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Friday, June 14, 2024

 Mysteries of the Bible: God’s Sleep

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 Mysteries of the Bible: God’s Sleep

Nothing conveyed to us through the sacred books of the Old and New Testaments is accidental. Every detail, every aspect contains a message worthy of being deciphered, a significance from which we can learn something. All the more so, all those episodes from the life of Jesus Christ presented in the Gospels are full of profound meanings. One of them is the episode where we see Him, in the midst of the raging storm, sleeping in the boat surrounded by terrified apostles.

 

If there are a few aspects of the Savior Christ that have always deeply impressed me, this is one of them: God who sleeps. Through faith, we know that He is not only fully and truly man but also God. His image sleeping is unsettling. What is the hidden message here? What is the lesson that the holy texts want to convey to us? What should we understand?

Seeking the most appropriate answers, I delved, as usual, into the reading of the interpretations by the great masters of Biblical exegesis, the Holy Fathers, and Doctors of the Church. Their readings revealed to me some significance which I would like to share here with you. I do this with the conviction that, indeed, we are in the midst of the storm. Not just any storm, but the most terrible one ever unleashed in the multi-millennial history of the Church. We find ourselves, like the apostles, threatened by terrible waves. And God seems to be sleeping. This is why we must meditate on this episode reported by all three synoptic evangelists: Matthew (8:23-27), Mark (4:36-40), and Luke (8:22-25).

Without exception, all commentators agree that the storm was not accidental. The learned Origen of Alexandria says that “this tempest did not arise of itself, but in obedience to the power of Him Who gave commandment.”

The picture that emerges from the comparative reading of the texts is particularly vivid. After a day and evening of intense apostolic work, seeing the crowds coming in droves, Jesus “gave orders to pass over the water” (Matthew 8:18). Saint Remigius (c.437–533) tells us that when surrounded by crowds, our Lord used to retreat to one of His three favorite places of contemplation and prayer: the ship, the mountain, and the desert. Now He does this accompanied by the apostles. Only by the apostles. Why? Saint John Chrysostom explains that He did not want the crowds to see how weak their faith was. But what exactly did this weakness of their faith consist of? The same Holy Father points out the following:

“They thought indeed that if He arose He could command the winds, but could by no means do so reposing or asleep.”[i]

Everything happens at night. Why? Saint Bede the Venerable (672/3–735) states that “the hour itself of departing light might signify the setting of the true Sun.” When God sleeps, it is as if, in a certain sense, He is absent. However, before focusing our attention on the Savior’s sleep in the boat, we must insist on a very important point.

Without exception, all commentators agree that the storm was not accidental. The learned Origen of Alexandria says that “this tempest did not arise of itself, but in obedience to the power of Him Who gave commandment.” Saint John Chrysostom also indicates that “He willed that this tempest should arise.” Similarly, Saint Cyril of Alexandria emphasizes that He allowed the storm to rage in order to test the apostles and to offer us, the readers, a crucial lesson. Now we reach the most mysterious and yet the most significant point.

“His sleeping and His appearance shows the man; the sea and the calm pointed out the God.” Thus, we are dealing with the teaching about the two natures of the person of Jesus of Nazareth, divine and human.

In the midst of the storm, God sleeps. This image seems to be beyond our comprehension. It immediately raises a question: can God sleep? Origen provides the enlightening clue: “He slept with His body, but was awake in His Deity.” In other words, Jesus Christ’s sleep in the boat teaches us, without words, that He is both fully human and God. He has a body that needs sleep. But although human, He is also God. God who never sleeps, despite appearances. Conclusively, Saint John Chrysostom shows that “His sleeping and His appearance shows the man; the sea and the calm pointed out the God.” Thus, we are dealing with the teaching about the two natures of the person of Jesus of Nazareth, divine and human.

