Fr. Michael McGourty is the pastor of St. Peter’s Parish in Toronto.
Imagine if Canada Post saved all the mail that a person will receive in their entire life and delivered it all on one individual day. On that day, the person would receive every letter and every bill from his or her lifetime. The experience would be overwhelming and would certainly crush the person who attempted to deal with this lifetime of correspondence that came on a single day.
Sometimes, I think we can all lose perspective on life and think that we must handle all of our life’s problems on our own — in a single day.
This is certainly what I did when the events of COVID-19 started to develop last March. Instead of taking things one day at a time, one thing at a time, I began to panic and believe that I had to solve every possible concern facing myself and the parish on my own and in that very moment.
I remember that day vividly. It was a March morning, just before the arrival of spring. The snow had stopped falling for the year and the grass had not yet begun to grow. And yet, on that March morning, I could not stop wondering how I was going to both mow the lawn and shovel the snow if the parish had to lay off the caretaker. I imagined I would be answering the phones, celebrating Mass, paying the bills and caring for the gardens and lawn all at the same time – while shovelling the snow.
Like Peter in today’s Gospel, I lost perspective and I began to sink.
We can learn a lot from Peter in today’s Gospel in regards to what happens to us when we lose perspective and begin to panic. Like Peter, when this happens we begin to focus only on our problems. As we do this, these problems are taken out of context and seem larger than they really are. As we take them out of context, we also imagine that we must deal with the problems on our own. Because we think that we must deal with these problems alone, we lose hope, get self-centered and begin to despair at the situation. Soon, we find ourselves sinking and are ready to give up. We see all of this happen to Peter in today’s Gospel.
The Gospel begins with Peter and the disciples heading out on a boat trip without Jesus after the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus stays behind to pray, while those who have just been fed make their way across the water. As they are on their journey, a storm breaks out and the waves frighten those on the boat. Soon, they see Jesus walking on the water heading towards them and they begin to think He is a ghost.
This scene reminds me so much of what happens in my own day or week. I go to Mass, where I am fed by the Lord with His Word and Eucharist. Once I leave the comfort of the church and the Mass, I am confronted by a challenge or difficulty and I forget that I was just with the Lord and am unable to recognize His presence in the situation before me.
On those occasions, I can be like Peter. I reach out to the Lord and ask Him to give me the strength to head out onto the waters and I express my faith in Him to carry me through the situation. Yet, as I head out onto the waters, my focus can move from the face of Jesus to the waves (the problems of the day). As I take my attention off of the Lord, like Peter, I can become overwhelmed and begin to sink.
This is an experience that I think we can all relate to in our lives. We ask God for help and then proceed to try and do it on our own. As we tackle the problem on our own, we focus exclusively on the problem and on our own human efforts to deal with the situation. As we focus only on the problem and our efforts, we lose perspective because all we see is the problem, often totally out of context. In terms of a solution, all we see is what we, on our own, are capable of doing in the present moment. Again, with the loss of perspective, we do not see how time, other people and grace are able to help us through the situation. Perhaps the biggest danger of all in these situations is how the power of our imagination can distort reality and make things seems far worse than they really are.
This is what happens to Peter. He hears the Lord calling him and he gets out of the boat to walk towards Jesus. Instead of focusing on Jesus, Peter sees only the waves. He forgets the presence of the Lord in this situation and begins to focus only on the danger of the waves. Peter does not think about how Christ or the other eleven in the boat can help him. All he sees is the problem and he begins to panic and sink.
By focusing only on his abilities, he forgets the Lord is right in front of him and that his eleven friends are in a boat a few feet away. In reality, Peter has little to fear in this situation. But because he has lost perspective, he relies only on his own power and forgets that Christ is with him, Peter begins to sink and be overwhelmed by despair.
There is so much that we can learn from Peter and this situation. Much of what we can learn is found in the words of the beautiful prayer that Jesus taught — the “Our Father.” In this prayer, we are reminded that God is always with us to help us; that we ought to keep things in perspective; and that we need deal only with the problems of the present day.
When we pray the “Our Father,” we always start by asking that God’s will be done. This reminds us that we are not alone. God is with us and we do not need to solve things by ourselves. While we might not know the solution for the situation at hand; God does and we can trust it to His will. By doing this we take our eyes off the waves in life and focus on the face of Christ who is always with us. With the words “thy will be done,” like Peter, we are reaching out for God’s help and are open to a strength which is greater than our own.
In the “Our Father” we pray for “our daily bread.” This is not just a prayer for food. It is a prayer for the strength to do each day what we need to do to serve the Lord faithfully. These words are a reminder that we can only live one day at a time. We only need to pay today’s bills today. Each day has problems of its own.
Jesus calls us to live in the present, and to keep our eyes focused on Him. Peter took his eyes off Christ who was standing in front of him. Christ is with us in the present. When we are tempted to solve next week’s problems, He is not there yet. He is a God of the present, standing with us as we deal with today’s problems. If we want to find Christ in our lives, we need to stay with Him in the present.
We conclude the “Our Father” by praying: “and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” The greatest temptation that many of us face in difficult situations is to fall into despair and believe that the Lord is not with us. This is really what led Peter to almost sink. He thought he was alone and without God’s help. In these situations, we can commit the worst sins because we take matters into our own hands and impose our own solutions, without listening to God’s word or seeking His face in our lives. We cast aside our despair and the temptation to sin when we, like Peter, reach out to let God’s saving hand raise us up.
In my own experience, I realize when difficulties threaten to overwhelm me and I become focused solely on my own ability to solve those problems, that is when I have lost perspective. If I simply stop to pray the “Our Father” and entrust my worries to Christ, He will lift me up, as He did Peter in today’s Gospel. This prayer has the power to shatter the isolation of all despair and to clear our vision, in order that we may see the face of Christ amidst the waves and storms that threaten to overwhelm us. With these words, the Lord invites us to get back into the boat of life with Him in order that we might ride out the storm together. His presence does not mean that the storm disappears and there are no more waves. Being with Christ means we are not alone through the storm, that we face the storm with the proper perspective, and entrust its outcome to the power of His victorious grace. With Him, no matter what the storm, there is a safe harbour in His salvation.
At some point in our lives, we all face situations that can seem overwhelming. Like Peter, we may wish to do God’s will in these situations. Yet, despite our intentions to follow God, we may become closed in on ourselves and try to deal with things on our own. When this happens, we can lose sight of Christ’s presence in our lives and think that we are alone and on our own. This can lead us like Peter to despair and be on the verge of sinking.
In these moments, the Lord invites us, as He did Peter, to reach out for His hand that we might be saved. In order that we might do this, Jesus has taught us the words to the perfect prayer, which will always open our eyes to His presence with us in the storm. This prayer will give us the perspective to walk with Jesus calmly through every storm, free from the despair which might otherwise cause us to sink. Each time we pray the “Our Father,” we make real the request of the Psalmist today as we ask God to “show us your steadfast Love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation.”
This reflection based on the readings for the Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A: 1 Kings 19:9, 11-13; Psalm 85; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:22-33.
Photo credit: Andrewrabbott.