by Megan McKenna
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
“When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in.”
A storm! It’s a good image to describe the last 6 months, the onslaught of the Covid-19 virus and its spread like a wildfire across the world (nearly 800,000 deaths and over 22,000,000 cases as of 8/20). It is a furious storm with waves of suffering and death, winds that are headlong and gusting, affecting not only our bodies but our spirits and souls.
There are two stories in the Gospel about storms. The first is found in Matthew.
“Then he made the disciples get into the boat and precede him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When it was evening he was there alone. Meanwhile the boat, already a few miles offshore, was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it. During the fourth watch of the night, he came toward them, walking on the sea. When the disciples saw him walking on the water they were terrified. ‘It is a ghost’, they said, and they cried out in fear. At once Jesus spoke to them, ‘Take courage, it is I, do not be afraid.’ Peter said to him in reply, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come!’ Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened and, beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught him, and said to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’ After they got into the boat, the wind died down. Those who were in the boat did him homage, saying, ‘Truly, you are the Son of God.’ [Mt 14:22-36]
This is where we are, cowering in a boat, buffeted against water and wind all night until the 4th watch (around 3-5am), fearing for our lives. It is thought that the disciples did not know how to swim and the storms that would come up—without warning—were treacherous with winds strong enough to flip their boats. They are exhausted physically but the strain has been heightened by their fears—of death, but of so many other things that rise to the surface when we are faced with danger and our own mortality.
Jesus comes to them, walking on the water. They saw him through the driving wind and rain, waves swamping their boat, being thrown up and down, and in their state of mind they think they are seeing a ghost. Jesus speaks to them words of assurance, “Take courage, IT IS I; do not be afraid.” These are the same words to describe God/Yahweh in the earlier testament! And Peter, ever impulsive and rash, says: ‘IF it is you, command me to come to you across the water.” And Jesus simply says: “COME!” And probably without thinking, Peter gets out of the boat (not easy to do anytime, but more so in the midst of a storm). To his shock, Peter finds himself walking on the top of the waves, moving towards Jesus.
A few steps though, and he begins to realize what’s going on all around him, what he is actually doing (something impossible and unnatural) and the boat receding behind him. His attention is pulled away from Jesus. He takes his eyes off of him, like someone walking a tightrope who looks back or down, losing their balance. And he sinks. His physical fear swamps him as the waves rise up and he cries out: “Lord, save me.” Jesus stretches out his hand, grasps ahold of him and hauls him upright. Jesus goes fishing! And reels him in! Together they turn and head back towards the boat. Did they go arm in arm? Or was Jesus dragging him, still in shock? And it’s no easy thing to get back into the boat. Then, in a moment, it is quiet, all is stilled. It is the calm after the storm.
There is where we are today. A storm of a pandemic in a boat crowded with many other frightened people. Arundhati Roy tells us, “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudices and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smokey skies behind us. Or we can WALK through lightly, with little baggage ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
Now we have a taste of how to live in the storm and after. Storms not only destroy — they also scatter what needs to be cleared away, leaving us space to make new paths. What does this look like? How to restore balance, re-create our lives, repair our battered society and our individual souls?
There is an ancient Japanese art form called kintsukuroi (also called kintsugi). It has been practiced for nearly 500 years. When an object that is worth a small fortune such as a vase, plate, cup, bowl, etc. is broken and shattered into pieces, it is brought to an artist to be repaired. It is a painstaking, delicate and finely-honed skill. The artist puts it back together again, concentrating on the spaces between the broken pieces and shards. These thin and jagged spaces are filled with liquid gold or silver lacquer so that when the materials dry the restored piece is a thing of surpassing beauty, now priceless. This is the art we all must practice with one another, on all the institutions, structures, laws and ways in our society, and even more delicately and tenderly, patiently on each others’ bodies, psyches, spirits and souls. The cracks will remain, but they will form the foundation of what will change and make something whole and more exquisite.
We are being given two gifts: the first is the gift of crisis. The root of the word in Greek means “to shift”, to shake loose from excess and leave behind only what is essential. Crises force us to decide what we will grasp and hold onto and what we will pry ourselves away from, keeping what matters most and leaving all else behind as detritus. In Japanese the word crisis is formed of two characters that together form a doorway or a gateway into the mystery of the future. They are the characters for danger and possibility. We have to walk through the crisis in order to find out what these crises actually were in our lives.
The second gift is the chance to make our fears our friends! In the gospel passage Jesus is in the storm, as he is in all things. And he ‘commands’ us to COME towards him, to walk on the water and to live his way with daring as an adventure that can save us!