Let us now consider our present situation. Everything has rebelled against God – including a significant part of the hierarchy. At the brink of despair, we realize that we can do almost nothing: we are powerless. Some, confused, ask whether the Pope is a heretic or not. Others, convinced that a heretical Pope is an outrageous idea, invent the most fabulous arguments and explanations to prove that it is not so. Those hierarchs and theologians who, however, realize that the truth of the possibility of a heretic pope can no longer be denied, do not know if there is any concrete way in which such an (almost) unheard-of situation can be canonically resolved. For the canon law says nothing! So what can be done?

I could endlessly amplify the cloud of questions, doubts, and controversies that have arisen over the past post-conciliar decades and especially during the current pontificate. The ecclesiastical landscape before our eyes seems disheartening: a multitude of small communities that, like the remnants of a great ship, carry those who desperately try to escape the unleashed tsunami. Where is God? If the liturgy has been falsified and replaced, why did He not intervene during the pontificate of Paul VI? Why does He not intervene now, after Traditionis Custodes and Fiducia Supplicans? If traditional moral theology and His Ten Commandments are trampled upon, why does He not intervene? All these questions – and many others like them – seem to hit the wall of divine silence… God seems to be sleeping, doesn’t He?

Why does He allow us, the remnant of the 21st century, to be troubled by the greatest crisis in the entire history of the Church? Why does He sleep? Saint John Chrysostom provides us with the first important answer: “He permits them to be in danger; and besides this, in order that they might learn to bear temptations manfully.”

The apostles’ lack of faith lay in their lack of complete trust in Him even during His absence. For despite all appearances, He is always present – even though He is invisible. The essence of faith consists in being convinced that, even in the midst of the greatest crises and temptations, He is there. He, who is omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient. But why does He allow the storm to frighten the apostles? Why does He allow us, the remnant of the 21st century, to be troubled by the greatest crisis in the entire history of the Church? Why does He sleep? Saint John Chrysostom provides us with the first important answer:

“He permits them to be in danger; and besides this, in order that they might learn to bear temptations manfully.”

A hard word, isn’t it? So we must suffer temptations to prove our manliness, our courage. For, as Saint Cyril of Alexandria reminds us, “as gold is proved in the fire, so is faith in temptation.” There is no other way. But even so, nothing seems more terrible to us than feeling alone and abandoned. Nothing is more terrible from all the sufferings of Christ the Savior than that moment when, on the cross, He cried out:

“Eli, Eli, lamma sabacthani? (My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?)” (Matthew 27:46).

And yet, despite the terrible drama of those who, like Jesus on the cross, feel abandoned, God is present. He sees everything, hears everything, and knows everything. Here is a truth of faith upon which we must meditate with all insistence.

The entire modern world was created by ‘enlightened’ intellectuals (Descartes, Newton, Voltaire, Kant, Hegel, Comte, Marx etc.) who believed that society could function in complete autonomy – even in indifference and adversity – toward God.

On the other hand, His sleep also has meanings related to God’s patience. Origen says that “the Lord Himself sleeps a merciful sleep” (what a wonderful expression!–“a merciful sleep”) while the righteous suffer injustices from the wicked, patiently awaiting their conversion. However, perhaps the most profound interpretation is that of Saint Hilary of Poitiers (c.310–c.367). As we shall see, through it we approach the mystical meanings of the entire gospel episode in which Jesus sleeps in the boat in the midst of the storm.

Here is the commentary of the legendary bishop of Poitiers:

“He sleeps, because by our sloth He is cast asleep in us. This is done that we may hope aid from God in fear of danger; and that hope though late may be confident that it shall escape danger by the might of Christ watching within.”

Saint Mark “the Ascetic” is the one who teaches us who the main enemies of our salvation are: ignorance, the source of all evils; forgetfulness, its close relative and helper; and laziness, which weaves the dark shroud enveloping the soul in murk.[ii] As we see, Saint Hilary assigns this last one an eminent role – through our laziness, he tells us, God is ‘asleep’ in us, the baptized. The word is terrifying. It shows how deteriorated our nature’s state is even after its restoration through the holy sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation. When he speaks of laziness, of course, he does not refer to physical laziness but to spiritual laziness: I am sure he had in mind especially laziness in prayer. And this, in turn, does not only indicate that we pray little but, more importantly, that we pray superficially.

