I’ll admit that I feel insecure when I make a mistake and others witness it. If someone gives me a critique or if I embarrass myself in front of others, I find it mortifying.
I’ll also admit that I am insecure enough to feel nervous when I realize that I am lacking in some way. I am all too aware of my weaknesses, and of the ways that I seem to not be as competent as others.
Because of this, I have found myself pondering the extraordinary humility of two of the Church’s oldest saints – Sts. Peter and Paul.
St. Peter and Making Mistakes
Although it is not one of his official titles, I always think of St. Peter informally as the “patron saint of people who put their foot in their mouths.” (I recently encountered an entertaining reel on Instagram from a Christian comedian to this effect.) Poor Peter always seemed to be doing or saying the wrong thing. When he knelt with James and John on Mount Tabor, in a moment of wonder and awe, he suggested building tents. He sunk in the water instead of walking on it, for lack of faith. He wouldn’t let Jesus wash his feet. And, in his most epic moment of failure, he denied Christ.
Most of us would despair at that point. Even if Jesus were to offer to make us the “rock on which I will build my Church,” we would insist that we were unworthy and couldn’t accept. Peter, instead, chooses to trust.
When visiting St. Peter’s Basilica a few years ago, standing at the top of the steps leading down to his tomb (which is below the main altar of the basilica) I was suddenly struck by his realness. St. Peter was not a made-up character. He was a real man. He was a humble fisherman, a man of no account until Christ choose him. Something about standing before his earthly remains, walking the city that he passed through on the way to his death, made his existence more real than ever before.
If Peter – bumbling, fumbling, alternating between overzealous and awkward – could trust Jesus and ultimately make it to heaven, perhaps there was hope for me, too.
St. Paul and the Thorn
The summer after my first year of college, I first was struck by the passage from St. Paul’s 2nd Letter to the Corinthians, in which he talks about the “thorn in his side.” While scripture scholars and theologians have conjectured what the exact nature of this thorn was (a certain temptation? Illness?) the point remains – Paul was imperfect and very much aware of it. He was so much aware of it, in fact, that he tells the Corinthians that he begged God to remove this thorn from his life. Rather than do so, God told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
At the time when I read that passage, I was struggling mightily with severe anxiety and some depression. I had recently had a long-term boyfriend break up with me. I was working at an overnight summer camp for adults with developmental disabilities, and I was more tired and sleep-deprived than I had ever been in my life. I felt like the weakest person of all.
In reading these words of Paul’s, I began to understand – my success didn’t lie in my own strength. It lay in Christ’s. All I had to surrender to God was my weakness, and him working through that weakness would be a more powerful witness to his greatness than anything else.
Aside from that specific thorn referenced, St. Paul had plenty of reasons to feel ashamed and embarrassed. He was an adamant persecutor of Christians, before becoming one himself. Like Peter, it would have been easy (and understandable) if, when faced with the call of Christ, he hung his head and declared himself incapable and unworthy. But like Peter – like all of those who are humble – Paul raised up his eyes and his heart to Christ. Relying fully on God’s mercy, accepting his weaknesses, and surrendering his past sins to Jesus, he advanced forward with his eyes only on Christ.
On the same trip when I visited St. Peter’s, I also had the opportunity to pray at the tomb of St. Paul. Like Peter, Paul became more real to me than he had been before – a real man who wrestled with his weaknesses and offered them up to God.
Humility for the Rest of Us
We may not be called to the kind of visible witness that Sts. Peter and Paul were, but we are called to their radical humility. We are called to recognize both our strengths and our weakness, and to shy away from neither, rather offering all up to Christ. The gift that we are given in the saints is that we need not walk our earthly pilgrimage alone. In moments that invite us to deeper humility – when we make a mistake, when we fail to act in a just or moral way, when we feel too weak and unqualified for the task at hand – we can turn to Sts. Peter and Paul, knowing that in them we will find a sympathetic ear.