Last Sunday, I shared how the times may leave us feeling like getting into our own little boat and heading off into the middle of the lake where no one can disturb us, and where we may be free from the concern that swirls around us as we continue to navigate the threat of the pandemic. However, once we are out in the lake, we are not guaranteed serenity. I remember once picking up a small poster which read, “Dear God, help me; the sea is so wide, and my boat is so small.” The size of the lake itself can be overwhelming, and then storms whip up so that the serenity for which we went in search is replaced by fear. Nowhere, then, is entirely safe, and perhaps that is very much our current experience.
The Gospel story we hear this Sunday can be read within this context. It is not simply a fantastic story of people walking on water. For the people of the Scriptures, the ocean was a symbol of chaos more than of anything. It was the place of darkness and uncertainty – the place of hidden monsters. The Hebrew people were not sea-faring; they were people of the desert and although they involved themselves in fishing, they retained a deep ambivalence about the uncertain power of water. The writer has Jesus come to the disciples across the water. It is a dramatic portrayal of how Jesus is Lord over the waters, i.e. of how Jesus has power over, and in the midst of, chaos and turbulence. Jesus is Lord even over the uncertainty of our time in history.
The story leads us to reflect about our reaction in the midst of turmoil and chaos. All around us ‑ as the First Reading today prefigures ‑ there might be earthquakes, howling winds, raging fires – all metaphors of that with which we have to contend. But, deep within us there can be a sense of peace, a sense of calm, a sense of resolve, a sense of gentleness. As Lord over all that threatens to swamp us, Jesus brings us to a point of stillness. The writer is trying to illustrate to us that faith in Jesus opens a still point ‑ a place of deep calm and peace. At the heart of the story is the teaching that the Christian disciple is the one who finds peace even in the midst of conflict. For the disciple, it is in the turbulence of life that peace comes, not in the absence of storms.
Christian peace comes not from the absence of conflict in life, but in the recognition that precisely in the conflict and storms, someone is holding us, providing us with the assurance that we have a sense of identity larger than the conflict by which we are encircled. When we feel overwhelmed, not sure where to place our steps – when we feel as if we are sinking – the Gospel that invites us to receive a gaze which comes to us from beyond our own confusion – a gaze which steadies us, assures us, invites us.
This is what we have celebrated in Australia this weekend with our commemoration of our St Mary Mackillop of the Cross. Her title is not incidental. The storms in her own life were multiple. Often, she was confused, lonely and bewildered. There was the complexity of her family relationships, unhappy home life, having lived in 16 places by the time she was 24. There was the confusion generated by the brilliant and charismatic, but quixotic, Fr Julian Tenison Wood, her first mentor and the one who inspired her mission. In her fledging community in Adelaide, there was the chaos created by the delusions of Srs Angela and Ignatius. There were the contradictions caused by envy and petty gossip, the innuendo that she was alcoholic. There was the concern brought about by constant ill-health.
Yet, it was precisely in a milieu such as this that Mary attended to the whispers of God in her heart and faithfully followed them. Mary’s intuition of God occurred in her suffering, not in the absence of the storms of her life. Often, she felt like ‘running away’, at times “envying the dead.” Only she didn’t. It is her quiet clarity of purpose which she maintained in the face of so much that threatened to overwhelm her that is altogether remarkable. Mary loved and made the choice to be open whilst confused, fearful, overwhelmed.
How did she maintain such clarity? She did so by being grounded in her relationship with God – a relationship which was always characterized by a sustained care-filled discernment. She sought to remain attentive to God in her reading, by seeking advice, through friendship, by her correspondence. These resources brought her to her heart, her centre, her sense of calm in the midst of the chaos.
When the Spirit of God lead us to anchor in the still quiet place deep within us and when we can hear the song of a tiny bell of re-assurance and of invitation, we learn to dance even when it is raining all around us. We learn the truth of that saying full of wisdom “We should not live as if waiting for the storm to pass but learn how to dance in the rain.” It may even feel as if we are walking on water.
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