Peter’s Grit



Since the Christmas season in the Philippines has already begun (to the dismay of liturgists like Fr. RB Hizon), let me tell you about my first Christmas as a Jesuit. I was a novice then of course and after supper on the 24th of December, our Father Novice master, Fr. Benny Calpotura surprised us by allowing us to phone our families and greet them a merry Christmas.

It was a long line for we only had one landline at that time. I opted to be the last so I could make telebabad as we used to say then. So when my time came up, I spent a long long time and even when the bell was ringing already and fireworks were exploding all around us to signal the Christmas hour, I stayed on the phone. And totally forgot about the community noche buena.

The following day, we had an early mass, and overflowing with the Christmas spirit, I greeted Fr. Benny. “Merry Christmas, Father.” He just stared at me and asked: “Where were you last night?” “I was on the phone with…” But even before I could finish, he snapped, “Taran-tula!!! Kapag community, community! Know your priorities!” I almost sunk into the ground in shame and fear…and all I could say was, “Sorry po Father, di na po mauulit.” I was thinking then, “It was my first Christmas as a Jesuit and was this a portent of things to come?” Obviously, I stayed on but that experience was admittedly painful but it was a teaching moment for me: it made me dig deep inside of me and ask myself: should I just wallow, cave in, or tough it out?

I remember this personal experience as I was reading the Gospel today yesterday. Somehow, it felt eerily like my own story. Here was Peter, Jesus’ right-hand man. Remember, last Sunday, he was on the top of the world. When Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was, only Peter got the correct answer. Teng teng teng, the correct answer is, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” And Jesus praised him and put him high on a pedestal, “Peter, you are the rock and on this rock I will build my Church.” But then, today, Jesus started talking about what being the Christ or the Son of God meant: He would be persecuted, suffer, and die. And Peter, true and loyal friend that he was rejected: No, Lord. I will not let that happen. And the stage is set for the teaching moment: “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me.” And with that public upbraiding, Peter fell from grace.

That must have stung greatly for Peter. Here he was, just being concerned for his friend. Yet it was for sure a teaching moment for him as well. Some lessons do indeed come from painful experiences. You may recall that about two Sundays ago, something similar happened. A Canaanite woman approached Jesus and asked him to heal her daughter; but Jesus just dismissed her, even telling her that the food of the house is only for the children and not for dogs. Ouch! But she persisted and later impressed Jesus with her tenacious faith. “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish!”

It appears then that this is Jesus’ style or teaching methodology. Whether it was with Peter, the Canaanite woman, the Samaritan woman, or even with Mary her mother at Cana, Jesus would appear tough and stern on them and not sweet or sympathetic as we are wont to imagine him to be all the time. And yet if we do ask ourselves, isn’t our general experience of faith like theirs? When our prayers are not answered, when life gets difficult when our dreams fail, don’t we feel with Peter or the Canaanite woman that our God is unfeeling, unloving, immovable, stern, strict, and stoic? We can therefore easily identify with Peter. But what valuable lesson can come from this painful experience?

Precisely, what Jesus is telling them as the core of our faith, the center of our relationship with him. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me!” If you ask me, that kind of life requires a lot of guts, a lot of determination, a lot of courage. In other words, Jesus is telling us the Christian faith is not a walk in the park. It is not for the faint-hearted. So we better toughen up.

Angela Lee-Duckworth has made a successful career as a psychologist around what she calls GRIT. With her research on the cadets at WestPoint, winning contestants at the National Spelling Bee, and CEOs of companies like JP-Morgan, she has concluded that more than Talent, success is founded on grit, that is, on one’s passion and perseverance, on one’s doggedness and tenacity at one’s life or career. As part of the so-called Gen X, I remember the baby boomers or the older generation trying to impress that same lesson on us. My father would say: “Oh, Life is so easy on you. That’s why you have become soft. The small things could set you off. We on the other hand had gone through world wars and that has made us tough as hell and that is what you need to survive and succeed in this life.”

In short, in life and in faith, Grit is required of us. Certainly, grit is what we need to follow Christ, and to carry our own crosses.Let me end with a story about Mother Teresa who, speaking of grit, went through 40 years of dryness in her faith and prayer life. But she nonetheless trudged on, going to mass every day and serving the poorest of the poor and becoming our quintessential model for unconditional love. But here is that story. One day, Mother Teresa was begging for food for the hundreds of the elderly and the dying that she was taking care of in Calcutta. She went into a store and made her case to the Hindu storeowner. The latter just looked at her and then spat on her face. Mother Teresa’s companions were stunned of course. But Mother Teresa was very calm, she wiped her face, smiled, and said, “Thank you for that gift, now can I have something for my ward please.”

Friends, we know that Peter would stay on with our Lord beyond this painful experience today. He would even die a martyr’s death for him. In other words, Peter would learn the required grit and tenacity in our faith. Would you be as gritty as well?