A short story by Sandro F. Piedrahita
Hanging upside-down on his cross, St. Peter experiences flashbacks of his encounters with Christ. Read the first half of this short story here.
Out at sea, Peter thought about all of Jesus’ miracles and began to feel a glimmer of hope. Perhaps, he thought, perhaps Jesus would rise from the dead, as He had promised. Perhaps all was not yet lost. Perhaps he shouldn’t be afraid.
And yet, he felt a nagging doubt, a thorn at his side, a wound in his soul as deep as the wound at Jesus’ side as He had been pierced by Longinus’ spear. Maybe he was deluding himself, thought Peter. After all, there is a fearful divide between filling a boat with tilapia and conquering Death. So Peter cast his nets into the sea of Galilee and waited for the fish, uncertain about what the future portended.
As Peter had thought, the open air and the strenuous activity of fishing and rowing were good for his soul. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Peter repeated the words in his mind and remembered his Master’s pleas during the Last Supper: “Don’t let your hearts be troubled,” He had said, “and don’t let them be afraid!” And He said it knowing what was to come, the torture He would have to endure. Perhaps his Master was sending him a message from wherever He had gone that all was not yet lost, that there was no reason to despair. For Peter was afraid not only for his physical safety, knowing that the Pharisees would come after Jesus’ friends, but mostly because he feared a life in the absence of his Master.
The water was dark green now, so green and dark that it reflected the state of his spirit when he had first learned of the death of Jesus. He decided to just drift for a while, for he had grown tired of oaring against the current. He sat as close to the bow as he could get and rested against the wood, sitting in the sunshine, a brilliant light, dazzling like faith and reflected as bright uneven ripples on the dark green water.
A woman had told him, amid her tears, Your Master is no more. She was an olive-skinned woman named Joanna, an intimate of Mary Magdalene, who had been possessed by seven demons, which the Lord had cast out in one of His many miracles. Peter had a hard time believing his Master was dead, even though he had known for hours about the verdict of crucifixion and had seen the throngs on either side of the road as Christ was lugging His cross – although he had not seen the Christ Himself, for Peter in his fear had made sure to keep a distance from the crowds. He had forgotten his Master’s admonition, Do not be afraid, and had cowered in the darkness caused by the looming cumulonimbus clouds that seemed to announce the death of his Messiah.
The fear had started immediately after his Master had been apprehended. Peter had walked through the streets hugging the walls aimlessly, not knowing where he was going, the night gripping his spirit, but steadily following his Master as He was led to the High Priest. All of the other apostles had dispersed, and Judas would soon hang himself.
Suddenly a young woman saw Peter’s face in the light of a torch and recognized him.
“Weren’t you one of the Twelve?” she asked. “Weren’t you one of the friends of the One who called Himself the Son of Man?”
“I never met the Man,” Peter dissembled. “You must be mistaken.”
Then a man next to her insisted. “I’m sure I saw you with Him as He was preaching.”
“No,” Peter lied again. “You must have seen another person.”
Finally, a third man spoke to him. “Certainly you were with Him, for you are also a Galilean.”
“Man, I do not know what you are talking about,” responded Peter, and a rooster crowed in the night, as His Master had predicted.
And then, back on his cross, Peter dreams of something that has never happened. He is on a small skiff, with a line in the water, searching for bottom dwellers, his hook many fathoms below the surface of the sea. At some point, a big fish takes the bait, and Peter knows that it is a huge bloated fish, a fish so grand and proud that Peter has never seen its like before. Peter does not reel him in right away – he has to be patient with such a great fish – so he slackens the line and lets the fish pull at the skiff in any direction he wants. In his dream, Peter sees clearly that the fish represents a human soul, vain, cruel, unbelieving, and Peter knows it will be especially difficult to pull him in from the bottom.
The fish races through the sea for hours, Peter’s line always taut. For some reason, the fish is swimming against the current, and Peter finds solace in that, for the fish will soon tire. Most of the fish he has caught have been small and humble, easily rescued by his nets. But this is a behemoth, probably eighteen feet long, and it is almost impossible to reel him in, as Peter’s line can be torn at any moment, and the fish can dart back to the bottom.
