"On that day, when evening came, He said to them, “Let us go over to the other side.” Leaving the crowd, they took Him along with them in the boat, just as He was; and other boats were with Him. And there arose a fierce gale of wind, and the waves were breaking over the boat so much that the boat was already filling up. Jesus Himself 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?” And He got up and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Hush, be still.” And the wind died down and it became perfectly calm" (Mark 4:35-39).
In just a few lines, this passage captures an important reality. We all face “storms” in our lives, which manifest themselves in different ways. For me, this story used to evoke only what I call external storms, or suffering and chaos caused by outer circumstances. But I have recently come to recognize the call to allow Christ to calm interior restlessness that we experience, bringing peace to “the storm inside.”
Now, let me say upfront that I am not a terribly peaceful or “still” person. Rather, in His mercy, God showed me my need for His peace through my own experience with inner disquiet.
Over the past several years, my faith life has wavered between “highs" and “lows” –between times of enthusiasm and those of difficulty and depletion. While God continually makes His presence clear to me, I have repeatedly responded with phases of re-dedication to Him, followed by progressive decline into being more lukewarm. After powerful spiritual experiences, such as Pine Hills and retreats, I always struggled to maintain the fire of the Holy Spirit. I would return to everyday, stressful life at home and school and quickly become distracted, my priorities scrambled. I pushed prayer increasingly toward the bottom of my to-do list, and as my prayer time shortened, a corresponding distance lengthened between God and me. Of course, because this downward spiral was gradual, I never noticed a sudden change. Instead, a nagging restlessness slowly snuck into my being, replacing peace with a lonesome disquiet. In an effort to re-stabilize, I fell into believing the tempting societal lies that uphold material success and perfection as the cure-alls to loneliness and anxiety. Thus, I sought to control every aspect of my life, from grades and friendships, to my relationship with God.
Ironically, in trying to possess and contain my life, everything became uncontrollably compartmentalized and disconnected. Instead of feeling more peaceful, this need for control only brought about more fears –of being judged, of failing. Though I still went to church and squeezed in prayer here and there, I was failing to remember God’s place in the ordinary. I would leave Him in the chapel, separate from my daily interactions, activities, and stresses.
Over time, my faith became more of a stale religious practice than a live relationship, and though I so wanted to grow in my ability to love, I felt stuck with little to give. I was like someone trapped underwater with a lost sense of direction, frantically searching for the surface, but only swimming downward as I tried to grasp fleeting successes. Missing the Father’s love, I prayed that He would grant me the freedom to be loved and, most importantly, to Be Love.
Fortunately, God created each of us for this freedom. No matter how broken or lost we are, He just wants to hear our cry for help and to envelop us in His love, often in unexpected and wonderful ways.
Though I encounter His surprising love everywhere, I saw it with clarity this past January and June during week-long mission trips to Mexico. Perhaps most would expect to be moved by the physical destitution in the garbage dumps, orphanage, and senior men’s home we visited. Yet, rather than focusing on what these people lack, I was most moved by their spiritual wealth. The freedom with which they love clarified how God loves perfectly in humanly imperfect situations.
One interaction at the orphanage particularly illustrated this for me. Run by the crouched and wrinkled 95-year-old Madre Ines, the orphanage houses over two hundred children and adults, most of whom are mentally handicapped. From a worldly perspective, the orphanage insults our sense of efficiency and cleanliness, of success, desirability, and even personal value. Yet, in all its chaos and seeming limitations, the orphanage holds a special sacredness. The children love so simply and directly, and in contrast to the spiritual poverty and fears I see in daily life, they are purely unhindered.
One of the residents, a man with Down’s Syndrome, was near me, with one of my team members standing between us. While standing together in a quiet moment, I suddenly felt his hand sneak onto my shoulder. I raised my hand up to meet his, but then he quickly yanked away. He then snuck his hand up again, and I again tried to meet his; we started playing a game. After a time, I decided to give up and just let him keep his hand there. He first rested his hand on my shoulder, but then started to stroke my hair with his fingers. I put my hand up, and this time he grabbed it. Yet, he didn’t stop there; as we were holding hands, he then took his free pinky finger and, with it, stroked my cheek.
Though at the time, I did not experience a profound reaction (I thought it was sweet and funny), later reflection prompted me to recognize it as an illustration of God’s persistent, tender love.
I think we often expect that when God calms our inner storms, he will come crashing into our lives and shatter our problems with a sledgehammer. I have heard many testimonies in which someone describes this awe-inspiring “God moment.” However, I think most of the time, God calms our storms calmly. He doesn’t need to rush in because He has always been there, looking on us with love. Very often, we are like the disciples on the boat, so wrapped up in the storm that we can’t see that Christ is right there, just waiting to be called on.
For me, this realization was extremely humbling. Here, I had been trying to control and drive everything, but God showed me that He takes the first step. The ball is not always just in our court; our relationship is not one-sided. In fact, to learn how to love, we need to first allow Him to love us more.
In the words of St. Therese of Lisieux, “To love Thee as [you love] me I must borrow [your] very Love - then only, can I find rest.”
So, I invite all of you to find comfort and peace in the Father’s love for you, and in your primary purpose— to be united with Him. Like the children in the orphanage, God loves us, not despite our brokenness, but in and through it, without condition.
We need to allow ourselves to be loved and to love even though we are all imperfect, even when we are struggling with our grades or friendships, when we haven’t showered in two days (or more), or when we are raw or unfiltered. Do not shield yourself from His gaze, but enter a relationship of mutual love, surrendering through daily prayer and remembering Him in everything.