“We are perishing.” I say that as a quote, not as a statement of fact. These are the words of St. Teresa of Avila as she writes in the Way of Perfection in the sixteenth century just after the Protestant Reformation had triggered one new denomination after another to shred the body of Christ. In chapter thirty-five she decries the great trials that have come upon the Church and ends the chapter with a plea to God:
“Now, Lord, now; make the sea calm! May this ship, which is the church, not always have to journey in a tempest like this. Save us, Lord, for we are perishing.”
When I look around at our church, our country, and our Judeo-Christian culture as a whole, it is easy to fear the end is in sight for much that we love. I can identify with St. Teresa’s words and I find it heartening that although Teresa thought the Church was perishing, it seemed to survive the sixteenth century just fine.
Not only did the church survive the sixteenth century evils which surrounded St. Teresa, it thrived and grew, not diminished. Despite the shredding of the body of Christ, the Church, which occurred in Europe, our Blessed Mother had single handedly converted over eight million people in just seven years after her appearance to Juan Diego as Our Lady of Guadalupe in 1531. Little did St. Teresa know when she made her fearful prayer that it had already been answered!
While I quote Teresa, she is quoting the Gospel of Matthew. She is referencing the words of the disciples as they wake up Jesus in the boat. The storm is upon them and I am sure they are wondering, “What on earth is Jesus thinking? Sleeping at a time like this!” Matthew writes:
“He got into a boat and 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?” Then he got up, rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was great calm. The men were amazed and said, “What sort of man is this, whom even the winds and the sea obey?” (Matthew 8:23-27)
Of course, the disciples had no need to worry or wonder after all. Christ was in control all along. In fact, Christ was the epitome of control. He had instant control over the wind and seas. And the key message for us is that this story is not just past tense. Christ is still in control despite the storms around us. He can stop any evil in the world today with but a breath.
When I read this passage, I used to think of our summer thunderstorms that often come up and make boating dangerous. So often we hear “small craft advisories” on the local weather report, and while it could be terrifying in a boat, it is a pretty common event otherwise. Granted, I live in Tampa Bay, the lightning capital of the world, but in this English translation, the phrase ‘violent storm’, to me, had not conveyed anything that unusual. But upon further study, I find the word “storm” which is used in this passage is “seismos” (σεισμός) which more accurately means “earthquake.” Throughout the book of Psalms, imagery of the earthquake is used to herald the coming of God and His Kingdom:
“When you went forth, O God, at the head of your people, when you marched across the desert, the earth trembled: the heavens melted at the presence of God, at the presence of God, Israel’s God.” (Psalm 68:8-9)
“The earth was moved and trembled when your way led through the sea, your path through the mighty waters and no one saw your footprints.” (Psalm 77:19-20)
“His lightnings light up the world, the earth trembles at the sight. The mountains melt like wax before the Lord of all the earth.” (Psalm 97: 4-5)
This consistent coupling of the coming of God with earthquakes persists into the New Testament but instead of being poetic imagery or foreshadowing, they are real, literal events. Aside from the revelation of the Divine Christ in the boat at sea, the one other place where Matthew refers to “seismos” is at Christ’s death when the veil of the temple sanctuary is torn in two by an earthquake. (Matthew 27:51) The moment of death, when Christ ransomed us from our sins, was an event of cosmic proportions to which even the earth testified.
So this storm event in Matthew was not just your everyday summer shower, it was cataclysmic to the disciples at the time — all the more awesome to them when Christ stopped this cataclysm with a word. And the Old Testament context of this New Testament passage is that the violent storm or earthquake was a visible sign of God’s presence and His coming. Christ’s calming of the storm was an affirmation of His authority and the Kingdom of God present to the disciples.
St. Teresa, wise Doctor of the church that she is, does understand this. Five chapters after her lament about perishing, St. Teresa acknowledges, “The things by which the devil intends to cause death will cause life.”
Christ himself has warned us that the earthquakes would come and that they are only labor pains. “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be famines and earthquakes from place to place. All these are the beginning of the labor pains.” (Matthew 24:7-8) Labor pains–something that leads to life, not death. He tells us this in advance so that we will not lose faith in fear, thinking that maybe he is asleep. St. Teresa thought the Church was perishing. It was not. The disciples thought they were perishing in the boat. They were not. Just as we may feel as though we are perishing today, we are not. Instead God is indeed with us, awake, here and now, and he has already answered our prayers.
“You called in distress and I saved you. I answered, concealed in the storm cloud.” (Psalm 81:8)
Originally published in Lay Carmelite Mountain View Newsletter, October 2011.