After many hours of slackening the pressure of the line and then pulling it closer to him, Peter senses the huge fish approaching the surface, and then miraculously, he sees the fish break through the water, shining purple and golden in the light of the sun. Peter knows that he will have to kill him, piercing him through with a harpoon, but that symbolizes his death in Jesus, the death to his sins, the death to his bottomless pride and to temptations of the flesh.
But then Peter sees something else. Sharks are beginning to surround the great fish, and Peter knows that he has to act quickly, lest they reach the huge fish before he does. The great beast is stubborn and continues to pull against Peter until he snaps the line. And the sharks are all too happy to devour him.
Peter wakes up in a sweat, as if exhausted from pursuing the great fish that had escaped. He hears the distant screams of male and female Christians as they are whipped. As he hangs from his inverted cross, Peter ponders his strange dream. Who was the proud fish that had gotten away from the fisherman only to be swallowed by the sharks? Herod, who killed infants? Judas, who sealed his betrayal of the Lord with a kiss? Caiaphas, who tried the Christ? Or did it reflect the peril faced by Peter’s own doubting and terrified soul that distant Friday afternoon when he had fled from Jesus?
The next time he falls asleep, he returns to the sight of his original vision and finds himself fishing on the Sea of Galilee again, the day after Jesus died. His net had been filled with tilapia, forcing him to pull at the heavy net with great difficulty. In some way, his Lord was telling him that even if he didn’t catch all the big fish, he had been triumphant with smaller creatures. And with time, Peter would learn to catch even the biggest sturgeon, would discover how to reel in even the greatest sinners.
Peter was alone this time, which made his work collecting the fish doubly hard. He wished his brother Andrew were with him, as well as the sons of Zebedee, but they were mourning the Christ along with the other apostles.
Communal fishing was so much easier, Peter thought, as he attempted to carry the tilapia one by one onto his boat, a process that took him several hours. Finally, his boat filled with fish, he decided to return to the land and to the house where the other apostles had congregated.
“Do not be afraid.”
Those were the words the women reported that the angel had told them when he had first appeared to them at the entrance to the sepulcher where the Master had been buried. And then the women reported that the crucified Christ Himself had appeared to them.
A number of the apostles said the women’s words were idle chatter and did not believe them. Peter also doubted, but he pricked his ears and asked them to explain. According to Mary Magdalene, they had found that someone had removed the stone blocking access to Christ’s sepulcher, and they had found no one inside. Suddenly, an angel had appeared to them and asked them, “Why are you seeking someone alive among the dead?”
Upon hearing these words, Peter and John, the apostle Jesus loved, rushed to the sepulcher. When they arrived, it was as the women had said. The stone at the entrance to the tomb had been removed, and the tomb was empty. The linen clothes of the Lord were lying on the ground. But the Master did not appear to them. Peter, downcast and dejected, returned to the home he was sharing with the other disciples and muttered to himself that the Christ was not risen. Like many fishermen, he had learned to speak to himself when he spent long hours alone at sea. And his first instinct was always disbelief.
At some point, as Peter hangs on his inverted cross, he opens his eyes from his reveries and realizes that he has gone completely blind. There is simply too much pressure on his eyes, which he now realizes are also bleeding. In his darkness, he cries out for a drink of water. “Anybody, please, I’m thirsty!” he exclaims. But he only hears the chuckles of someone in the distance and the sound of the hooves of a horse clopping on the ground nearby. “Die like your Christ!” he suddenly hears somebody taunt him, and he remembers, half-awake now, how the Christ had appeared to him after His Resurrection, once again bringing to mind thoughts of the sea.
Peter and several of the disciples had spent the whole night fishing but had caught nothing. Suddenly, shortly after sunrise, a man had asked them from the shore, “Children, do you have any meat?”, and they had responded no, there was nothing in their nets. And then the stranger had said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the skiff, and you shall find your fish.” And when they hurled their nets into the sea, they captured a multitude of tilapia, mackerels, and sardines.
