A reflection by Fr. Russ Sampson, S.F.M., on Mark 4.35-41.
“A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher do you not care that we are perishing?’” (Mark 4:35-38)
While reflecting on this passage of Mark’s Gospel, the word “asleep” jumped out at me and launched me into prayer. I thought of parallel words that captured Jesus’ posture in the boat. Words that came to mind were “quiet,” “hidden,” “silent,” “absent.”
It would be a natural response to danger that we would cry out for God’s presence in such a time of need.
When trying to pray or when preparing a reflection, I often meditate on one word. Today, while reflecting on this passage of Mark’s Gospel, the word “asleep” jumped out at me and launched me into prayer. I thought of parallel words that captured Jesus’ posture in the boat. Words that came to mind were “quiet,” “hidden,” “silent,” “absent.”
Several weeks ago, in our morning Mass here at Scarboro Missions, I was reminded of a period in Jesus’ life—a period on which we do not spend much time reflecting. It is the time between his Presentation in the Temple at age 12 to his Baptism by John in the Jordan 18 years later. This time can be called Jesus’ hidden years. I found myself reflecting on the times in my life when Jesus seemed hidden, silent, absent…
It is helpful to trace our sacred history and consider how people in the Scriptures addressed the apparent absence of God—God’s hiddenness, God’s silence. I realize the term “absence” sounds negative and can give rise to discouragement or even revolt against God. We read in the psalms about Jeremiah struggling with God’s silence and Job raising many concerns about God being distant from his life in the light of the tragedies he has to face.
St. Therese of Lisieux also experienced this distance from God at times. It is said that Blessed Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa) experienced many years of desolation even though her legacy is rich. We can follow the life of Nelson Mandela and the years he faced in prison when he must have struggled to believe that God was still with him. The survivors of the Holocaust would have experienced the absence of God when all seemed lost. Of course, we each have our own story.
There are those who have maintained their relationship with God while daring to question God’s incomprehensible silence. Recently I read an article entitled “The Experience of the Absence of God According to John of the Cross” by Louis Roy in the January 2016 issue of the Jesuit journal, The Way. The article surveys what John of the Cross passed through in his process to reform the Carmelites. It spoke of “the darkness of his cell,” hinting to God’s absence. John of the Cross experienced the grace of faith in dark times, what he called Luminous Darkness, when our darkness is illuminated by God’s light, drawing us to know God’s presence beyond what thinking, imagination, or feelings can comprehend.
Faith tells us that Christ is present when our human senses fail. For those outside the mainline Churches, God’s presence may be experienced through music, art, poetry, gardening, and other ways.
What does the Gospel story of Jesus asleep on the boat say to us? After the disciples woke Jesus up, we read that he “rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’” (Mark 4:39-41)
When God seems absent in our lives, when our faith is stretched, how do we respond?