The spiritual life has often been compared to a journey – a journey to God. The poet Patrick Kavanagh says that ‘only those who fly home to God have flown at all.’ The Exodus is at the heart of this journey. It involves leaving home, our loved ones, our comfort zones and our prized little kingdoms. But above all else we are asked to leave behind our egoism and self-centredness so as to go forward into God’s kingdom and take on God’s vision. Journey implies pilgrimage. We are birds of passage, who have here no lasting city. (Perhaps that’s the attraction of the Camino to Compostela. People get in touch with their true status as pilgrims). To remain stagnant is to fall backward. The pilgrim makes progress only by continually moving out from egoism and self.
Today’s Gospel and an amazing miracle that came to light last Wednesday has got me thinking that voyage is a more powerful symbol. Voyage involves crossing the sea and once we step into a little boat we realise just how driven we are by forces more powerful than ourselves, like wind and wave. On a good day everything is fine, even magical. We sail upon a rippling surface of events, feeling the joy of movement, being alive and going somewhere. We feel the contentment of those experienced sailors, the apostles on their way across the quiet lake of Galilee.
But what about when the wind whips up a storm? Last Wednesday an amazing story came to light. It goes back to Christmas 2004 which witnessed the deadliest tsunami in modern times claiming 275,000 lives. One casualty was a four-year-old Indonesian girl called Raudhatul Jannah who was swept out into the sea. The parents gave up searching for her a month later. Then the incredible happens. Last Wednesday that same little girl, now fourteen, was reunited with her parents. She had been swept on a plank to a remote island some forty kilometres away. There she was found by a fisherman who gave her to his ageing mother to look after her.
Obviously there was someone looking after this brave little girl. Might not this story symbolise just how vulnerable we are and yet God is holding us! And is this not true both at a spiritual and physical level? The apostles lost at sea and in peril for their lives were looked after too when Christ came to them in their darkest hour. Note that he came to them on the fourth watch of the night. That would be 3 in the morning. Three o’clock is an hour associated with insomniacs and worry. If you are unable to sleep, 3 a.m. is tossing-and-turning and pacing-the-hall time. If you are a parent waiting for your kid to come home, 3 a.m. becomes nail-biting time. There was a creak in the stairs at home when we were growing up (in fact when we thought we had grown up!). I think my mother deliberately put it there so she would hear us come in. Then she could sleep. The last thing you want at 3 a.m. is a knock on the door or a phone call.
The good news today is that it is precisely at this time of greatest need and darkness that Jesus comes to their rescue and indeed our rescue. And he comes to us as an understanding friend. Pope Benedict makes the point that the essence of faith is that something meets us that is greater than anything we can think of ourselves. This is literally what happens to the disciples as they see Jesus walking on the water. Jesus summons them to faith – a way of approaching reality that entails leaving behind our old way of measuring things and seeing all according to this Something Greater that meets us.
God is present where we least expect him, although it is a hidden, unseen presence, not always easy to discover. It takes faith nearer than the door. So the apostles were amazed to see Christ coming to them in the middle of the storm, for (at that stage) they were men of little faith. Elijah, that lonely refugee, faithful to his God despite cruel persecution by Jezebel, discovered the mysterious presence of God in the still, small voice of his own soul. Standing at the mouth of a cave, on the slopes of the holy mountain, he got strength and comfort from the Living God. Where God is, there is peace. But his presence is everywhere, for those who learn to discern it.
We do not expect to be immune from the hardships and problems faced by all the other voyagers through this life. Indeed, Christ himself shared fully in all of these anxieties, being tested as we are. If the Church be seen as a boat (in which there are no idle passengers, but all are needed to row!), then we have as destination the safe harbour of eternal life. With the compass of faith, and Christ himself as unseen captain of the ship, that harbour will surely be reached. In the meantime, though tossed about by circumstances, he tells us: “Courage! Do not be afraid, you of little faith!’
Sunday, 10th August 2014