At that moment, John, the disciple Jesus loved, told Peter that the man on the shore was the Messiah Himself. And Peter, this time unafraid, jumped into the waters and swam until he reached the beach, whereupon he threw himself at Jesus’ feet. Soon the other disciples arrived, pulling the net full of fish behind them, and they were afraid to ask the stranger who He was, for they knew He was the Lord. The Master asked them to dine with Him, not only fish but also bread that He had brought with Him. And being in His company and eating after a long night at sea strengthened and comforted the fishermen, especially Peter.
After the meal, Jesus approached Peter and asked him a question point-blank: “Simon, son of Jonas, do you love me more than these?”
And Peter had replied, looking at Jesus fixedly in the eyes, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” In the distance, he could hear the waves and suddenly the thunder.
But Jesus had insisted and asked him a second time, “Simon, son of Jonas, do you love me?”
And Peter heard the stubborn roar of the waves, the insistent thunder.
“Yes, Lord,” Peter answered. “You know that I love you.”
Jesus asked the same question a third time, and Peter was discomfited. “Simon, son of Jonas, do you love me?” The water of the waves came close to them, and again there was a clap of thunder.
“Lord, you know everything,” Peter retorted. “You know that I love you.”
“Feed my sheep,” his Master ordered.
And at that very instant, amid the roar of the waves and the thunder, Jesus predicted that as an old man, Peter himself would be crucified.
“When you grow older, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will tie you and carry you where you don’t want to go.”
Peter trembled with fear, not needing to hear the gruesome details to understand just what his Master meant, and yet he bowed his head down without saying anything, in blind acceptance of his fate.
That was one of his tipping points.
And the good Lord said, “Follow me!”
Follow me into crucifixion! Follow me into martyrdom! Follow me to the gates of Heaven through the ladder of the Cross!
Hanging upside down on his cross, Peter lapses in and out of consciousness. At some point, dizzied by the blood coming down to his brain and oozing from his eyes, he thinks briefly of begging his tormentors to unfasten him from the wood or, at a minimum, to alter the position of the cross so that he would be upright.
“My Lord, my Lord, why have you forsaken me?” his Master had asked during His own crucifixion. But Peter does not use the same words, for he does not feel that God has forsaken him. Instead, Peter says, “Let me sleep,” and God grants his wish.
In a dream, Peter remembers how he had first mustered courage – not because of his own strength but because the Holy Spirit had descended upon him. And yet Peter was not only a passive recipient of the Lord’s grace and power. He fully embraced it, although it was up to him to accept it or reject it, just as Judas Iscariot could have embraced or rejected the Lord during his final moment of decision.
It was another tipping point in Peter’s life, and it launched him into a life of service. At first, there had been a great wind frightening all of the apostles in the Upper Room of the house they shared. Then they had seen tongues of fire descend upon their heads, and at first, they had been afraid. But soon they realized it was the Holy Spirit that was descending upon them, giving them great strength, allowing them to speak in tongues, and pushing them on their mission to convert the world to faith in the resurrected Messiah.
Suddenly, Peter left the house and began to preach in a multitude of languages, since a great number of men had gathered outside the home of the apostles, and some of them came from distant lands. He found himself inculcating trust in Jesus to an Egyptian in his own tongue – Peter, a fisherman who had never traveled far from Galilee, and certainly not to Egypt. Then, a man from Crete approached him, asked him about the miracles performed by Jesus Christ, and Peter was shocked to realize he had become fluent in his dialect. And so it happened with many others: Parthians, Medes and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, and the districts of Libya, as well as those who hailed from Rome.
Peter felt a frisson of excitement when he suddenly realized that he was able to preach intelligently and in multiple languages. He quickly realized he was a participant in a great miracle, which redoubled his fervor to preach the message of his Master to the masses. He knew he would probably be arrested by the Sanhedrin, possibly killed, for his activities, but that was unimportant. Suddenly, he felt great courage and a great certainty, so unlike the nagging fear and doubt that had plagued him intermittently throughout his life. And that courage and fearlessness was a choice; he could have looked the other way, but he chose not to do so. He accepted the Way of the cross, with all the agony and suffering that entailed.
