In today’s first reading we hear about the depth of encounter with God by Elijah. After defeating 850 false prophets of Baal, Elijah is on the run. Jezebel is after him to kill him. The land is evil, the people are going the wrong way, and Elijah runs to Mount Horeb (Mount Sinai) where he just wants to die.
In praying through his despair, Elijah may have hoped for a sign of power from God. But instead he heard God speak, not in a mighty wind, but in a gentle breeze. The gentleness of God’s touch is found in the quiet and deep prayer of Elijah, right at the crucial time when he is at the end of his rope.
St. Paul too finds a moment to reflect on his own project of evangelization. He prays a prayer of mourning over his own people who refuse to receive his message. Much like Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, Paul is crying deeply for his people.
Leonard Cohen’s last CD before he died has a powerful line in a piece called “It Seemed The Better Way”:
I wonder what it was, I wonder what it meant,
At first he touched on love, but then he touched on death
I better hold my tongue, I better take my place
Lift this glass of blood, try to say the grace.
It is inevitable that if we love someone, we may be asked to suffer for them. Their journey through the crosses in their life becomes our journey as well. It’s not easy. The pain is at times unresolvable. All we can do is love them, be with them, listen to their anguish and stay with them. Ask any parent of an adult child who is going through trials and difficulties. There is such a feeling of powerlessness, and a pain we have for the one in trouble.
In his book A Cry For Mercy, Rev. Henri Nouwen states: “We do this even when we can do nothing to change the situation. This is the crux of our challenge. We do profess that caring is first of all about presence to a beloved brother or sister who at this moment feels powerless. Right here, we accept in ourselves that we are not first of all someone who takes pain away, but rather someone who is willing to share it.”
I often think of Mary standing at the foot of the cross. She was powerless to stop the suffering, but unlike the disciples of Jesus, she did not run away and hide. Her standing there was her action. The fixing of her eyes of love on her son was all she could do and that she did. She shared in the cross of Jesus from the strength of her love for him.
Today’s Gospel is all about faith amidst chaos. Jesus has just fed the 5,000 when, like Elijah, he climbs a mountain alone to pray. His disciples are out on a boat when Jesus comes walking on the water toward them. Just like many of his post-resurrection appearances, the disciples mistake him for a ghost. Upon recognition, Peter ventures out to meet him. While he is walking on the water, a wind comes up that frightens Peter and he begins to sink. The Lord picks him up and they return to the safety of the boat. Peter is gently chided by Jesus for his lack of faith.
Doubt, insecurity, and fear are the things that weigh us down when we ride on the waters of life. The biblical analogy of turbulent seas is most often a reflection of the spiritual turbulence and chaos in our own lives. With a little faith, we are able to rise above the tumult, but it seems to only take a small setback to cause us panic and we begin to sink into our fears and insecurities.
It’s time like this that we need the helping hand of Jesus. We need his strong presence in our life to buoy us up and keep us “walking on the water.” He can see us to safety. He can still the rocky seas in our life. As the old 60s song goes: Put your hand in the hand of the man who stilled the waters . . . Take a look at yourself and you can look at others differently, by putting your hand in the hand of the man from Galilee.
Here are four people of deep prayer and deep suffering: Elijah, Paul, Mary and Jesus. Each are shining examples of rising above the chaos of the moment and willing guides for us over the choppy waters of our life. We then are asked to do the same for others. We may not be able to rescue them, but we can accompany them, cry with them, laugh with them and be present in their times of trial.
On a spiritual and heart level, you might want to call this “developing your sea legs!” Those are the ones that keep us putting one foot in front of the other with a prayer of trust that God will see us through. Our “sea legs” make us move when we’d rather stay mired in our own despair.
There will be times when all we can do is trust and move ahead with life. The boat is out there somewhere and Jesus will take us to its safety.
Williston gives parish missions and is a former missionary with the Redemptorists. He is also a songwriter and recording artist.