Walking on Water
Sermon by Fr. Antony Hughes from Sunday, August 17, 2008
The Reading is from Matthew 14:22-34
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen. Glory to Jesus Christ!
Why did Peter sink on the Sea of Galilee? Wasn't the presence of the Lord and his invitation enough for Peter to complete his stroll on the water successfully? Evidently not. What happened? St. John tells us that Peter and the other apostles were afraid at first because they thought the figure coming at them over the waves was a ghost, but Peter, recognizing Jesus lost his fear and asked for a blessing to leave the boat and walk with him. Then John says he became afraid again and Peter began to sink. Jesus calls him a man of little faith asking "Why did you doubt?" That is the question. Why did he doubt?
I submit that Peter was not prepared for a prolonged walk on the water with Jesus. His mind had not yet been transformed, his thinking not yet purified, his heart and mind were still mostly governed by uncertainty and fear so that it could not hold tightly enough to the wonder of the miracle in which he was participating. The neural pathways of faith had not yet been sufficiently developed in him. Peter had only just begun to walk the spiritual path. He progressed that night from a moment of childlike faith to a man who must have wondered if he had lost his mind. Actually, for a moment Peter had indeed "lost his mind." No longer lost in analysis of the situation he stepped out of the boat against all reason. He got into trouble when his old thought patterns returned along with their attendant doubts and fears. Sometimes we have to lose our minds to come to our senses.
A momentous event, say a miracle, a vision of something surpassingly beautiful, or a tragedy has the power to jar us momentarily, to awaken us to reality and to impel us to change our behavior for a time, but it does not last. Our minds are not accustomed to so rich a fare.
Why was Peter and why are we not able to hold on to the visions and experiences that impel us for a time to change our behavior in a positive way? Because changing the way we think cannot be accomplished without prolonged practice and effort. The mind is a creature of habit. If we think and act in a certain way over time, the mind wraps itself around those thoughts and feelings and habits form. Pavlov noticed it. Teach a dog that when a bell rings food will be served and whenever a bell rings, food or not, the dog will salivate. There is an Indian saying, "Once bitten by a snake one fears even rope." The mind will return to its normal pattern of thinking quickly and miracles, beauty and disasters fade into memory leaving behind little trace. Peter saw a miracle, reacted to it and then, distracted by his typical fear of wind and wave, began to behave again as his normal patterns of thought and practice dictated.
The miraculous or extraordinary propels us into the space between thoughts. Walk into a dark field at night where there are no lights to distract you. The Milky Way is splayed across the sky in all its grandeur. For a moment there is a break in the incessant noise of thought. You are amazed. The beauty astounds you. For a moment, a beautiful, telling moment, there is no thought, only vision. You become "all eye" as Meister Eckart and St. Isaac say. We see reality undistracted by thought. And then that little voice speaks within. "Ah, the Milky Way! I know what that star is. And what, after all, are stars?" Pretty soon you are singing, "When You Wish Upon a Star" or thinking of the planetarium you once visited as a child, or the girl you once kissed at camp ages ago under the same starry sky, or Van Gogh, or ice cream, or your first pet. In a split second the Milky Way and the wonder you experienced are replaced by a dream and a fantasy concocted by the mind that only peripherally has anything at all to do with what you just experienced. This is what happened to Peter. He lost his focus on the miraculous event and the Divine Person before him and got lost in his familiar fearful thoughts and emotions. As observer, focused on Christ, he did well, but when he began to interpret what he was doing he turned away from the Lord and became immersed in his own normal "way of thinking" and in the churning waters of the sea. The goal of spiritual practice is to widen the gap between thoughts and strengthen our capacity to remain in the gap.
"Be transformed," the Scriptures say, "by the renewal of your mind." St. Paul exhorts us to "put on the mind of Christ." The point is this: walking on water demands preparation, prayer demands preparation. The spiritual life is a process of transformation in which the mind becomes literally rewired and thought and emotion lose their power to distract us from our focus on Christ who is always coming to us walking on water with an invitation to join Him.
Real, physiological transformation occurs, say scientists who study the human mind, when we diligently practice something new repeatedly over a period of time, moment by moment, day by day. God does not wave a magic wand and change us as some seem to believe. That is what I was taught as a Baptist long ago. The Lord shows us the way because He is the Way, empowers us with grace to walk along it and then invites us to step out of the boat. Human beings do not change overnight. That is not how we were created and not how we work. The transformation we seek and that the Lord offers is not only mental it is physiological. Christ calls us and empowers us, but the work is ours to do, it is real and has verifiable effects.
Through prayer, meditation and contemplation we learn to enter what one writer calls the gap between thoughts where there is only silence, where there are no sounds, no voices, no images , where the imagination rests from its labor. This is why Peter was able to walk on the water for a time. For a moment he was able to enter that place where Christ dwells. True spirituality lifts us entirely out of this passing world into the eternal kingdom passing, as Dionysius the Areopagite says, "beyond everything." This is what St. Isaac spoke of when he instructed his readers to purify their minds, not merely of sin, but of everything. When Peter's mind tempted him to reconsider the wisdom of silence he began to sink.
When I spoke last summer with Sister Ignatia, Fr. Elias Bitar's daughter, a dear friend who is a nun in Greece I asked her about the spiritual practice she was taught to do in her cell. I learned that they pray in silence with few words and concentrate on living only in the moment. This confirmed for me the path we must take as well.
My brothers and sisters, the Divine Liturgy is par excellance the school of spiritual practice. Our worship is repetitious because that is what the heart and mind need in order to be transformed, but we must adopt a practice nurtured by it and the teachings of Holy Orthodoxy in the space of our own homes. Once a week will not do if one is interested in a true transformation of heart and mind. The more we practice, the more we change. The more we enter into silence the more the kingdom appears and the peace that passes all understanding awakens in the depths of our souls.