The image of Christ walking on water is very familiar. It is perhaps one of the less impressive miracles in scripture, in light of His more spectacular ones, and seeing as He is - after all – the Son of God. However, St Matthew’s description of this particular episode makes it a hard fit for the ‘general signs and wonders of Christ’ file, because, alone among the Gospel authors, his version of the story includes Peter walking on the water. That Jesus walked on the water is a sign for us of who He is. But that Peter walked on the water, offers a beautiful analogy for what it means to choose to believe in Him against the worst kind of doubt, and what life looks like in light of that choice.
‘The Fourth Watch of the Night’
The background for this event is sinister and brooding, soon after Jesus and His disciples learn of the execution of John the Baptist. Jesus attempts to withdraw to a deserted place, but is accosted by a large crowd, whose sicknesses He heals, and whose stomachs He miraculously feeds, despite the fatigued request of his disciples to send them away. These are uplifting moments within a dark context. We return to that darkness once the crowd is fed, and Jesus again seeks to be alone:
Then he made the disciples get into the boat and precede him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When it was evening he was there alone. Meanwhile the boat, already a few miles offshore, was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it. During the fourth watch of the night, he came towards them, walking on the sea. When the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified. ‘It is a ghost,’ they said, and they cried out in fear. (Matt 14:22-26)
Here, from the vantage point of trying to stay awake through the dead of night, one can imagine all the darkest moments in the spiritual life. For me, this kind of dark, sleepless moment is always an invitation for the the worst kind of doubt, fear, and spiritual apathy to enter my mind. I’m still relatively new at this, but I cannot identity with one popular image of the religious believer: the poor unquestioning soul, whose skull no rational argument against his belief system can penetrate, lest reason bring ruin to the consoling belief in a higher power and life after death. These individuals must exist, for they have clearly antagonized most proactive, clear-thinking atheists I’ve known, but it describes no one I have met so far.
Describing the view from the inside, and giving lie to this particular stereotype, then-future-Pope Benedict XVI’s Introduction to Christianity (written in 1968) deals empathetically and bluntly with a moment, or even a phase of life, that visits every believer:
First of all, the believer is always threatened with an uncertainty that in moments of temptation can suddenly and unexpectedly cast a piercing light on the fragility of the whole that usually seems so self-evident to him… That lovable Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, who looks so naïve and unproblematical, grew up in an atmosphere of complete religious security; her whole existence from beginning to end, and down to the smallest detail, was so completely molded by the faith of the Church that the invisible world became, not just a part of her everyday life, but that life itself. It seemed to be an almost tangible reality that could not be removed by any amount of thinking. To her, ‘religion’ really was a self-evident presupposition of her daily existence; she dealt with it as we deal with the concrete details of our lives. Yet this very saint, a person apparently cocooned in complete security, left behind her, from the last weeks of her passion, shattering admissions that her horrified sisters toned down in her literary remains and that have only now come to light in the new verbatim editions. she says, for example, ‘I am assailed by the worst temptations of atheism’. Her mind is beset by every possible argument against the faith; the sense of believing seems to have vanished; she feels that she is now ‘in sinner’s shoes’. In other words, in what is apparently a flawlessly interlocking world someone here suddenly catches a glimpse of the abyss lurking – even for her – under the firm structure of the supporting conventions. In a situation like this, what is in question is not the sort of thinking that one perhaps quarrels about otherwise – the dogma of the Assumption, the proper use of confession – all this becomes absolutely secondary. What is at stake is the whole structure; it is a question of all or nothing. That is the only remaining alternative; nowhere does there seem anything to cling to in this sudden fall. Wherever one looks, only the bottomless abyss of nothingness can be seen. (p. 42)
We are all sometimes in that boat with the disciples, surrounded by ‘The bottomless abyss of nothingness’ keeping the ‘fourth watch of the night’. The fourth damned watch. Where is your God, the memories of the day ask. These memories include the almost casual martyrdom of John the Baptist (beheaded by Herod over a rash vow to reward a dancing girl with whatever she wished) – might that be the bitter, lonely end of a zealous life? They include a miraculous feeding of thousands by the man we’ve chosen to follow; but centuries later, liberal theologians will write this off as His ‘miraculously’ having moved the people to share what they had with each other. And anyway, didn’t this miracle rebuke us, his disciples, who moments earlier had asked Him to send away these very crowds who were adding to an already long day in the religious life? And finally, after sharing so amazing a gift with thousands who would probably later forget Him as one forgets a magician, Jesus sends us away in the boat, while He disappears up the mountain as impersonally as the god of Deism.
And there in the boat are we, in the midst of the Christian life, at odds with the world, at odds with fellow believers, and at odds with God. Every person who has sincerely tried to follow Christ has been in this boat, and this experience is a far more effective argument against the life of faith than any atheist can deliver.