It is precisely for this reason that God allows us to be tempted just as the apostles were in the boat: so that we may pray with all our hearts, crying out loudly to God. And the power of prayer – I assure you – does not lie in decibels but in intensity. And, it seems, especially when we feel the waves of the storm assaulting us from all sides, we pray most deeply and intensely. Moreover, only in such situations, when we realize that we are powerless, can we remember the word of the Savior who says clearly and categorically:

“Without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

If we consider only the failure of our Church’s hierarchy, which did not consecrate Russia immediately (in 1929) after receiving this command from God through the Blessed Virgin Mary of Fatima, we must understand that the root of such a catastrophe lies in the lack of Saint John’s conviction: only God can help us cross the ocean of a rebellious world.

The entire modern world was created by ‘enlightened’ intellectuals (Descartes, Newton, Voltaire, Kant, Hegel, Comte, Marx etc.) who believed that society could function in complete autonomy – even in indifference and adversity – toward God. Most of the time, more or less (un)consciouly, we are all influenced by such a mentality. If we consider only the failure of our Church’s hierarchy, which did not consecrate Russia immediately (in 1929) after receiving this command from God through the Blessed Virgin Mary of Fatima, we must understand that the root of such a catastrophe lies in the lack of Saint John’s conviction: only God can help us cross the ocean of a rebellious world. Most bishops and Popes of recent decades have been and are convinced that they know better than God. However, it all started in the decades before the Second Vatican Council. Instead of consecrating Russia immediately in communion with the bishops of the entire world, Pope Pius XI developed his own policy, which later formed the basis of Pope Paul VI’s so-called Ostpolitik. Should we then be surprised today when we see the ship taking on water from all sides?

The Blessed Rabanus Maurus (c.780–856) asserts that “the sea is the turmoil of the world.” The wind represents the powers of darkness – as Saint Bede, Origen, and Saint Jerome tell us. The powerful waves are persecutors of all kinds who persecute the Church and those faithful to Christian Revelation and Tradition. The mast in the middle of the ship (or, according to some interpreters, the ship itself) is the symbol of the Cross on which the crucified One sleeps the sleep of death. In such a situation, Saint Bede says that, inevitably, “the faint hearts of the disciples are shaken and tremble.” Should we then be surprised that we ourselves live in such a state? Are we greater than the apostles? Certainly not. With their example before our eyes, let us recap, in conclusion, the key points of the lesson of God’s sleep in the boat.

A. Nothing happens in this world without the will or permission of God. Even the current crisis was foreseen and permitted by God.

B. No storm lasts forever. No matter how unbearable it seems, it has an end. An end foreseen in the plan of Divine Providence.

C. Everything, absolutely everything, depends on God. Not 1%, 11%, or 99%, but 100%.

D. Without God, we cannot resolve any problem in our own lives, much less a huge crisis in the life of the Church.

E. Spiritual means – among which prayer holds the most important place – have been, are, and will remain absolutely necessary.

Prayer must be practiced with determination, tenacity, and perseverance. To the question “how long should we pray?” Saint Thomas Aquinas gave a monumental answer: “Until we receive what we ask for” (of course, provided we do not ask for anything immoral or illicit). For me, the supreme model of prayer is the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:22–28). I see in her personal situation the perfect representation of the situation the apostles found themselves in, in the midst of the raging sea.

In the face of the humble one who prays, no matter how sinful, God cannot resist. Probably here lies the greatest imaginable mystery: God’s weakness for the humble. The tax collector was heard, despite being terribly sinful, while the Pharisee was not. Because the tax collector was humble.

