As Jesus got into a boat, his disciples followed him. Suddenly a violent storm came up on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by waves; but he was asleep. They came and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” He said to them, “Why are you terrified, O you of little faith?”Matthew 8: 23-5
There is a certain mode of what we call faith that is rather, useless as it may be, an attempt at manipulation. It mistakenly believes that if Jesus is with us (or whomever or whatever is the “object” of our faith) there will be no storms. From a very young age I witnessed my own father’s great capacity to be steadfast in the face of life’s pains and struggles. I saw how when members of his family would die, for example, he seemed to be the rock that could be counted on, and this despite the obvious personal struggles of his own life. I came to identify this capacity for strength and equanimity with maturity. To be steady and unruffled in the face of sorrow and confusion was the mark of being truly adult.
It certainly is true that the ability to be calm, steadfast, and functional in the midst of life’s storms is a mark of human maturity. The way I configured this, however, was that to be in this way meant to be untouched by what was happening. I assumed my father didn’t feel the grief or the fear or the elation for that matter, and that was how he was able to be so steady and present and attentive at times that could evoke paralyzing feelings in others. To become mature for me was not only to achieve a certain cognitive distance from my affects and emotions, it was actually to dissociate myself from them altogether. As my religious sensibility developed, I began to associate this stance with “faith.” Mature faith, then, took on something of a stoical form for me. I associated any manifestations of strong emotion like excitement, desire, fear, dread, as well as any bodily senses and desires as manifestations of my infantile and undeveloped self. The believing self was characterized by a growing sense of “self-control” which, in time, would be free of all the disturbances to which such affects and emotions give rise. In other words, to really “have faith” would mean being undisturbed in both enjoyable and painful ways by the depths of our own humanity.
Today we read that Jesus got into the boat and “the disciples followed him.” Jesus, being exhausted, fell immediately to sleep. While he was sleeping, “a violent storm came up” and the boat is swamped by the waves. In my own personal reading, the disciples were filled with “faith” as they followed Jesus onto the boat and anticipated sharing in his presence as they navigated over tranquil waters. Yet, as soon as the storm kicked up, they were certain that they were perishing. In Rembrandt’s Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, we have a vision of this story that truly captures the violence of the storm and the struggle of the disciples to keep the boat afloat, while others are attempting to awaken Jesus, who is at rest at the foot of the steersman.
The violence of the storm and the requisite effort of the crew is not in doubt for Rembrandt, yet, when one turns one’s gaze to Jesus, and even to the steersman immediately behind him, there is not only a calmness but even a sense of restfulness. Does true faith, perhaps, involve the experience and dispositions of all the characters in Rembrandt’s work? In fact, are we not always both at once the frantic and effortful disciples and the faithful peacefulness of Jesus?
As children, we desire to model the behaviors of those we respect. We are not yet attuned to the inner experience of the adults. I presumed that my father was not experiencing what others were whose emotions were so much more manifest. I admired that others looked to him, and I supposed that he was able to do what he did because he was not overwhelmed or paralyzed by the feelings that others had.
As the disciples we tend to “believe” that Jesus or God is present when we feel good or are calm and peaceful. When this is not the case, we fear that Jesus is asleep, or God is absent, and we might well perish. So, we sometimes call “faith” an act of attempted control and manipulation of the Divine which is, of course, impossible. We want “faith” to free us from the storms of life, in particular from the storms of our own inner lives. Thus, we believe that to have faith and to be holy is to be above the fray, or, to be honest, to be above the state of all other mortals.
In New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton says that true faith does not only teach us “about God,” but it also reveals “to us the unknown in our own selves.” In Rembrandt’s painting, we see the symbol of our own lives. Our own little boat is cast afloat in the sea of mystery. If we grasp anything of life beyond the behavioral and mere appearances, we realize in the depths of our being the incomprehensibility and seeming chaos of the mystery that is Life and our participation in it. At the rational-functional level of our personality, we are always seeking the security of a protected and enclosed port in which we can safely anchor. From that secure place of our own creation, we create a god, who is an image of our own ego, who will maintain us in that protected place.
Yet, this confuses the small and enclosed harbor for the sea, and faith in our own imaginations for faith in God. As I’ve described before, a psychotherapist whom I was seeing during the years of my mother’s decline with dementia once said to me. “No matter what you do she is going to get worse.” Faith is not an escape from the storms of life. When Jesus in today’s gospel upbraids the disciples for their lack of faith, he is telling them that God is in the storm as well. There are times in life when we experience what is, both within us and in the world, as so far beyond anything we can control or understand. If faith is real, the very way we tend to identify good and evil, positive and negative, desirable and undesirable is all thrown into doubt for us.
Merton says that it is only in faith that one begins to know “the most meaningful depths of one’s own being.” It is at my moments of greatest ignorance that I have declared that “I know who I am.” My father’s strength in those difficult and painful moments of life was an expression of certain attributes of who he was. It was not who he was. That is similarly true of those expressions of his identity which I did not find admirable. And so with myself, and so with all of us.
I continue to mistake aspects of my expression form for myself because of my lack of faith. I refuse and deny some of who I am, and perhaps including “the most meaningful depths of [my] own being” because of a lack of faith. The person we are that lives in God cannot be known by a superficial faith and from the secure ports of our own creation. Faith requires us to know that God will be in the storm if we dare to set out into the sea. Beyond the tempests that continually assail us, lies the place in us where Jesus is resting, undisturbed by those storms. For much of my life, and even until today, I desired to find a shortcut to that realization, a shortcut I sometimes termed faith. If we are hiding ourselves for the sake of security, however, we do not have faith in God. Faith is willingness to have revealed to us something of the Mystery that is always beyond us. Yet, it is also our one true home and place of rest. As the Rig Veda prays:
God makes the rivers to flow. They tire not, nor
do they cease from flowing. May the river of my
life flow into the sea of love that is the Lord.
Hence, the function of faith is not only to bring us into contact with the “authority of God” revealing; not only to teach us truths “about God,” but even to reveal to us the unknown in our own selves, in so far as our unknown and undiscovered self actually lives in God, moving and acting only under the direct light of His merciful grace.Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, pp. 136-7
This is, to my mind, the crucially important aspect of faith which is too often ignored today. Faith is not just conformity, it is life. It embraces all the realms of life, penetrating into the most mysterious and inaccessible depths not only of our unknown spiritual being but even of God’s own hidden essence and love. Faith, then, is the only way of opening up the true depths of reality, even of our own reality. Until a person yields oneself to God in the content of total belief, one must inevitably remain a stranger to oneself, an exile from oneself, because one is excluded from the most meaningful depths of one’s own being; those which remain obscure and unknown because they are too simple and too deep to be attained by reason.