One of the best ways of praying, for people who have a vivid imagination, is to take a scene from the Gospels like the one we have just heard of Jesus walking on the water, and to picture ourselves there and see what happens and what we can learn from it. We might, for example, see ourselves in the boat with the apostles, feel the force of the wind and the splash of the waves as the storm rocks the boat, and then, as Peter says to Jesus, “If it is you, tell me to come to you across the water,” we might find ourselves thinking, “Really, that is a bit presumptuous! Why does he have to do such crazy things? Isn’t it bad enough being trapped in a storm with a ghost coming towards you?”
And yet Jesus’ reaction is very different. He is delighted by Peter’s bold suggestion and happily lets him share in the miracle of walking on water. And like the wonderful teacher he is, he uses it to drive home to Peter a lesson he will never forget, a lesson no classroom or academic lecture could ever teach him: “Keep your eyes fixed on me in the midst of life’s difficulties, and you can do impossible things easily. But take them off me and focus instead on the difficulties, and you will begin to sink.”
I wonder how many times in his life Peter found himself remembering this lesson and dong his best to live by it. If you’ve ever been on a pilgrimage or a holiday to Rome, you may remember a Church on the outskirts of the city called Domine Quo Vadis, which means, Lord where are you going? It’s near some of the catacombs, where many of the early Christians were buried. According to a legend, when things got tough for the Christians in Rome under the brutal emperor Nero, Peter thought, as the leader of the Church, that the wise thing to do would be to escape. As he was fleeing the city, he met someone who looked unmistakably like Jesus going the other way. “Where are you going, Lord?” he asked. “Into the city to be crucified again,” was the reply. Peter took the hint, turned back, and met his death there as Jesus had foretold long before by the Sea of Galilee, his tomb becoming the site of the greatest Church in the world, St. Peter’s basilica.
It seems that this is a lesson we continually have to learn in our own lives, perhaps because we can never be quite sure whether God wants us to take the safer course or step out of the boat. There are times when it is indeed best to err on the side of caution, and other times when we are called to take risks. It’s only if we keep our eyes fixed firmly on Jesus, and our ears alert to his voice, that we will sense what he is telling us to do.
Elijah in the first reading was hardly a novice in putting God’s will into practice in his life in bold and dramatic gestures. Only a few weeks before the episode we heard, he had called down fire from heaven to show that his enemies were worshipping a false God, and he had had them slaughtered as he rebuilt the altar to the Lord. But at the moment of his great triumph, the king’s wife, Jezebel, had threatened to have him slaughtered in the same way, and he had run for his life. Then he had become depressed at his own weakness and even turned to thoughts of suicide. He had to be led by the guidance of an angel to the holy mountain where he encountered God afresh and recovered his courage.
It’s one of the most encouraging stories in the Bible. If even a great prophet like Elijah could give in to human weakness and run away, it’s not surprising if lesser mortals like us experience the same thing at times. We like him need regularly to seek God’s face so that we can recapture a sense of what he wants us to do, which is another way of saying what our life is meant to be all about, and how we are to go about it.
And the reading tells us in beautiful and suggestive images where we are likely to find him. Not in the mighty wind or the earthquake or the fire, but in the sound of a gentle breeze. As a well-known hymn based on this passage says, “Speak through the earthquake, wind and fire, O still small voice of calm.” In other words, make time for silence and rest in your life, a good message for this holiday time of year, turn off the radio and TV, leave the social media alone for a bit, and in that silence and calm seek God. Ask him to come and show you the way and give you the power to walk on water and in that way be a beacon of hope to others who have lost the way. You will find that he is already there looking for you and stretching out his hand to you as he did to Peter and saying, “Man of little faith, woman of little faith; why did you doubt me? I am always there with you. Keep your eyes on me and you can do what is impossible on your own.”