A friend recently lent me a book entitled 438 Days. It chronicles the true story of a fisherman that was lost at sea off the coast of Mexico for over four hundred days. It details the extensive lengths this man went to in order to survive and the suffering he endured both physically and emotionally. After finishing this book it has certainly gotten me thinking. What would I do if I was stranded in the middle of the ocean with no end in sight? How would I survive? How would I endure the storms?
It can feel like we’re lost at sea in our own lives, especially when it comes to our faith. As a matter of fact, I’ve established my own visual of how our faith journeys are a lot like being at sea, with our final destination (hopefully) being heaven. When we initially embark on our journey we are eager and determined. Although we cannot see our destination we are certain it is there. We set off in our boats with our course set.
The journey, however, is far from easy. There are waves that rock against our boats, threatening to set us off course. These are the temptations we experience everyday. If we lose focus in our navigation any given wave can throw us off the path. The waves may subside and give way to calm waters but as we’ve learned through our journeys that is only a temporary oasis. The waves, and the temptation, will return.
On the opposite end, there are moments of unsettling stillness in which our boat is not moving at all. Those times in our lives can be infuriating, as we feel stuck in place. These moments of still water hit us in the form of boredom and monotony, and when we feel like we’re simply going through the motions. All we yearn for is movement, to feel alive.
We face even greater struggles along our way. We are hit by storms. Oftentimes these storms come out of nowhere, leaving us to question if and when they will ever relent. These storms can take the form of a great number of things – loss, tragedy, anxiety, change, heartbreak, depression, loneliness, and so on. Sometimes these storms pass as quickly as they came but others last for what feels like an eternity. Once it finally does subside we are completely thrown off course. We are left to wonder if we will ever find our way back. And although the storm itself has faded we are still left picking up the pieces and living with the damage.
Unfortunately some storms are more severe as they rip our boats to shreds, leaving us to wade water in the vast sea, trying desperately to hold onto the debris in order to survive. Surviving requires every bit of energy we can muster. The only thing keeping us alive is hope. But sometimes that hope evaporates and we start to run out of energy. As that happens we begin to sink down into the ocean, resigned to our fate. But then, there is a splash above us and we feel a pair of arms grasp us that then begin to pull us towards the surface. When we reach the surface we see a collection of boats surrounding us, eagerly watching as we come back to reality. It’s in those moments we remember that, for as vast and lonely as the sea can feel, we are never truly alone. In our moments of desperation where we feel like we are drowning, overwhelmed by the wreckage of the storm, there are people that will dive into the water to save us.
These rescuers can be anyone whose journey intersects with ours. Oftentimes it’s our family and our closest friends. Although storms may separate us at times, we always find ways to return to those that are most important to us. Sometimes, though, it’s somebody else that saves us. In some cases it’s somebody we know, but other times it’s a complete stranger. Sometimes it’s an individual and sometimes it’s an entire community. When we are rescued we may be taken in by our savior(s). They care for us, restoring our faith and setting us back on course. Eventually, however, we are to return to our own individual journey. We are gifted a new boat to continue our trek towards heaven. We continue on as a new person, now shaped by our experiences and struggles. We have learned from our mistakes. More importantly, we are reminded that in our darkest of times we are not beyond saving.
Our journeys are not linear. We don’t simply endure one storm and then hit clear waters and sunny skies. Our lives are unpredictable, just as the sea is unpredictable. We all have stretches of calmness and serenity. We are progressing easily toward our destination. At times we may naively think this blissfulness will last through the duration of our journey. But then in the blink of an eye a storm hits us and confuses our sense of direction. We can’t predict when these storms will come or how many we will have to endure throughout our lifetimes. In the midst of these unpredictable storms we yearn for the peaceful waters. At times we may ask ourselves whether or not our journey is worth the pain, uncertainty, and destruction from our storms. Is the destination really worth it all?
Yes. Absolutely, yes. The reward of heaven will far outweigh any storm we may encounter here on Earth. I’ll admit, it can be difficult to see that sometimes. But then I think of the times I’ve been rescued from the sea and lifted up by those around me. The outpouring of love we receive from our rescuers is nothing compared to the love we will feel in heaven.
I’m sure many of you are feeling lost at sea right now with everything that’s going on. I know I am. I’ll be honest, I was feeling a bit lost before I even knew what COVID-19 was. I wasn’t going through any major storm, I simply felt myself losing focus of my journey’s purpose. I was becoming lazy and unmotivated in my faith. It wasn’t a priority. I was gradually losing my direction. And then the world began shutting down. In the past I may have the seen the incoming storm approaching on the horizon and may have leaned back into my faith so as to try and avoid it, or at least minimize the damage. The opposite happened. Instead of turning to faith in this time of uncertainty and straightening my course I veered into the storm. Up to this point I feel like I’ve managed pretty well in the midst of this storm. But as it continues I find myself feeling more and more physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausted. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to navigate these rough waters and I find myself questioning how I’ll make it through.
