“When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.” (Matthew 14.17)
I know the usual focus of today’s gospel story is the encounter on the water: Peter, feeble in faith, walking out on the water’s surface toward Jesus, faltering and sinking then being rescued by Christ. A powerful image of what our life of faith is really like: we need Christ to grab a hold of us to lift us above the chaos of the world, out of the churning seas that would overwhelm you and I, we need to put out a hand out to him.
I want to talk a little about what happens right afterward: they got in the boat; the wind ceased.
I’ve said before that an important analytical key for understanding the gospel is the Old Testament; and in the context of the Mass, it’s that first reading. And there we hear about lonely Elijah, a man on the run, isolated, the world set against him, in large part because of his faithfulness, atop a mountain in the midst of a horrible storm. The point of that story, as we all know, is that he is straining to hear God, he is desperate to have that life-sustaining connection; to be lifted out of his despair. Lonely, afraid, and the world around him is literally raging. Where is God?
And it is only when the storm abates, in the silence of that moment, it is said that he “hears” God—famously put by some translations as “the still small voice.”
God speaks in the silence. Such a contradiction, yet such a fundamental truth; and for you and I, our principal concern, before all other things, is to find that silence so as to hear that still, small voice. As the psalm says, God will speak; you will be lifted up, given the peace of God that passes all understanding.
And by the way, that is not some blissed out trance; God’s peace in this world is not a tranquilizer, not an intoxicant, nor an hallucinogen; it’s something that gives you at heart a confidence to deal with whatever is coming in your life, and a sure knowledge that whatever it is, God is in charge and your task is simply to be faithful through it all. The effect is one of calming the storms within, even as things rage around you.
But boy, we have a hard time being quiet long enough to listen, really listen.
Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Worship, wrote a book about four years ago entitled, The Power of Silence—a book I very much recommend. In it he writes,
“Our world no longer hears God because it is constantly speaking, at a devastating speed and volume, in order to say nothing. Modern civilization does not know how to be quiet. It holds forth in an unending monologue. Postmodern society rejects the past and looks at the present as a cheap consumer object; it pictures the future in terms of an almost obsessive progress. Its dream, which has become a sad reality, will have been to lock silence away in a damp, dark dungeon. Thus there is a dictatorship of speech, a dictatorship of verbal emphasis. In this theater of shadows, nothing is left but a purulent wound of mechanical words, without perspective, without truth, and without foundation. Quite often “truth” is nothing more than the pure and misleading creation of the media, corroborated by fabricated images and testimonies. When that happens, the word of God fades away, inaccessible and inaudible.”
How do you get to the silence?
The Church, of course, has a long tradition of devotions and prayers practices to help us quiet our minds enough to listen. I wish I could speak from personal experience as to how this was the means by which I had my initial encounter with that sweet silence; but I came to it another way; and I don’t recommend my way—when I speak to students at our schools, I always tell them I hope that by God’s grace their faith is already in the process of leading them into the silence where God’s peace is found.
As for me, as with a lot of people today, I was not inclined to stop to listen; as a younger man I didn’t seek out the silence. not until life itself, that is the aggregate of the consequences of my actions, my decisions, the loyalties I had chosen, the company I kept, when that hit me with all the force of a two by four to the back of my head and I saw that I was failing, faltering, sinking beneath the waves. I was not Peter getting out of the boat to go to Jesus; I was in the water already drowning when I finally got over my pride and said, “God help me!”
That’s where a lot of people are today. Perhaps they’ve a church background, but likely very little, and they’re in the water, some treading comfortably, but others are tiring and beginning to slip beneath the waves, surrendering to the chaos of the world.
I will tell you, that the first silence I experienced was one that was unsettling, frightening; and that will be the case for them, as well. That moment of psychic collapse and spiritual alarm is distressing.
The only thing in my life that came close to that moment of thundering recognition of my need was something that had happened only a few years earlier.
I was hiking through the Eastern Pyrenees. That’s the mountain range that separates southwestern France from northern Spain. A storm came up. I was at an altitude that put me in the clouds; in a manner of speaking, I was inside a storm in a way I’d never experienced before. Now I was walking right by the highway through the mountains, and I spotted an enclosed bus shelter, and thought there’s my ticket: get in there, wait for the bus, ride it into town, stay dry.
Now I had to run across the highway, but this was just like a two-lane highway you’d find in a lot of places here in Ontario. I sprinted over the road just as the rain began, got into the shelter, thought myself lucky to still be pretty dry, turned around and “CRACK” – lightning struck where I had just been standing; and then came the BOOM. I don’t know if you’ve ever had that experience of smelling electricity, I guess it’s the smell of, well of burnt air. The hair on my arms was standing up; and I found myself stunned and staring out at a steady torrent of rain. But I didn’t hear anything. Maybe my eardrums were temporarily concussed. It was a few seconds, and then I heard the rain, but you know, then I heard everything, sensed everything, was alive to everything; and I was terrified by that. There have been a handful of times in my life where I had a sense of my mortality, and that was definitely one of those times.
Then the terror passed. All this was in the space of maybe thirty seconds. I turned to the other person, my companion on this trip, you can guess who that was. She just said, “well, that was close.”
But you know, I stopped listening. And that aliveness quickly faded into a life of distraction and inattention to the truly vital things of human existence. It took a spiritual storm, and the searing, burning, white hot love of God and great boom of his grace to get me to pay attention.
I can’t manufacture that for anyone. But I know what you’ve got to do once it’s happened: start paying attention. I know where you ought to go once you’ve been hauled out of the water: get into the boat.
And that boat is the Church, an ark in a sea of troubles. Ancient Christians used to adorn their simple house churches with painting of Noah’s ark seeing so easily how their predicament was spiritually similar.
Once in the boat, the ark; then what?
Well, that means doing the Church thing. But it’s not just about putting in pew time. Indeed, we don’t want to have this be an experience of “putting in time.” Rather, I return to Cardinal Sarah who tells us what an essential discipline, apart from participation in the liturgy, going to mass, and keeping some kind of prayerful, personal devotion like the Rosary or the Chaplet is, well to read God’s Word; to come to know the story, which is our story.
Cardinal Sarah writes, “it is through long hours of pouring over Sacred Scripture, after resisting all the attacks of the Prince of this world, that we will reach God.”
If you’re doing that, all that; I’m convinced there comes a point where the “penny will drop.”
And so you will begin to attain to that peace of God, no longer be someone treading water in the sea of life, but through Christ rise above it.
The Christian life is not about escaping the world, it’s about being in the world, and not being of the world; it’s being a sailor on this ocean of chaos, a mariner sure of himself whether at the helm or up in the rigging. The storms will happen, the earth will shake, there are going to be more than a few close ones before you and I are done.