“Why are you so frightened? How is it that you have no faith?”


View of Guyana from a small plane
Credit Brendan Callaghan SJ

About twenty years ago, I learned the meaning of the word ‘fear’. It was my first flight in a small plane in Guyana in South America.

When I first went on the missions I had fond imaginings of trekking up through the jungle like the last of the Mohicans, so I felt a bit disappointed that it turned out just to be a flight in a small plane. But, if I had wanted a test of courage, I don’t think I could have chosen better. It turned out to be an ‘Islander’ – a twin engined propeller-driven job which really should have retired at the same time as Biggles. From the inside, it bore a disturbing resemblance to the Mini Minor on which I learned to drive. Suddenly I discovered that a few hundred adolescent butterflies were holding a ‘rave’ inside my stomach. And the moment when the pilot turned round and cheerily explained that our take-off might be “a bit twisty” as he would have to steer around the potholes on the runway seemed to coincide with the time when the butterflies started handing round the Ecstasy.

Nevertheless, we somehow wobbled up into the air and flew hesitantly off in the general direction of the Venezuelan border. From 6,000 feet, the view was magnificent: all around us thirty thousand square miles of the world’s greatest unspoiled rain-forest stretched away in all directions. We flew over the vast expanse of the mighty Demerara and Essequibo rivers.

And I’m sure I would have thoroughly enjoyed it all, had the view not been slightly obscured by the flapping of the upper part of the engine cover, from which a couple of screws had fallen off. I was also a little distracted when the pilot, having got us to level flight, lay back in his seat, took his hands from the controls, lifted his feet off the pedals and busied himself with a crossword. For all I know they do exactly the same on a British Airways 747, but at least there you can’t see the joystick waggling about of its own volition.

Suddenly - and for the rest of the flight - I was terrified at the thought of the plane being out of control and spiralling down to an interesting but brief explosion in the rain forest. Of course, that never happened - the plane carried on serenely in level flight until we got to our destination. And I am sure that there was never any real danger at all. But, even knowing that in my head and trying to tell it to myself, didn’t actually make it feel any better.

Small plane refuelling

And even after three years of flying regularly a couple of times a week in our small plane, I still couldn’t entirely get rid of it. I still felt just a little bit nervous getting into the plane. The pilots thought it was hilarious and (I am convinced) did extra aerobatics just to wind me up. But I still kept hearing the words of the old Amerindian man who preferred to go down to the coast by trail, rather than by plane:
As he said: “If the truck breaks down, then where you is, is where you is.
If the plane breaks down, then where you is, is where you ain’t!”

But in the Gospel, the fears of the disciples are not the fears of people who haven’t done this before. These are experienced fishermen who know exactly what a storm is and who know that this is a bad one. The fears that can beat us do not come from a lack of knowledge or a lack of experience. They come from a lack of faith. It is by Faith that we can trust – whether or not our feared disaster happens – the boat sinks; the plane falls out of the sky; or whatever is our personal dread that wakes us up in a cold sweat at two in the morning. Whatever it is, the answer is not: “oh don’t worry about it, it’s not going to happen.” It just very well might.

Faith is the ability to know – not just in the head, but in the heart – that even if the very worst does happen, Jesus is still with me in the boat and He loves me and He saves me.

One of the pilots once gave me a card which said: “Jesus – ain’t nothing going to happen today that you and me can’t handle together.” - Which might sound a bit twee, but when he gave it to me, he also said: “Every pilot knows that he can get it wrong and fly into a mountain. Well, if I do that, at least I can know I was doing something worthwhile at the time.”

Let us pray that, whatever fears, risks and dangers we encounter in living out our own missions in Life, we may know and trust that God goes with us into all of them. And that, if it does all go horribly wrong, that at least we were doing something worthwhile at the time.