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Peace, Be Still

October 28, 2012

And the same day, when the even was come, he saith unto them, Let us pass over unto the other side.  And when they had sent away the multitude, they took him even as he was in the ship. And there were also with him other little ships.  And there arose a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full.  And he was in the hinder part of the ship, asleep on a pillow: and they awake him, and say unto him, Master, carest thou not that we perish?  And he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.  And he said unto them, Why are ye so fearful? how is it that ye have no faith?  And they feared exceedingly, and said one to another, What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?

The Church Fathers generally interpret this passage from the Gospel both as a metaphor for the ark of Church in the tumultuous sea of this world and as a metaphor for the vessel of the human heart plunged in an ocean of tempestuous thoughts.  While both are worthy of our attention, I would like to concentrate in this post on the more spiritual and more cognitive interpretation. Using that metaphor, the human heart is ravaged by thoughts provoked by the cares and storms of this world, but for the believer to appreciate what is going on, he needs to look not just at what is going on outside, but also at what is going on inside.

In the words of Saint Philotheos of Sinai, “Turn your attention to your nous. There you will see a succession of waves worse than before, with the soul swimming among them. But again, awakened by His disciple, Jesus as God will rebuke the winds of evil” (Texts on Watchfulness, 26). From this perspective, the mere awareness of raging thoughts should direct the soul to call out to Christ Whose divine grace can calm the storm. Blessed Augustine in his commentary on Psalm 60 offers another interpretation of this passage. He teaches that when you see that your heart is troubled by cares, know that you have turned all your attention to them and have forgotten Christ, so that it is as though He is sleeping within your soul. To awaken Him, you need to look to Christ’s holy peaceful presence and saving passion, then the quality of the thoughts change and you can sense that He has awoken in the soul and brought with Him a great calm. From this perspective, focusing on another set of godly remembrances calms the tempest. In fact, both processes, the spiritual transformation through the uncreated grace of God and a cognitive shift through a changed focus are part of the path to human healing.

If we place ourselves within the full gospel passage, we find that we react to the storms of life, much like the disciples’ did to the storm at sea: we panic. Like His disciples, we panic over the water filling our boat and an impending doom filling our minds that race ahead from tragedy to tragedy. When the head rules the heart in dark, stormy times, waves upon waves of automatic thoughts fill the mind’s horizon and prevent the nous from being still.  We ceaselessly mull over a future of doom and gloom rather than recognizing that the Lord and Master of the universe is quite capable and willing to quell any storm. The Lord Jesus wasn’t asleep because He didn’t care about the disciples’ plight.  He slumbered as a sovereign Lord and a peaceful timeless, presence. The stillness in His holy soul was not troubled by the waves of this world or its tempests, but was ever attentive to the cries of His children. When He acted, He did so to increase the faith of the disciples and to gently rebuke them for their lack of faith.  Notice the words He used to calm the sea, “Peace, be still.”  It hearkens back to the words of the Old Testament, “Be still and know that I am God.”  Peace is a prerequisite for stillness just as stillness is a prerequisite for communion with God.  The holy fathers instruct us that God is not to be found in the storm or the noise of this life, but in stillness by awareness of our thoughts and the unceasing remembrance of Christ in our minds.  When we stuff that sacred space, where God should abide, with material things, worldly cares, anxieties, and distractions including television, music, or idle conversation, God’s gentle presence is masked so that we are no longer able to perceive Him working within us.  If we desire to quell the bad thoughts, the habitual sin, we must strive after this peace and be still.  The world offers us distractions that temporarily anesthetize the mind and deaden the nous all the while keeping God’s presence distant from us.  As Saint Seraphim of Sarov told his spiritual children, “Acquire a peaceful spirit, and around you thousands will be saved. Where there is God, there is no evil. Everything coming from God is peaceful, healthy and leads a person to the judgment of his own imperfections and humility.”

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