I was pleased when I saw the readings this week. How appropriate that I should finish my time here with my "first parish" with the Gospel story depicted on my ordination card! Indeed, Peter's walk on the water is one of my favorite Gospel episodes, one that has brought me much consolation in my years as a Jesuit. And I enjoyed the chance to reflect on it in the context of Elijah's encounter with God in that "tiny whispering sound" in the first reading. So, here it goes:
One of the most frequent questions I hear from people on retreat is: How do I know that it is God speaking to me in my silent prayer, and it’s not just my mind telling me what I want to hear? It’s a great question, and I can relate to it because I often ask myself the same thing. And it’s not an easy one to answer. Save for God appearing and speaking to you directly—and even then you’d probably think yourself crazy—it’s hard to be sure. How did Elijah know, in the first reading today, that God wasn’t in the earthquake, the wind or the fire, but instead in that small whispering voice? Save for the fact that he was a prophet, and thus should know such things, who knows?! At this moment Elijah was on the run from people who wanted to take his life. It’s a wonder he didn’t grasp on to the idea that God would manifest himself as something thundering and violent. Yet, perhaps he simply recognized that at such a time it was not more violence that was needed, but rather a whispering calm. In any case, I think we’re meant to take note of what happens next. When Elijah recognizes God he moves to the front of the cave. He comes out of hiding and waits for God to tell him what’s next.
This is actually an apt metaphor for our prayer experience. And this is what I tell those who ask me about it. Like Elijah, we look for God. And, like Elijah, we trust that God’s presence will be made manifest in our lives. In answer to that recognition, we too have come out of hiding. We open ourselves to God. So, why wouldn’t God speak to us? Why wouldn’t God take advantage of that openness in prayer and reveal to us what’s next. And God inevitably does. Sometimes God just confirms what we were thinking already, for certainly God was already working. But sometimes God does something that comes as a total surprise.
When God does speak to us in prayer, and I think he does far more often than we recognize, this is usually an invitation to obedience. If you’re looking to be a rebel, here’s your chance, because this is one of the most countercultural things about our faith. Not only that we would talk to God, and claim that he speaks with us, but that we would let God tell us what to do! In a world that worships independence and self-determination, people will think we’re crazy not so much because we claim to speak with God, but that we would do something contrary to our own will in order to serve God’s will! And their objections will only become louder and more thunderous if, as sometimes happens, things then don’t go so well.
Six years ago I found myself in just this kind of situation. I’d finished the first part of my seminary studies, and was looking forward to a few years of active ministry before returning to studies. There was a plan in place for me to go and teach English at one of our high schools. I was really excited, and looking forward to it. However, about six months before I was to start, I was asked to consider another position. Not teaching, but directing the campus ministry and community service programs. I was not happy. I’d already told my formation director that an administrative type job would not suit me well, but he insisted I consider it. I did, then returned to him and repeated my objections, adding that I would do whatever was asked of me and try my best. I was asked to do it, and tried my best to do it well, but I couldn’t hide the fact that I was just barely keeping my head above water and that the work was making me miserable. I thought: If I weren’t a Jesuit, I would just quit. Indeed, I’m not sure I would have made it if it hadn’t been for the presence of a couple of Jesuit friends, and my work outside the school directing two women through a retreat in daily life, where we encountered just the kind of questions about prayer I was speaking of.
After a year of basically overworking myself, the principal expressed no appreciation for my work, but instead not so nicely invited me to leave. And my religious superiors were starting to wonder about my future as a Jesuit. But by then I had already realized for myself that something new was happening. I realized that despite my desire to just quit the job, my confidence in my vocation as a Jesuit and a priest had not wavered, even if now it was being called into question. Also, what had been happening at that same time was that I had already received an unexpected invitation—from someone who had no idea what was going on with me at the high school—to come and teach at Loyola University in New Orleans. I spent a very happy and successful two years there during which even I was amazed at the things I was able to accomplish, and the doubts of my superiors were soon put to rest, more or less.
I realized then why, for reasons I couldn’t have anticipated, a few years before I had found myself so drawn to the story in today’s Gospel reading. As with Elijah, this is a story of recognition. Peter and the Apostles think they’re seeing a ghost as Jesus walks toward them on the water. Yet, in response to Jesus’ voice, Peter does what many of us would like to do when we are trying to sort out whether or not God is really speaking to us: He kind of dares Jesus to prove himself, saying, “If it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus says, “OK. Come on.” Like Elijah stepping out of the cave, Peter offers to Jesus his obedience, by stepping out of the boat and, amazingly, finds himself walking on the water. Now a lot of people want to see this as a story of failure. But I want to say, wait a minute! Did you notice that Peter walked on the water? Jesus told him to, and he walked on the water! Yeah, then he started to notice the high winds, and began to sink, just like the winds of independence, self-reliance and doubt can get in the way of our attempts to answer God’s call to walk on the water as well. But, at least he stepped out of the boat! And he and Elijah both highlight for us today, what I also learned during that miserable year: When we choose to trust that we are hearing God in our prayer, when we choose despite our doubts and even perhaps contrary to our own will to be obedient to God, we’ll probably find what Peter did. We’ll sometimes find ourselves doing more than we ever imagined we could, and we’ll sometimes find ourselves miserable and struggling for air. Yet, either way, like Peter, we’ll always have the confidence that we’ll be heard when we cry out, “Lord, save me.” And we’ll also have the confidence that God will respond.