusting that once we take the leap off the cliff Jesus will catch us and fly with us.