Tossed in the Storm of Worry
“When you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind” (James 1:6).
He stepped out into the sea. What possessed his soul? Thick gusts of salty air rocked the boat, the wind howled, and the disciples behind clung to their seats. Yet, Peter was enraptured. The world was in storm, but there before him Christ walked on the waves in perfect calm. Something lit in Peter’s heart and he stepped out. For one moment, his whole being was zeroed in to Christ. He gazed at our Lord with such focus, such intense, perfect adoration — chaos tossed around him, an abyss loomed beneath — but he stood still caught up in wonder. Then he took his eyes off of Christ, looked down, and started sinking.
What does it mean to pray without doubting? St. James describes the man who doubts as a wave on the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. But what does it mean to not doubt? We have all prayed for something with fervor, only to be denied. We were convicted in its justice. We fasted and wept. Our heart was in the prayer. Yet, God refused. Were we not praying hard enough? Was our prayer diluted by doubt? We know there has got to be more to it. St. Augustine tells us the Divine Physician, “knows when to give and when to withhold; as He judges what is [good] for us.” Prayer is not magic.
Then what does it mean to pray without doubting? It means having one’s whole heart, one’s whole being, one’s affections and obsessions fixed on Jesus Christ.
Now change scenes.
Christ is preaching his Sermon on the Mount. There is no storm at the moment, but there will be. Christ stands on the mountain top on a sunny day, but he know the clouds will come. “Take no thought for you life,” are his words.
“I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air…Consider the lilies of the field… But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:25-26,28,33).
“Take no thought.” It sounds like terrible advice. Can you imagine telling this to a mother with a newborn baby? “Take no thought” Think about a dad giving this advice to his son as he heads off to college? “Son, take no thought about life.” What is Christ getting at?
The words in Greek cast a different light on it.
Mὴ μεριμνᾶτε τῇ ψυχῇ ὑμῶν — “Be not anxious about your life.”
Indeed, the word, μεριμνᾶτε, comes from μεριζω, which means, “to be pulled apart.” You would be closer to the mark by translating it this way: “Do not get so invested in the matters of the world, that you find yourself scattered, pulled in different directions, weighed down by that noise in your head, anxious and distraught.” This sounds more reasonable, but it is certainly not easier.
Distraction is part of the fall. The Church Fathers consider distraction to be one of the hallmarks of sin. When God created us in Eden, he intended us to have hearts and minds totally focused. We were designed to live in constant mindfulness. In the 2003 film, The Last Samurai, the clan leader describes the code of the Samurai: “to know life in every breath, every cup of tea.” It is simplistic but quite profound. It is a goal to always be perfectly present. In a Christian sense, we are called to live in the here and now, with hearts tuned to Christ.
“I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on… But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:25-26,28,33).
Christ is not telling us to stop thinking or to be less practical. He is calling us to be focused, ‘to know God in every breath, every cup of tea.’
It is for this purpose that the Church calls us to asceticism. Learning to pray reverently during Mass or in our morning prayers, going to holy confession, fasting, almsgiving, all of it — the life in the Church is never arbitrary or quaint. It is a life that trains our souls to be still. St. Symeon explains:
“To the extent that our inner life is in a state of discord and dispersed among many contrary things, we are unable to participate in the life of God. We desire opposing and contrary things, and we are torn apart by the relentless warfare between them, and this is called the ‘discord’ of the mind, a condition that divides and destroys the soul.”
Peter walked on water for a few, brief moments. When he took his eyes off Christ, he sank. It is the same with us. No storm can overcome us, so long as our lives are oriented around Jesus Christ.
What will we think when we look back at 2020? Covid-19 has swept across the world and shaken up everything. Schools and churches have been cancelled. The economy was dealt a blow. You cannot even swing by Walmart after hours for your last minute shopping. The Black Lives Matter movement has stirred up racial and political antagonism everywhere. Riots demand defunding of the police. Heaven only knows what awaits in the next couple of months, as we draw near to the elections. Yet, despite all of it, Christ’s words still stand.
“Be not anxious about your life… seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness.”
The storm was no figment of imagination. The waves and abyss beneath St. Peter were real. Yet, so long as his heart was focused, Christ carried him.
What will we think when we look back at 2020? Will we only remember the storm? Will we remember Christ? When we kneel here during Mass, when we sing our hymns or pray beside the flickering flame in our icon corner, there is no threat. We have Christ. When we wake up to a tumultuous world, when we see the values we love in America shaken, when we worry over our bank accounts, careers, or family, there is still no real threat. We have Christ.
No amount of noise or storm is worth tearing our hearts from the one thing that matters: Life in the Kingdom.
“Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).
May our Lord and God give us hearts no longer scattered in a million directions, and anchor our souls in his heavenly presence.