I get asked for more spiritual advice than I’m actually able to give. I understand why it happens. I write about Christianity in public, and I clearly think about it a lot. But history is rich with contemplative sorts who spent much more time trying to understand the faith than living it faithfully. Like them, I’m a flawed vessel for the only thing that fills me. I’m aware of the history of the religion — parts of it, anyway—but the Christian life is as mysterious to me as anyone.
But if I’m asked to help, I’ll try to. So here’s all the spiritual advice I have, which was learned through experience, not study.
About an hour passes between the second time Peter denies knowing Jesus and the third and final time. It must have felt like an eternity, sitting there in the nighttime firelight, overcome with dread and uncertainty. There was time to think.
Maybe Peter thought about some way to still stop this entire process, this thing that was prepared to happen. That had been his first instinct, after all. Maybe he thought about fleeing. Maybe he thought about the next question that would come, and what he would say. Maybe he tried to steel himself to affirm his friendship with Christ, come what may. Maybe he had the exact words in mind.
And maybe he knew by then, after those first two denials, the likelihood that he would find his strength now was rather low. Jesus had said as much, anyway.
The man must never have known a longer hour. Hope is a thorn in the side of doubt, not a thing with feathers that perches in the soul. It aches. And at the end of it all he does —you will—still fail. Peter denies Christ again. The rooster crows, and Jesus looks at Peter, because even though Peter has denied Jesus, Jesus has not denied him. His opportunities are not yet exhausted.
The majority of us — who Augustine called the non-valde-boni, the not-very-good-ones—live our whole lives in the space of that hour. We hope. We try. We will probably fail. It will happen over and over again. The most relatable Christians in literature are not the subjects of hagiographies, but of the kind of morally ambiguous stories that amount, in the end, to what we call a life. Shusaku Endo’s Kichijiro, who repents only one more time than he apostatizes, is perhaps the ideal form.
In an era where solutions are judged by their efficiency, it can be hard to accept that this is just how grace works on fallen creatures: like a spiral, circling around you over and over again as you repeat the same mistakes, drawing nearer and nearer to your heart the longer you seek it. It isn’t that grace is ineffective or inefficient but that we are, being what we are, imperfect vessels for it. The miracle is that it works anyway.