Think about it: this woman’s daughter was “grievously troubled by the devil.” Don’t we have relatives, and acquaintances who have estranged themselves from God and His supernatural faith? Don’t we see so many men abandoned by their wives? Or women abandoned by their husbands? Don’t we see sexual sins covering the entire world like an increasingly thick layer of mud? All those in such situations, although often guilty, are “grievously troubled by the devil.” Knowing that her daughter is in such a situation the Canaanite woman does not give up. She cries out to God, who is sleeping, for He does not answer her. How could you not respond to someone in such a situation? It seems scandalous. But it is not so.

It is clear what effect God wanted to achieve through His silence: the compassion of the apostles, that is, the compassion of His bishops. Who, just like in the boat, try to wake Him up seeing the woman crying out without being heard. But He, God, seems insensitive: “I was not sent but to the sheep that are lost of the house of Israel.” It is as if we refuse to help someone on the grounds that he is not Catholic or do not belong to our community. The Canaanite woman, though pagan, does not give up. She humbles herself as never seen before. God Himself is moved upon hearing her plea for help, spoken in an increasingly weak voice, like that of a dying person: “Lord, help me.” That’s all, three words: “Lord, help me.” Words spoken with fiery intensity and a pain whose depths turn stones to dust.

Even now, God “does not wake up” but responds that He was sent only “to the sheep that are lost of the house of Israel.” But the woman, acknowledging her worthlessness to the end, allowing herself to be compared to dogs, still prays. She prays truly as someone who knows that absolutely everything depends solely on God:

“The dogs also eat of the crumbs that fall from the table of their masters” (Matthew 15:27).

The key to fruitful prayer? A humbled heart. Can you imagine what the prayer of many humble hearts united in the same plea can achieve? When the Christians in Jerusalem prayed for Peter, held in prison, an angel from heaven came and freed him, and the first Pope in history thought he was dreaming. Even though this seems to be a supernatural fairy tale, it is true. Such is the power of prayer.

In the face of the humble one who prays, no matter how sinful, God cannot resist. Probably here lies the greatest imaginable mystery: God’s weakness for the humble. The tax collector was heard, despite being terribly sinful, while the Pharisee was not. Because the tax collector was humble. Aware of this, King David, one of the most terrible sinners in history, gave us the following verses, the most important lesson of morality, ethics, and spirituality:

“A contrite and humbled heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (Psalm 50:19).

With her contrite and humbled heart, the Canaanite woman came to be praised by God Himself in front of the apostles and the members of the chosen people of Israel:

“O woman, great is thy faith!” (Matthew 15:28).

See, God woke up and immediately calmed the waves that were assaulting the life of this sinful pagan woman. At that moment, her daughter was freed. The key to fruitful prayer? A humbled heart. Can you imagine what the prayer of many humble hearts united in the same plea can achieve? When the Christians in Jerusalem prayed for Peter, held in prison, an angel from heaven came and freed him, and the first Pope in history thought he was dreaming. Even though this seems to be a supernatural fairy tale, it is true. Such is the power of prayer.

Now, in the month of the Most Sacred Heart of our Savior Christ, let us cry out, then, together with the apostles and the Canaanite woman, with all our hearts and with all humility:

“Lord, save us, we perish!” (Matthew 8:25).

I am sure the answer will not delay. But this, don’t forget, depends only on the intensity of our prayer.

May the Sacred Heart of our King and Lord, Jesus Christ, help us!

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[i] All quotes are from the wonderful compilation that is Catena Aurea of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Online, they can be read at the following address: https://www.ecatholic2000.com/catena/ [Accessed: 08 June 2024].

[ii] I presented in detail the mentioned teaching of St. Mark here: https://remnantnewspaper.com/web/index.php/articles/item/6770-three-giant-killers [Accessed: 08 June 2024].

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Last modified on Friday, June 14, 2024
Robert Lazu Kmita | Remnant Columnist, Romania

A Catholic father of seven and a grandfather of two, Robert Lazu Kmita is a writer with a PhD in Philosophy. His first novel, The Island without Seasons, was published by Os Justi Press in 2023.