Then they took Jonah and threw him into the sea, and the sea’s raging abated. Struck with great fear of the Lord, the men offered sacrifice and made vows to him. But the Lord sent a large fish, that swallowed Jonah; and Jonah remained in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. From the belly of the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord, his God. Then the Lord commanded the fish to spew Jonah upon the shore.Jonah 1:15 – 2:1, 11
In the Fundamental Principles we read:
If you allow yourself
to be formed by God
through the common,
flow of everyday life,
you will gradually experience
a liberation and a freedom
never before imagined.
Stand ready to answer God
when He asks you
if you are available for Him
to become more present in your life
and through you to the world
may you willingly respond:
“Let what you have said be done to me!”
Today we begin reading the saga of Jonah with the familiar episode of Jonah and the whale. Jonah winds up in the whale through a series of events precipitated by God’s call to him to preach repentance to Nineveh and his attempt to flee that call. God keeps pursuing Jonah, however, by sending a violent storm to threaten the ship that is Jonah’s means of escape from God. When the sailors, whose lives Jonah’s refusal of God’s will has threatened, throw him overboard, God saves him by sending the large fish that swallows him and in whose belly Jonah remains for three days and three nights.
The question that occurs to me today is what does Jonah do for those three days? How does this time become for him the space in which he learns to obey God? Today’s reading omits the verses of the prayer that Jonah utters, a prayer that intends to describe for us, the reader, the dispositions of heart that begin to take shape in Jonah, as he passes from the disobedient person to the obedient servant of God’s call and mission for him.
In the prayer of Jonah, which paraphrases many of the teachings of the Psalms, we hear the terror of Jonah’s experience, and how in that terror he cries out to the Lord. As he does, this cry is the very act of honestly opening himself to God and his need for God, Jonah realizes that God, even in these straits, is upholding him. Jonah finds himself where he is because he has fled the demands inherent in living his life in God. He attempts to flee, to distance himself from God. But he learns that this is impossible. To attempt to flee from the call of God is to attempt to flee from oneself. In our pride we assert ourselves as separate from God, we attempt to be our own god. As we hear in Jonah’s prayer, however, to flee from God is to experience our very life as “ebbing away.” In his prayer, Jonah recognizes this truth, and so, as his true life ebbs away, he turns toward God.
I said, ‘I have been banished
from your sight;
yet I will look again
toward your holy temple.’ (2:4)
There is a common cliche that there are no atheists in foxholes. Over and over again in life I learn that it is largely in moments of crisis and extremity that my rather perfunctory practice of prayer becomes vital. When Jonah prays that he now looks “again toward your holy temple,” I understand readily his experience. So often, in ordinary day to day life, I think that I know who I am, what the world is, and what I am to do. Then, at moments of loss and crisis I realize that, in truth, I am lost. I must, “look again toward your holy temple” if I am to understand the way for me.
More often, even than we are able to recognize, we are in the belly of the whale. So often, our own plans and our own hopes are thwarted. We discover that in attempting to serve God we have somehow begun to distance from God’s will and way for us. So, we find ourselves in a place of disorientation, of not knowing where we are to go. All we are able to do, with integrity, is to “look again toward your holy temple.” As the Psalmist prays, “I turn my eyes to the mountains; / from where will my help come?” (Psalm 121:1)
In the recounting of the story of Jonah, we are told he spends three days in the belly of the whale, but all we are told of what he does in that time is the prayer of Chapter 2, verses 3-11. I take this to mean that in whatever he did Jonah was developing the dispositions of heart expressed in this prayer. He was being taught the need, the humility, the appreciation, the honesty, the willingness, the thanksgiving, and the commitment that the prayer expresses. So for myself and all of us, we are constantly in need of re-learning these ways of the heart that allow us to live in communion with God and obedience to God’s will. We do this, to be sure, in moments of focal consciousness to God at explicit times of prayer. But, as the Fundamental Principles tell us, we also do this by living more intentionally “the common, ordinary, unspectacular flow of everyday life.”
