The Psychology of Peter
I have always found myself intrigued by the person of Saint Peter, but it was until recent events when I discovered why this was. The following ideas are not an attempt to discuss the psychology of Saint Peter, the historical character, but rather the Peter that dwells inside each of us. I would like to suggest you read the following article carefully to allow yourself to be immersed in a process defined by C. G. Jung as “amplification” which aims to bring understanding to our consciousness through the teachings that are implied in stories with deep meaning and that resonate as archetypes in us. The story of Saint Peter as told in the Bible is the perfect example of said process.
First, some biographical and biblical elements to understand Peter:
Saint Peter, whose original name was Simon, was the son of Jonah. He was a fisherman who had his first encounter with Jesus while fishing with his brother Andrew. After this, they became “fishers of men”, left everything to follow their Master, and became His first disciples. We know that he was married because the Bible mentioned that Jesus performed a miracle on his mother in law (Matt 8: 14-17). He witnessed many other miracles done by his Teacher such as the net full of fishes (Lk 5: 4-11), the control of the storm in the boat (Mark 4: 3-41), walking on the waters until he sank due to his lack of faith (Matt 14: 28-31), and so on.
We also know that he had what we would say a resistant personality and that he tried to tell Jesus what He should do. We can infer this from his actions and comments in the following passages; The Washing of the Disciples´ Feet (Jn 13: 2-11) or on Matt 16:20 “Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” Another example of this personality is when Peter cut Malchus’ ear with his sword (Jn 18:10) at his Master´s apprehension.
As a result of said personality characteristic Peter got reprimanded several times by his Teacher: “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matt 14:31), also; “He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” (Matt 16:23). Another example of this would be Jesus' response to Peter’s actions in the Garden of Gethsemane; “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?”(Jn 18:11). Even after our Lord`s death and resurrection, Peter was reprimanded by Paul “And when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he clearly was wrong. (Galatians 2:11)
But Peter was also the first of the disciples to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, and because of that, the Master expressed his gratitude with profound words: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Cephas (Peter) (Petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven”. (Matt. 16: 13-19)
His bond with his Teacher was unlike any other, he was one of His closest disciples, and we can see that in important moments such as the transfiguration or the agony in the garden of the Gethsemane.
Nonetheless, as we all know, he abandoned our Lord in a cowardly way, denying Him three times and leaving Him to His faith in the cross. In this way, he was not only the first of the disciples, Jesus’ defender and the Stone on which the Church would be built; but he was also “Satan” and a traitor.
Even though Peter denied and abandoned Jesus, once He resuscitated “he appeared to
Cephas, then to the Twelve" (1 Cor 15) with which we infer that he is highlighted again as the first of His disciples. Peter went on to become a missionary, a great leader, and to perform many miracles in Jesus’s name. He also founded the Church in Antioch and together with Paul, the Church in Rome. After many years of being the bishop of Rome he felt threatened by Nero, the Emperor and according to the apocryphal Acts of Peter, he ran again trying to avoid persecution and crucifixion. On the road, Peter encountered Jesus and asked Him “where are you going?” to which He answered: "I am going to Rome to be crucified again". With this, Jesus was giving him another opportunity: "will you leave me again, or you will come with me?" This time, in contrast with his response at the time of the crucifixion, Peter chose to go with our Lord, went back to Rome, and together with Paul died on the cross. But feeling unworthy of the same death as his Teacher and Savior, he requested to be crucified upside down.
Meditation of the events:
Now, let's take a time to meditate on the nature of the events that I just mentioned. What do we see? A man of great integrity? A man of high standards? A man without error? A man of congruence? A man without fear?. None of the above is true for Peter, at least not in an absolute way. Peter showed not only fear but also avoidance, incongruence, and denial.
What we see in the events that I shared with you is not a man of perfection, but just a man. A simple human being, full of flaws, shadows, and fears. A man abandoned by virtue more than once. A man who betrayed his own Teacher, his own principles. A man that at times was more afraid of humans than of God.
Now let’s think about ourselves for a moment and try to remember the times that we have also been in a place of cowardice, or of avoidance, or even denial. How many times have we denied Christ in front of a mob? How many times have we tried to stop the work of Jesus in our daily life or in the world? How many times have we tried to run from the difficulties and the threats of the world, even when that implies to be incongruent with our principles? How many times have we sunk in the waters of the world because of our lack of faith?
I had mentioned earlier in this article that recent events made me think about the psychology of Peter. And I realized that just as he, I have been a coward more than once, and that like him, I have betrayed my own principles and have stopped the work of Jesus in my life. I have been “Satan” and “little of faith”. Like Peter, I have had my moments of denial, cowardice, incongruence, and lack of integrity.
Having said all this, it is important to keep in mind that the story of Peter is not only about weakness in his character, but it is also a story of trial and error, a story of constant opportunity to leave his old self and become a new man. It is the story of the most profound teaching and symbol of Christianity: the death and resurrection.
The first time that Peter died was at the Lake of Galilee in his first encounter with the Master. He left everything behind and became His disciple; his previous life was now meaningless for him. He died once more when Jesus called him “Satan”, stating that his mindset was incompatible with His teachings and that if he continued in that direction he could not be His disciple anymore. He also experimented with death after hearing the rooster crow and recalled his Master’s prediction of his denial, to which he cried bitterly. Peter died once again on the day of the first appearance of Jesus after His resurrection but was born again with a bigger commitment and dedication to the mission of Christianity. He had his final “grateful death” in his last encounter with Jesus while running away, due to that experience he saw the clear opportunity to redeem himself and that time chose not to be a coward, but to be a humble and brave disciple and to accept the death of the cross.
We could say that we are all Peter, that we have the same flaws. But the main question here is; are we deciding to redeem ourselves and come out of our limited being and sharing the same fate of our Lord? Are we humble enough to accept that Peter was a man of limitation, but that precisely because of his limitation he became His vicar? Is the curia within the Church able to recognize, in the midst of this pontificate and its crisis, that they have also abandoned Jesus at the cross, that they are also fleeing to avoid being killed by Nero? That they are also “Satan”? That they are also “little of faith”? Because if they are not, if we are not, then how will we kill our old self to make room for the new self to rise? How are we going to live the death and the resurrection that we are all called to live?
I hope that these insights can help you accept that we are not called to be perfect, nor even faithful or without doubts, but that we are called to be transformed and to let our human perspective die, while the perspective of Jesus grows within us. I hope that all of those at the Vatican can see in Peter their own psychology and with this be able to overcome it, just as he did. If this is the case, then we will have a Holy Church for 2,000 more years. If not, we could see our Church disappear for not accepting Her own death and resurrection.