It is told in a Jewish midrash that when Moses and the people got to the Red Sea with the Egyptian army right behind them, they were dismayed at the wall of water that confronted them. Moses insisted that they move forward, stretching out his staff over the water. But it is said that no one moved — they screamed in fear, paralyzed, crying and praying for God to save them. And then one person dove into the water and immediately the waters started to move, and as the person sought to swim, their feet found footing on ground and the way opened up before them. Then, and only then, did the others plunge into the moving, thrashing waters. And they all walked through the sea that parted before them to freedom. Jesus tells Peter, and all of us: “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” It is time for us to plunge in.
The second story is found in Mark 4:36-41. It is another storm:
“On that day, as evening drew on, he said to them, ‘Let us cross over to the other side.’ Leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat just as he was. And other boats were with him. A violent squall came up and the waves were breaking over the boat, so that it was already filling up. Jesus was in the stern, asleep on a cushion. They woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ He woke up, rebuked the wind, and said to the sea: ‘Quiet! Be still!’ The wind ceased and there was great calm. Then he asked them, ‘Why are you afraid? Do you not have faith?’ They were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this whom even wind and sea obey?’”
This is how we have often felt during these long months. In the boats, in the storm, and God may be with us, but he’s asleep! And our prayer is often frantic and distressed: Wake up, God, don’t you care—we’re perishing? Isabel Allende, the author, has said: “We all have an unsuspected reserve of strength inside that emerges when life puts us to the test.” This reserve is also what we used to call ‘actual’ grace that is given in every instance for what we need. The storm calls us to discover this grace within all of us and calls us forth, commanding us to use that strength to obey the gospel and together to transform our realities.
The oceanographer Jacques Yves Cousteau once said: “The sea, the great unifier, is our only hope. Now, as never before, the old phrase has a literal meaning: we are all in the same boat.” We are all in the same storm on the same seas, though, as the scripture says, “there were others boats with him.” Our God is with us. God’s presence is both comfort and power to survive, to live with enduring grace and rely on God’s word and one another to weather this storm and all the other storms and fears that are surfacing in the midst of the massive changes and radical uncertainties surrounding this virus in our lives. But Jesus’s words are Good News, words of hope, freedom and liberation. Sharing them is a way to keep in touch, communicating with one another, feeding our fears on hope rather than letting our fears eat away at our faith.
The essayist Rebecca Solnit has said that “hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in that spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.” This pandemic throws us overboard, out of ‘what was normal’ and into mystery and wild possibilities for a future transformed by our experiences. We now are learning (hopefully) compassion, justice, driving concern for the poor, universal connections to all peoples, even the world and earth’s elements of air, wind, fire and water, weather and a sense of mutual reciprocity, intimacy and sheer necessity of all existence binding us together as the foundation that we need to rebuild and repair.
When I spent a good deal of time in Latin America and stayed with families, I was often given a gift the first night I slept in their house. Usually it was one or more of the children that came to me in their nightshirts when I was getting settled on the straw, or in someone’s else’s borrowed bed. They were giggling and would hand me a tiny box, no bigger than 3-4 inches, often smaller. They would tell me to take the top off. It was often made of straw woven together, painted red, green, yellow and whatever colors they could mix. Inside were tiny dolls, intricately made, dressed to look like all of them. Sometimes 4 or 5, more often as many as there were people sharing the house we were in. They told me solemnly that they were ‘worry’ dolls. I was to take them out, line them up and tell each one of them a worry, a concern, something or someone I was thinking about. And then once I’d told it to one of them, put it back in the box. Then when all my troubles, the people I missed and loved, and my worries were in the box, put the top back on and put it beside my bed. Then I could go to sleep easily and the dolls would keep my troubles for me and I could face them tomorrow morning with fresh eyes and rest.
It is a good way to face each night these months. Get a small box with some stones. You can tell your troubles, fears and worries to the stones and put them in the box, or tell them to God to keep them overnight. Lay them aside, and go to bed, sleeping next to Jesus already asleep in the boat with us. God will still our hearts and give us rest, and like the disciples, we will find that our fears have become awe before our God and how we are loved, protected and saved every moment. When we sleep and dream with God, we rise to ride out the storms and learn to walk on water, secure, knowing our God has hold of us and dwells with us. Come! In every moment: “Take courage. It IS I. Do not be afraid.”
Megan McKenna is a theologian, author and storyteller. This article will be published in a book collection in Ireland by Veritas this fall.