Getting in over our heads in the life of prayer
“Put out into the deep…” (Lk 5:4) That was the admonition that Jesus gave to his disciples: an admonition that Pope John Paul II repeated in the conclusion of his for the Great Jubilee, Novo Millennio Ineunte. It sounds so easy. But it takes courage.
The oceans, with their unfathomed depths and their incalculable powers, can be dangerous—as today’s news headlines remind us. When we speak of the “oceans” of God’s mercy—even deeper, even stronger—we must speak with awe.
St. Aloysius Gonzaga, whose feast we are celebrating, used that image in a letter to his mother, which appears in the Office of Readings today. He wrote:
The divine goodness, most honoured lady, is a fathomless and shoreless ocean, and I confess that when I plunge my mind into thought of this it is carried away by the immensity and feels quite lost and bewildered there.
Dive into the ocean—any ocean—and you take a risk; you might be lost at sea. So most of us stay close to shore. Only the saints, like Aloysius Gonzaga, take the headlong plunge.
My father, a strong swimmer, taught all his children not to “put out into the deep.” He had been a lifeguard, and rescued more than a few foolish young people who had overestimated their own strength or underestimated the power of the current. (In one case, seared in his memory, he reached the struggling swimmer too late.) For a recreational swimmer at the beach, he told us repeatedly, “there’s no reason to go out over your head!”
At the beach, that is good advice. But maybe not in the life of prayer, because the oceans of God’s mercy will never turn deadly. Any ocean should be regarded with awe. But the “fear of God” is a pure sort of awe, not tainted by anything like the fear of drowning or of shark attacks. The exhortation to “put out into the deep” goes hand-in-hand with the frequent admonition to “be not afraid.”
If you have ever had the experience of flying over a beach on a sunny summer day—as a plane makes its approach to an airport, perhaps—you have probably noticed how the beachgoers cling to the shore. The ocean looks vast (as indeed it is); the swimmers are clustered in a tiny strip of shallow water. Even the yachts and fishing boats are fairly close to land. Beyond them stretch the miles of open water. Only the serious seafarers, who know the oceans well, go out so far.
For vacationers, though, a trip to the beach is fun, not serious business. We can swim in the salt water without risking our lives, without thinking much about the awesome powers of the seas. In New England, where I live, even wading in the chilly water is enough to cool off on a steamy summer day. Still someone who only splashes along the shore cannot really claim to know the ocean. Because to know the ocean is to understand, as St. Aloysius understood, how easy it is to be lost in it.
It is relatively easy, too, to dabble in the life of prayer. To give God a few moments each day, or an hour every Sunday, can be refreshing—like a quick dip in the ocean. But a serious effort to know God, the best spiritual writers all caution us, is a much greater challenge. You can get lost. In fact, if you rise to the challenge, you will get lost. And that—let’s be honest—frightens us.
As I stand on the shore, letting the waves lap over my toes—but no more!—I find myself thinking about the liturgy. We can think of Sunday Mass as a quick dip: something that refreshes us and restores our energy. Or we can think of it as an immense event, with power behind our comprehension, that threatens (but “threatens” is the wrong word here) to sweep us away. Give me the latter, please.
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