Every hospital bed is a little boat floating alone on a vast and dangerous sea.
It is little because it is entirely at the mercy of the waves, defenceless. It is alone because it is little; there is room for only one passenger. Family members can come and sit on the shore offering comfort but they can’t get into the boat - and so it’s often a place of great loneliness and fear.
The passenger is usually someone like you or me, someone who never expected to be in that little boat - at least not today, not now.
The waters are mostly choppy, rarely calm, and occasionally a category five storm breaks out.
Whatever the 'weather' you can be sure that the faith of each patient in a hospital is being deeply tested – strengthened or weakened.
Curiously, some patients tell me God is to blame for their predicament - Jesus made the disciples get into the boat. It seems to many that pain and suffering are somehow God’s fault. They tell me with a baffling kind of faith, ‘he could stop it if he wanted’.
It’s always the same question in varying disguises: Where does suffering come from?
I always tell them it comes from Original Sin yet, even as I speak, there is this look of incomprehension or disbelief, and I ask myself why this answer satisfies me and not them? For me it’s all our fault – for them it’s always God’s.
Even people of great faith are occasionally tormented by the absence of God who seems to have gone up into the hills by himself to pray. Funnily enough, this reminds me of Jesus who told the fickle Peter that he had prayed for him so that when he had recovered he might strengthen his brothers.
Not only is God far away but so many feel isolated and alone as they experience the loss of their family life, daily routine and pre-occupations. Perhaps they blame God for this too – that he has sent the crowds away.
And so they find themselves far out on the lake … battling with a heavy sea and struggling against a headwind … all alone. They had set off in daylight but now it is night, in fact, the fourth watch. All seems lost and the other side, the good health for which they had set out, is now far from their mind; the suffering is immense, unbearable.
Where are you, Jesus?
In the fourth watch of the night he went towards them, walking on the lake …
That Jesus came is no surprise because, in actuality, he never leaves us. What is surprising is the way he came – walking on the water. Jesus comes to the disciples walking on the very waters that threaten to overturn and destroy their lives. They were the same waters which would soon take his own life and, in a kind of foretelling of his resurrection, he comes in power to his terrified followers. No wonder they don’t recognise him; they do not yet know the ‘Crucified Christ’, the one who has conquered the turbulent, fearful waters of suffering and death.
The disciples cry out in fear and terror but Jesus at once says: Courage! It is I! Do not be afraid.
When Jesus began to teach his disciples that he was destined to suffer and die Peter could not accept it. He took Jesus aside and said: Heaven preserve you, Lord … this must not happen to you. How often have I not heard the same words from the families of patients, and the patients themselves: No! This must not happen! It can’t happen!
But every now and then, unexpectedly and with deep gratitude, I meet patients who, like Peter, rather than fleeing the wind and the waves cry out to the Lord and seek to come to him through their sufferings: Lord … if it is you, tell me to come to you across the water.
'Come' said Jesus. Come, come to my crucifixion and you will find your resurrection.
Peter is willing but not yet able. He begins to sink and cries out for help. He momentarily loses faith in Jesus’ power to save but still Jesus saves him - and calms the wind.
Jesus is gradually strengthening Peter’s faith, and ours, until we can say with St Paul: I live now not with my own life but with the life of Christ who lives in me (Gal 2:20).
I have met patients in deep suffering who can say these words with full conviction. It is always an awe inspiring moment. These singular people are an encouragement and an invitation to follow in their footsteps. They are an open window giving a glimpse into the Father’s house. Their faith has conquered the fear of death and they point us to the one who makes it possible. With the men in the boat they are bowing down before him and saying: Truly, you are the Son of God.
Let us do the same.