Can, though, faith stand firm in terrible circumstances such as war and famine? We find that this is possible if we look at the diary and letters of Etty Hillesum whose life was blighted by the gathering uncertainty, oppression and hardship of the Holocaust and who died in Auschwitz in November 1943. In spite of her terrible situation Etty stayed with the truth that she had come to and I quote: ‘that life remains rich and beautiful if only you remain open to receive it’. She wrote: ‘what has to be done must be done and for the rest we must not allow ourselves to become infested with thousands of petty fears and worries, so many motions of no confidence in God’. It is heart warming to find such faith in someone who was going through such troubled times and was determined not to evade the tempests that life had in store for her. She said she would follow wherever the hand of God led her, trying not to be afraid.
This example of faith in extreme adversity is encouraging yet we can I believe sympathise with the disciples in today’s Gospel reading when they shout to Jesus that they are perishing. This could be regarded, as Etty expressed it, as ‘a motion of no confidence in God’ but it is understandable that if you are in a boat filling up with water as a gale sweeps down you might well panic. The disciples do at least demonstrate a measure of faith by calling to Jesus to wake up, hoping that he will rescue them. Nevertheless Jesus rebukes them with the question ‘where is your faith?’.
Let us explore this further. As I understand it, this passage in Luke’s Gospel gives us faith as being formed in stages. The newly-called disciples are at an early stage of their journey with Jesus. As such they have been with him long enough to accept his call to them to get into the boat with him to cross to the other side of the lake but their faith has not yet developed enough for them to be calm in the storm and trust in God to see them to their destination. This early stage of faith is made manifest in their lack of full understanding of who Jesus is and so they say to one another: ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?’ Contrast this narrative with the final two verses of Luke’s Gospel when Jesus has ascended into heaven and the disciples ‘worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the Temple blessing God’. Their journey with Jesus has been filled with amazement and doubt but these last words show that their faith has grown amongst all the uncertainty, step by step.
So faith can grow and even flourish in times of adversity. It is perhaps the tests that God puts us through that encourage faith in us and Jesus himself is embraced in this process. This is apparent later in Luke’s Gospel narrative. In the earlier narrative Jesus falls asleep on the boat and is then able to ‘rebuke the wind and the raging waves’ showing a calm authority and certainty in God’s purpose. This calm authority continues in his teaching in parables and in chapter 10 of Luke’s Gospel he rejoices in the parables, thanking God for them. When those around him seek to test him he has ready answers and even Peter’s denial of him does not test him as he knows that this will happen: ‘I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you have denied three times that you know me’. In the later narrative, though, when he is praying on the Mount of Olives we know that he is being severely tested and it is in this moment that he shows oneness with God. Thus he says: ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done’. Here Jesus is revealing in a most testing circumstance ultimate faith in the Will of God.
Let us return to today’s Gospel reading to see what else this passage reveals to us. In his rebuking of the wind and the waves and making them cease we find Jesus at one with Creation. In this narrative he is conquering chaos as God conquered the watery storms in the Old Testament that were the symbols of chaos. We find this in Psalm 29 in abundance when: ‘the God of glory thunders, the Lord over mighty waters’. In Psalm 106, God ‘rebuked the Red Sea and it became dry’.
So we have God and Jesus talking to nature, showing that they are at one with it but also making it conform to their will. Talking to nature has gone on across the centuries in song and poetry. In Shakespeare’s ‘As you like it’ Amien sings: ‘blow, blow thou winter wind, thou art not so unkind as man’s ingratitude’. In the nineteenth century the poet Shelley talked to the wind: ‘O wild west wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being…’. These are observations rather than commands but they have an affinity with Bible texts as dialogues with nature.
There is a spirituality here which manifests itself strongly when poets use nature to convey relationship to God by way of analogy. In the seventeenth century in his poem ‘the Flower’ George Herbert, the priest and poet, wrote: How fresh, O Lord, how sweet and clean are thy returns even as the flowers in spring’. In the nineteenth century the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote: ‘Glory be to God for dappled things, for skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow’. Hopkins reminds us of poetry as a means of contemplation of God and contemplating him in the ordinary; in all things and in each thing. As W. H. Davies expressed it: ‘what is this life, if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare’. Poetry often uses vivid imagery to describe what we see and to help us experience it afresh. For
the Christian this leads us to an awareness of the presence of God, since all creation is God’s gift.
There is also the tradition that says the perceptions and language we use for God will always be inadequate because we can never reach an end to our knowing. God will always be beyond our grasp. Gerard Manley Hopkins saw his task as poet and priest to bring his readers and hearers to a place of silence before mystery. For him poetry is ‘speech framed for contemplation’.
Our faith, then, may be strengthened by contemplation but with God always beyond our grasp it calls upon us to trust in him, even in the darkest hours. The disciples in today’s reading had not yet reached that stage of faith and it is not easy for any of us. It can require a ‘letting go’ based upon trust in God’s loving purpose for mankind. I will conclude by expressing this ‘letting go’ by quoting from the song of the Beatles:
‘When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom
‘Let it be’.