How FOCUS cured my fear of flying... sort of
I hate flying. . .
Well, maybe that’s not the best way to describe it. I have an incredibly irrational, yet very real, white-knuckle fear of flying. And when you add that with my desire to keep away from things that make me nervous and anxious, flying would not rank high on a list of things I like to do. This fear/hatred has made me outright reject considering travel opportunities for years.
I can pinpoint when this all started. . .about 19 years ago. My best friend from grade school was graduating from boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina when he became a United States Marine. His parents had invited me down to his home in Virginia to surprise him when he arrived home. So my parents reasoned with me that it made much more sense to fly down rather than to drive - especially since I only had a few days before I had to return to start my senior year of college.
Flying down was absolutely perfect. Remember, these were the old, care-free days of the early 90's way before lengthy TSA pat-downs and security screenings. So we got on the plane relatively quickly. We were up in the air and down, in a nice, quick 45-minute flight. It was faster and easier than a typical car ride to the Jersey Shore. I couldn’t believe how easy it went. The whole experience was great - it would have easily taken me nine hours to drive and I was there in one. . . piece of cake!
The return from Norfolk, Virginia to Newark, New Jersey – was quite a different story. You see, going down I flew on this big plane that was going to Florida and just made this quick stop in Norfolk. Going home, I was on a very small plane that had those propellers on the side. I think there might have been 20 people onboard. It was rainy. We never even got above the clouds. We hit turbulence. So I was growing more and more anxious the entire flight. At one point in this already far from smooth sailing (or rather, flying) excursion, I looked out the window and saw that the propeller to the plane stopped. It really did. The plane made some noises. I started to freak out. The stewardess very matter-of-factly said to me, “It’s okay sir, we’re just gliding right now.” Sorry, that wasn’t much comfort. At which point, I just started praying/freaking out as I started saying out loud over and over again, “Sweet Jesus get me off of this plane . . .”
I made it home alive (obviously) - kissing the tarmac, looking whiter than I ever have in my life. I swore to my parents when we got in the car that I would never fly again. I’d say to people who would argue with me about my need to overcome this fear –“Why do I need to go up in an airplane or leave this area? Our relatives had left Italy to come here; obviously there must have been a reason. Why should I go back???? We live in the NY-metro area. It’s basically the center of the universe (at least we seem to think so) – why leave here?” Fifteen years passed before I would ever go on an airplane, all because of FOCUS.
It was about four years ago, and I had been invited to go to University of Illinois in Champaign, Illinois, to meet the first team of FOCUS missionaries coming to Montclair State University. We were one of the last campuses added that year, so there wasn’t a lot of advance notice. The “Chaplains Days” for staff training were only two weeks away, and I had commitments both before the Chaplains Days and immediately after. Driving 14 hours each way really wasn’t an option. But the other alternative, two flights each way seemed equally as improbable. For some reason, the train routes was even crazier - it would send me to Atlanta, then to Chicago then to Champaign Illinois. And the bus option, with transfers at different bus stops would have taken 26 hours one way! It was crazy. It really was becoming more and more difficult to plan this trip. And it really came to this choice - either to fly or send word to these five missionaries that I was sorry I couldn’t make it, but looked forward to meeting them in August.
That’s when it really hit me. Here these five young people were sacrificing their lives to serve Christ and His Church, His people. Is it inconceivable to think that since they’re coming from all over the country that maybe they’re a bit anxious to come to big old, crazy New Jersey, to this chaotic NY metro area? The Lord’s called me to be a priest; he’s called me to be their spiritual father. Don’t I have a responsibility to get over this irrational, fear - if not for my own well-being or my own interests - than for His and the people He’s sent me to serve?
And so I went. And so I survived (obviously). And you know what? It was still an awful, awful experience! Every flight had some issue! On one plane, they couldn’t get the door shut. They had maintenance come on, where this guy kept slamming the door and couldn’t get it to remain shut as he shrugged his shoulders and scratched his head - but for some reason after an hour it seemed “OK” and we took off. On another flight, it looked like the same exact plane I took 15 years earlier that first inspired my fear with the propellers on the side, and because this 10-year-old kid was scared to be responsible to open the emergency door on the wing (in the VERY unlikely event of an emergency) - they asked me, the priest sitting two rows behind if I would mind switching with him (I ended up doing it more to avoid the embarrassment of saying I was just as scared as he was than anything else). On another flight, we ended up sitting on the tarmac for about two-and-a-half hours before take off.
Yeah, I still don’t like flying much. But here’s the thing. . . I really don’t feel the incredible fear I did, and have actually flown several times, including this past March for the first time to the Vatican (after going to I regretted that I had delayed this life-changing experience for that long). Of the many things I am grateful for that FOCUS has done in the lives of people here at MSU over the years, I’m grateful FOCUS has helped me confront my fear of flying and (somewhat) get over it. Because the whole experience was another reminder of how the Lord continues to challenge me and challenge all of us as to move beyond our fears and to trust in Him.
Jesus is calling out to us. What is it that’s holding us back from having that deeper relationship with Him? That’s holding us back from the “imperishable life” that God created us to have that we heard about in that first reading - how God created us in his image - that’s not an image that gives into fear.
In this prayer book that I use on a daily basis, one reflection on the Gospels really hit home... “‘Do not be afraid - only have faith.’ If we really learned this one lesson, it would revolutionize our lives. Do not be afraid of what other people will think of you: follow the way of Christ. Do not be afraid of failure: following God’s will is the only path to everlasting success. Do not be afraid of changing your personal plans in order to follow God more closely, His plans are even better. Fear, confusion, lack of trust in Christ – these are the kinds of things that tie our souls into knots, causing untold needless suffering and keeping us from experiencing the life-giving power of God’s grace.” (The Better Part, Fr. John Bartunek, 390)
As I was reminded of this important lesson sitting on various runways, that didn’t mean Jesus would magically protect my plane from something bad happening or that each flight would be smooth sailing (or smooth flying) - that’s dependent obviously on a lot of other factors and people. What Jesus was able to make me see was that I needed to move beyond my fear. Not simply to do something He was calling me to do, but to let go of something that has limited my life experiences and made me pass up many great opportunities.
What fear is holding you back from what Jesus is offering you? What will you be able to accomplish, if only you’re willing to trust him?
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Sep 2, 2013
How FOCUS cured my fear of flying... sort of
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Since the pontificates of Pope Paul VI and John Paul II, the Roman Catholic Church has been commissioned to engage and embrace the world with God's message of love once more with ‘new methods, new ardor and new expression.’ It has come to be phrased, 'the new evangelization.'
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