Chapter Talk – 19th Sunday of the Year – August 9, 2020, cycle-A
Once again for this Sunday’s Eucharist we have very rich readings. In the gospel (Mt 14:22-33), Jesus leaves his disciples after the feeding of the multitudes and goes off to pray. The disciples, meanwhile, get in the boat and head for the opposite shore, without Jesus. Very quickly a storm erupts with strong winds. Jesus later starts out towards them walking on the water and they become fearful before this sight. Seeing their fear, Jesus says: ‘Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.’ Then, Peter, as we know, engages Jesus. He says: ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come.’ Jesus replies ‘Come.’ Now we don’t know Peter’s motivation but let us use our imagination a little. Peter says to himself: ‘I can do this with your grace.’ So, he starts out…the wind picks up and fear grips him, his pervading thought then becomes ‘I can’t do this.’ His faith has been co-opted by fear and he begins to sink.
Dom Erik Varden, in his introduction to unit #8 of Experientia, gives a reflection on Isaac of Stella’s sermon on the ‘storm at sea’. This is the story where Jesus is asleep in the bough of the boat, while the storm is erupting, NOT Jesus walking on the water. However, there is a correlation about faith between both stories. Dom Eric writes: “Isaac makes this prayer to the Lord: ‘Rise, command the winds and sea and save me from pusillanimity’. To be pusillanimous is to be ‘little-souled’. The monk or nun is called, by contrast, to courageous magnanimity” (p. 47-48). The word: ‘pusillanimity’ is not used that frequently in the English language. Here are some of its meanings: cowardly, spineless, lack of determination, lacking courage. Faith, on the other hand, leans us into grace, it contains our fears, it has a divine strength to it…so that no matter how small our faith is, even as tiny as a mustard seed, it can move mountains!!!
This contrast between faith and ‘pusillanimity’ I find stirring. It helps to get a fresh perspective on the meaning of faith. We could say that faith is ‘great-souled’, that it is ‘courageous magnanimity’, wide in courage and ready to give all and do whatever God asks. We see the faith of Elijah in the first reading where he is told that God will appear to him (1 Kings 19: 9a, 11-13a). Many evident and obvious natural signs happen to him: there is a strong wind, then an earthquake, followed by fire, but God is not in any of these. And parenthetically, experiencing these natural events would stir up fear in any of us! What does Elijah do? He does not give up but waits…his faith-demeanor is ‘great-souled’…he is present, aware, waiting, and then comes the ‘whispering of God’, the small, still voice of the Spirit and Elijah hides his face in his cloak. Elijah’s faith-demeanor enables him to behold the Divine presence, a presence that is manifested in a less than obvious manner.
Fr. Simeon, in his commentary on the gospel, describes the process of the disciples in this way: they are “…reduced to an interior struggle…, a battle in their souls and emotions between habitual fear and nascent faith” (Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word, vol. II, p.372). He further says that “The evangelist intends…to correlate eventual growth in faith and knowledge of God with protracted and abysmal fear” (p.375). In other words, growth in faith “cannot not occur without the experience” of fear.
God is always coming towards us. Here, in the midst of this storm at sea, we see Jesus walking towards his disciples. The Divine voice says: “Take heart, I AM, have no fear”. We are preparing for an encounter: as Jesus walks towards the disciples in the boat Peter begins at Jesus’ command, ‘Come’, to walk toward him…Peter then walks on the stormy waters of fear. As long as he keeps his focus on Jesus, he is fine. The fear is there but does not overpower because the relationship with Jesus keeps the fear at bay. However, Peter, not unlike us, takes the eye of his heart off the Divine presence, he focuses ever so briefly on the strong ‘wind’ and fear takes over. Fr. Simeon writes: “He who thinks wind, becomes wind. The turning away from Jesus of the heart’s intention shatters the all-powerful axis of pure reciprocity…” (p.382). The powerful axis of reciprocity, a reciprocity that depicts the relationship between Peter and Jesus. What a teaching this is! He or she who thinks ‘wind becomes the wind’, he or she who thinks fear, becomes the fear. What we learn from this story is that what creates the gulf “between disciple and Master” is Peter’s doubt. Jesus is so close and yet fear in the moment separates Peter from his Master. However, even as Peter begins to drown, the Lord is there reaching out to save him!
In this moment of doubt, Fr. Simeon says: “Peter attributed more importance to the power of the wind to agitate waves than to the power of Jesus’ love to sustain him above danger” (p.387). Is this not what happens to us in the middle of a ‘storm’? We give more power to our fears and doubts than to the God of love. A final comment from Fr. Simeon: Jesus says to Peter then “Why did you doubt?” Or, “Why were you of two minds?” “Such being of ‘two minds’ is the deepest enemy of faith…” (p.388). Do you know this experience of being of ‘two minds’? It reflects an internal struggle, one that has the possibility to deepen our relationship with God through faith, or one that pulls us away from this relationship. The struggle is to whom or to what do we surrender? To our fears or to the silent Presence that says ‘Come’…‘Do not be afraid’…
Our fears and doubts are not going away. They will visit us like the waves that come upon the shore. Let us remember that we are not alone as we face them…the Divine silent voice reminds us to ‘not be afraid’. The love relationship with Christ is to sustain us through our fears and anxieties. This relationship is our rock, our foundation. And faith, growing in faith deepens this relationship…
Sr. Kathy DeVico, Abbess