In the end, Peter converted more than three thousand souls to the Way in a single afternoon: quite a catch for a lowly fisherman from Bethsaida.
“Save yourselves from this corrupt generation,” he had told them, a message that could have been proclaimed in many other times in human history. And yet, as he suspected, the enemies of Jesus were soon hot on his trail, for he had performed an unpardonable act: he had moved thousands of men to quit the faith of their forefathers to follow the Way of Jesus. The persecution would last for thirty years, flowing and ebbing with time, even as Peter spread the faith throughout the known world and eventually led the Lord’s Church in Rome, the eternal city he had once derided as “Babylon” and the place where he would meet his ultimate antagonist, Emperor Nero, rumored to be the Antichrist.
It is in Rome, where Peter died after two days of pain, that Caravaggio the chiaroscurist lives. He knows all of Rome’s nooks and crannies, its hidden spaces, the dark alleys where prostitutes and beggars gather. He has just been involved in a brawl, like so many other times, for he is furious in light of what he has just discovered. He returns bloodied and bruised to his studio, where Cecco's face is lit by the light of a lamp.
“What has happened?” Cecco asks as he wipes Caravaggio’s forehead with a green silk handkerchief.
“Those idiots are doing it again,” Caravaggio answers. “I think they want me to paint the conversion of Saint Paul and the crucifixion of Saint Peter once again. They already rejected my two prior paintings on those themes, and they were perfect works, Cecco. Now they want me to try another time.”
“Why are they going to reject the pieces? I don’t understand. I thought they were marvelous paintings.”
“They have come up with the silliest of objections. They say that the haunch of a horse is too prominent in The Conversion of Saint Paul. And that in The Crucifixion of Saint Peter, too much space is given to the backside of one of Saint Peter’s tormentors, that it is the first thing one sees when looking at the work. They claim it is almost sacrilegious.”
“I’m sorry,” Cecco says. “Some people don’t understand your work.”
“That’s an understatement,” Caravaggio responds. “What could be a greater homage to the saints than the way I represent them? The critics notice the backside of one of the executioners, but they don’t see Peter raising his illuminated face in defiance as he places his faith in God in the darkest of moments. I tell you, those people know nothing about God.”
“Do you believe, my master?”
“What prompts the question?”
“Well, your paintings are so full of devotion, and yet the way you lead your life – the brawling, the prostitutes, other things I won’t get into –”
“I am a great sinner, that’s true, but I paint miracles. And I believe in miracles too. In some way, I’m a fisherman just like Peter. My works draw people violently into the faith in Jesus, thousands of them, Cecco. Anyone who witnesses my Crucifixion of Saint Peter will be challenged to seek God through the experience of viewing the painting.”
“So you’re at peace with God?” Cecco asks.
“Let’s say that I’m a work in progress. I exist in media res. I fall, I rise, I fall again. But I never tire of seeking God’s mercy. At some point, I shall depict a scene of Saint Peter with a bloated sturgeon hooked after the apostle wrestled with the great fish for three days. And the face of Peter’s prey shall be my own.”
Sandro Francisco Piedrahita is an American Catholic writer of Peruvian and Ecuadorian descent. Before he turned to writing, he practised law for a number of years. He is Jesuit-educated, and many of his stories have to do with the lives of saints, told through a modern lens. His wife Rosa is a schoolteacher, his son Joaquin teaches English in China and his daughter Sofia is a social worker. For many years, he was an agnostic, but he has returned to the faith. Mr. Piedrahita holds a degree in Comparative Literature from Yale College and a law degree from Harvard Law School.
Sandro's other work on Foreshadow:
The Crucifixion of St. Peter (Part 1 of 2) (Fiction, August 2022)
Consider thanking our contributors by leaving a comment, sharing this post or buying them a book.