I, as I know many with whom I speak, resonate deeply with this call to formation, reformation, and transformation “through the common, ordinary, unspectacular flow of everyday life.” Yet, today I am recognizing the profound connection between our attention to the common and our readiness to be available to the call of God that is our true life. It is not the spectacular or the extraordinary or the uncommon that clarifies and strengthens our call, our presence to and willingness to live for God and God alone. It is rather the common, the ordinary, and the unspectacular.
This is because it is precisely our “search for glory” that leads us astray, that leads us to refuse God’s way for us in preference to our own and “the world’s.” Yesterday I attended a celebration for my cousin and his wife who have just returned from a three year posting to Cyprus for the State Department, as well as his wife’s 50th birthday. Present were many of my cousin’s colleagues active and retired from the foreign service. At one point we were discussing a problematic aspect of the bureaucratic structure which led far too many in its culture to “suck up and kick down.” As one of them pointed out, one of many problems with this is that too many rise in the bureaucracy that are authorities but not leaders. It is not those who foster the unfolding of the talents and gifts of those who work with them, but rather those who ingratiate themselves to their superiors who rise in the organization.
Seeking glory and recognition is a strong motivation for all of us. Jonah does not want to be sent to summon the Ninevites to repentance. He doesn’t want to serve the sinners, for it is their deficiencies that constitutes his significance. So, he “started out to flee to Tarshish from the Lord’s service” (Jonah 1:3). We want to be uncommon, extraordinary, spectacular. So, the way back to “God’s service” for us is through the “common, ordinary, and unspectacular flow of everyday life.” The truth is there is a suffering for us in our ordinariness, the suffering of “being put in our place,” of recognizing the mere speck we are in the perspective of the universe as a whole.
So, here, in my own version of being in the belly of the whale, I hear a call this day to see anew the meaning and call in the common, ordinary, and unspectacular. There are moments in the lives of all of us where we can feel that, like Jonah, we have been thrown overboard in the midst of the storm. Yet, despite my own unawareness, God is not selectively present. As God provides the place in the whale’s belly for Jonah to awaken and to pray, so too God provides for us. In one of my favorite passages from the Gospel of John, Jesus tells the disciples that they know the way to the place where he is going. In response Thomas says: ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way.” It is to this that Jesus responds: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:4-6).
We recognize Jesus, and so our true selves, in forsaking the search for glory. By forgetting ourselves and attending to the reality of the ordinary around us, we discover ourselves as “ordinary.” As Jan van Ruusbroec teaches, however, to be truly ordinary is to be unique; it is to be the one we were when God created us. We know the way, as Jesus says, but the task for us is to come to recognize what we know. Often, in the midst of our business and project orientation we distance from what we know and from who we are. We flee, as Jonah, from the call that is ours. Jonah had very little distraction in the belly of the whale. For us, however, all that swirls outside of us and within us will continue to do so, even when circumstances create a pause in the flow of our lives. Thus, it remains quite possible that our continual rumination and obsession with what is outside of us will inhibit our turning to the temple of God within and immediately around us. When a break in our lives occurs, it is a possibility for seeing anew. In what may seem paradoxical to us, it is by paying close attention to the common, ordinary, and unspectacular flow of our lives that our vision may be clarified and our hearts and wills purified, so that we may more fully and truly commit ourselves to the Lord’s service.
That time, in third grade, with the help of Mrs. Callahan, my ESL teacher, I read the first book that I loved, a children’s book called Thunder Cake, by Patricia Polacco. In the story, when a girl and her grandmother spot a storm brewing on the green horizon, instead of shuttering the windows or nailing boards on the doors, they set out to bake a cake. I was unmoored by this act, its precarious yet bold refusal of common sense. As Mrs. Callahan stood behind me, her mouth at my ear, I was pulled deeper into the current of language. The story unfurled, its storm rolled in as she spoke, then rolled in once more as I repeated the words. To bake a cake in the eye of a storm; to feed yourself sugar on the cusp of danger.Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, p.5.