By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
Near the end of March 2020, the peoples of virtually all nations were enduring the first of many months of enforced isolation and the specter of sickness caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. At that precise moment, Pope Francis organized a worldwide hour of adoration, and offered the suffering faithful a sorely needed word of hope.
The physical setting could not have been more eloquently scripted to highlight the loneliness felt by millions in that moment. On a dark Roman evening dominated by steady rainfall, before an empty and wet St. Peter’s square, with ambulance sirens wailing in the background, the pope delivered a calm reflection on the Gospel story of Jesus asleep in the boat (Mark 4:35-41). He compared us, men and women universally afflicted by a ravaging disease, to the disciples caught in a violent storm at sea. Faced with the overpowering might of wind and water, aware of the fragility of their boat and their faith, they awake Jesus and beg him in a menacing and frightened tone, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” After calming the sky and quieting the sea, Jesus turns on the disciples and questions them: “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?”
The pope repeated these questions of Jesus five times throughout his meditation. He did not explain why Jesus was asleep on a cushion; he simply noted that “he sleeps on soundly, trusting in the Father” who brought the created order into being in Genesis 1 and who awed Job to silence in the whirlwind. The storm crashes upon the disciples’ boat in order to give them a vivid experience of the Lord’s sovereign authority; but Pope Francis also highlights the essential strengthening of faith at work in Jesus’ response to the storm and his questions to the disciples:
“‘Why are you terrified? Do you not yet faith?’ Faith begins when we realize we are in need of salvation. We are not self-sufficient; by ourselves, we flounder: we need the Lord, like ancient navigators needed the stars. Let us invite Jesus into the boats of our lives. Let us hand over our fears to him so that he can conquer them. Like the disciples, we will experience that with him on board there will be no shipwreck. Because this is God’s strength: turning to the good everything that happens to us, even the bad things.”
An important distinction must be made between storms external and internal, those at work outside us and those raging within. The exterior whirlwinds are obvious: unending virus variants, divisive angst over protocols, political mayhem, the psychological toll of isolation, a lost generation of poorly educated children. We must work calmly to address those problems to the best of our ability. But we will only be effective at limiting the external damage if we first bring order to the chaos of our interior life. Why did Jesus fall asleep in our boat to begin with? Did we put him to sleep through our disinterest, or disdain? Did he say “Thy will be done” to us when we assumed that we could navigate our tiny vessel on our own, without need of the virtues and grace that only he can give?
What is the nature of the faith Jesus chides the disciples for lacking as their skiff sinks? He does not object to their interruption of his sleep. Even without an immediate resolution to the external storms in our midst, let us individually awaken the slumbering Lord in our boat, and with less panic than the disciples:
“Lord, may you bless the world; give health to our bodies and comfort our hearts. You ask us not to be afraid. Yet our faith is weak, and we are fearful. But you, Lord, will not leave us at the mercy of the storm. Tell us again: ‘Do not be afraid.’ And we, together with Peter, will ‘cast all our anxieties onto you, for you care about us’ (1 Peter 5:7).”
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas and teaches in the theology department at the University of Dallas.