Just over a week ago, I was at a Jesuit Retreat Centre for a 5-day silent retreat. It was an Ignatian retreat and as such included daily meetings with a spiritual director. My director asked me about my prayer life, in reply to which I made some necessary admissions. He’s particularly fond of Gospel contemplation as a form of prayer. Gospel contemplation is an Ignatian practice of taking a narrative from the Gospels and then contemplating it by mentally entering the story and getting a sense of the sights and sounds of the story, placing oneself in one of the characters’ shoes, and talking to Jesus about it.
My director suggested I try Gospel contemplation and I was more than happy to do so. I started looking through his files for a sheet of paper that had a number of different suggested passages for contemplation. He had a particular sheet in mind, but he couldn’t find it. So he grabbed a different sheet and handed it to me, saying, “This is a bit random, but try this…”
Of course, it was not random at all. I didn’t look at the paper he had given me until I got back to my room. I laughed as I looked: it was Matthew 14:22-33, Jesus and Peter walk on water. Of course it would be. God has a sense of humour.
(The next day I was praying through Psalm 43. This Psalm has been on my heart and mind a lot lately, mostly because of Sandra McCracken’s beautiful interpretation of it, but also because its words hit home for me these days. The Psalter I use includes short devotionals on a handful of the Psalms. As it happened, there is a devotional for Psalm 43…and as it also happens, that devotional references Peter’s words to Jesus as he sinks into the water: “Lord, save me!” I just can’t see this a coincidence!)
Long-time reader—I use the singular intentionally—of this blog will be aware of the history I have with the story in which Peter walks on water (Matthew 14:22-33). It began in 2007 with John Ortberg’s book If You Want to Walk on Water You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat, which is based on the event. Reading only a small portion of this book precipitated a personal funk and may ultimately have been one of the catalysts to get me to step out of the boat, as it were, and pursue my calling. Since then I keep bumping into this Gospel story. For example: in an interpretation of the story that seems more true to the details (2012); in a preacher who went to the popular interpretation, which always gets me agitated (2014 and other times).
A month or so ago, it was the curriculum topic for my Sunday school class. When I saw this, sitting in my living room preparing, I literally yelled, “NOOOOOOOOOOOO!” and then said something about hating this particular story. I don’t hate the story itself, of course, but my own history with it and the common misuse (as I see it) of the story continued to agitate me. I decided to dispense with the curriculum material and just work through the passage with my junior high class. It turned out to be a great lesson: the youth didn’t immediately go to the popular interpretation and had some good and helpful things to say about it, and I made a degree of peace with the story.
Back at my retreat: I did try contemplating that particular story, but I had difficulty entering in. I’ve always been fascinated by the disciples who stayed in the boat, since they get little attention, but I couldn’t see things from their perspective. All I could imagine was water and wind and blank faces on all the people involved in the story. All that I got out of it was further confirmation that Peter is not a hero in this tale. I suspect there was too much baggage, too much history, with the story for me to really enter into it with an open heart and mind. The next day in conversation with my director I had some more clarity on what the story may have to say to me (ironically, it’s Peter, the one I always think that gets too much attention in this story, that I identify with).
It deserves further contemplation and as I make my peace with the tale and my reading of it (and other people’s reading of it), I’m sure I will keep learning things about myself and about Jesus.
(And then today I’m watching some interviews of Stephen Colbert, a devout Catholic. In one of them he’s talking about how Jesus must have laughed and as an example he references Peter walking on water, which he compares to Wile E. Coyote running too far off a cliff.)