In his personal memoir of life in a Soviet prison camp, the Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote these extraordinary words: “Bless you prison, bless you for being in my life. For there, lying upon the rotting prison straw, I came to realise that the object of life is not prosperity as we are made to believe, but the maturity of the human soul.”
What was it exactly that he learnt in the gulag that was the key to his maturity? Solzhenitsyn recounts: “gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts”. The moment Solzhenitsyn came to maturity was the moment when he realised his own need for personal conversion and inner transformation as a human being and that a change of mind (literally, metanoia) rather than a change of circumstances was the key to his inner freedom. This is why he could genuinely bless his prison cell in the end. His second realisation was that there is no more effective, quick and lasting path to growth in maturity than embracing suffering. here he echoes the sentiments of St Paul in Romans 5:3-5, “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame”.
Today we celebrate the feast of St Peter and St Paul. These two men suffered and were shamed for their witness to the Gospel. But what I find so engaging about our two readings today – from the Acts of the Apostles and the Second Letter to Timothy respectively – is how they offer a window into the journey of personal maturity both men have arrived at by this point, when understood in the context of the wider canon of Scripture.
Most of what we know of St Peter comes from the Gospels. Here he is shown as a man who oscillated between fierce loyalty to Jesus and impetuosity in acting on it on one hand, undercut by a basic non-comprehension of the enormity of who Jesus really is and what His mission may demand. In today’s Gospel, we do see the confession of Peter that Jesus is Lord – but only two verses further on from the end of today’s reading, Peter takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him in response to Jesus’ warning about His coming Passion and death. Peter, impetuous and valiant, says: “Never, Lord! “This shall never happen to you!”. Recall too at the beginning of the passion drama when Peter jumps in to protect Jesus from arrest (John 18:10) in Gethsemane, still obtuse in not understanding or not acquiescing to the will of God.
We too have something to learn from Peter’s attitude here. The Baptist teacher Oswald Chambers remarked that “one of the hardest lessons to learn comes from our stubborn refusal to refrain from interfering in other people’s lives. It takes a long time to realize the danger of being an amateur providence, that is, interfering with God’s plan for others. You see someone suffering and say, “He will not suffer, and I will make sure that he doesn’t.” You put your hand right in front of God’s permissive will to stop it, and then God says, “What is that to you?”
The problem is, running away from your own suffering and encouraging others to do the same only makes another people suffer in the long run – if I don’t carry my own cross, it will end up being borne by another. There are no ‘get-out-of-the-cross free cards in this life. Consider the example of Malchus, the guard who had his ear chopped off because of Peter’s attempt at saving Jesus which would have cost humanity true salvation.
All that being said, by the time of our first reading today, we see a marked change in Peter’s attitude. Today’s passage begins with the execution of St James at the sword of King Herod, the first apostle to be martyred. There is every reason to think that St Peter expected the same fate. Everything points to the end game. Instead, he is arrested and put into prison – but the expectation turns from one of imminent death to death-in-the-near-future. What’s interesting is that there is no indication that Peter resisted the death of James nor to what seems to be his own coming end.
This is a testimony to Peter’s growth in maturity, his conversion – to be willing, even glad, to bear suffering for the sake of the Gospel and to allow others to freely do the same, even if it costs life itself. This time, Peter doesn’t fight, he doesn’t deny Christ and he doesn’t run away. Nor was he impulsive or grandiose in trying to seek out death in a heroic act of his own choosing. What is it that has changed for Peter between the Gospels and the book of Acts? Well, in the interim Peter has seen Jesus die and but also rise again. Peter’s inconstancy and fear of suffering have matured into a convicted faith which is the grounding of our surrender to God, even amidst the greatest trials. Peter now understands and he is not afraid anymore; he has found the peace of Christ.
Peter’s steadfastness under suffering is accompanied by the self-emptying of St Paul. Unlike St Peter, we learn about St Paul’s character mostly by his own writings in the New Testament letters. The first encounter we have of St Paul is in Acts 8, a man who had other men put coats at his feet (Acts 7:58), who rode atop a horse and looked down on others, a man secure in his own self-sufficiency and righteousness. By the time of his second letter to Timothy, we meet a man who has been cast to the ground in every way, ‘poured out’, stretched and emptied. How does this indicate growth in maturity? Doesn’t growth mean an increase? Yes, it does, but not in the ways we expect. Humility is both the foundation and the apex of the spiritual life – the higher we climb, we emptier we become – by which we increase our capacity for God. Oswald Chambers noticed that at this point, maturity is produced…on the unconscious level, until we become so totally surrendered to God that we are not even aware of being used by Him.
One final point: we are used by him for the sake of His body, the Church. As teacher David Powlinson points out, “spiritual maturity is not an end in itself but is a gift for others.” St Peter and St Paul are the two pillars of the Church: they of all people needed to mature to the full measure of the stature of Christ (Eph. 4:13). Tracing their growth through suffering gives us something to reflect on in our own lives, and what is ultimately uplifting is that both readings end with each man declaring his certainty of God’s rescue.
 My Utmost for His Highest, What is That To You?
 Oswald Chambers: My Utmost for His Highest; What is That To You?
About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword. After he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. (This was during the festival of Unleavened Bread.) When he had seized him, he put him in prison and handed him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending to bring him out to the people after the Passover. While Peter was kept in prison, the church prayed fervently to God for him.
The very night before Herod was going to bring him out, Peter, bound with two chains, was sleeping between two soldiers, while guards in front of the door were keeping watch over the prison. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He tapped Peter on the side and woke him, saying, ‘Get up quickly.’ And the chains fell off his wrists. The angel said to him, ‘Fasten your belt and put on your sandals.’ He did so. Then he said to him, ‘Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.’ Peter went out and followed him; he did not realize that what was happening with the angel’s help was real; he thought he was seeing a vision. After they had passed the first and the second guard, they came before the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went outside and walked along a lane, when suddenly the angel left him. Then Peter came to himself and said, ‘Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hands of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.’
Scripture passage from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright 1989, 1993, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.