For me personally this hasn’t been a quick, damaging storm. It’s been one that just won’t seem to dissipate, eating away at my optimism and attempts at maintaining a positive attitude. Perhaps the most difficult challenge of this storm is the loneliness that it has brought on so many of us. Being so removed from loved ones has been unbelievably difficult. I can’t help but think – how many of us will come out of this with our boats still intact and how many will find ourselves desperately gasping for air as the feeling of loneliness begins to sink us?
One thing this storm has made me realize just how much I have depended on other people in my faith journey in order to stay on course. Like many other people I feel like my spiritual journey at sea began after my 8th grade Confirmation and as I went through high school. It was then in my life that I ventured out on my own boat, discovering my faith as my own and nobody else’s. But yet, I was never truly alone as I set sail. I was surrounded by countless others, particularly my new faith community – my high school youth group. Through my four years of high school my personal storms were relatively minimal, meaning I was able to stay on track fairly easily.
As I moved into college the waters started to get a bit rougher. There was some distance between my boat and those I grew so used to seeing in high school. I was truly on my own in open waters for the first real time in my life. But that didn’t last long as I quickly found myself in the midst of a new convoy – my Catholic Newman Center. I felt like I was seeing across the ocean so clearly, my destination perfectly within reach on my current trajectory. That doesn’t mean an occasional storm didn’t temporarily come through and blow me off course. But I was quickly brought back by what felt like a fleet of friendly ships.
Post college life proved to be more challenging than I anticipated right off the bat. Though I was fortunate to have a great number of faith community supporters with me, we inevitably drifted a bit apart as we had to go forward on our own journeys. That doesn’t mean our boats don’t float along in close proximity, it just means we are more individually responsible for our own navigation. That made it more difficult to endure the ensuing storms, which only grew more frequent.
I’ve endured many storms over the last several years, some minor and easy to recover from. Others, however, have set me so far off course to the point where I wondered if I’d ever find my way back. The most damaging storms I’ve endured have been ones of loneliness and depression. I’ve spoken at length on this very blog on those particular storms. During those storms I felt completely lost, questioning my direction, what I was called to do, and learning how to deal with failure. The worst part was that I felt like I was stuck in my life with no clear path, which only prolonged the storm. In the midst of these storms I became increasingly disoriented, my sense of direction completely gone. These were the storms in which my boat was destroyed and I had to tread water.
Here’s the thing, though. For as alone as I felt I never was alone. The truth is that my loved ones were on that outside of that storm looking in, waiting for the rains and the wind to die down so they could enter in to help. But some storms are not navigable to those on the outside. In fact, there is only one person known to calm the seas. Jesus. It was Jesus that dove into the water Himself to save me during those storms. He was the one that rescued me. He is the one that rescues all of us in the middle of our worst suffering and pain.
Those storms taught me some very valuable lessons. But the most important one is this: although we are on our own journeys that doesn’t mean we are by ourselves. Yes, we are ultimately responsible for steering our own boats. However, that shouldn’t prevent us from ever asking for guidance. Think of all the storms we could avoid if we simply asked for help, or how much shorter some storms would be if we sent out a flair asking for support. Too many times we allow our pride or ego from seeking help. How silly is that when you consider the number of people that have navigated through the same types of storms? Why not heed their advice?
The storm we are in the middle today is a very unique one in that we are all in the same storm. Sure, we are all being affected differently by the waves, wind, and rain of this particular storm, but we are all in the midst of it. That’s an important thing to remember, especially as we face the burdens of loneliness and isolation. Although we may be unable to see our loved ones through the storm and the rain doesn’t mean they’re not there. It’s also important to understand that every storm does eventually end, just as this one will.
In reality, sometimes it’s more about how we pick up the pieces after the storm rather than what we do in the midst of it. Admittedly, it can be difficult to get back on track after the storm. We can’t help but feel lost and jaded, waiting for the next storm to hit us. But just as we learn to navigate storms through our experiences, also do we learn how to reset our course because of hope.
When this COVID-19 storm eventually ends I imagine a great number of us will come out of it feeling lost and confused. Before we attempt to continue our journey, though, we must first scan the water for those whose boats were destroyed. Those are the people who have suffered the most and whose faith is likely shaken. Reach out a helping hand. Invite them onto your boat for solace. Dive in after them if you must. This will be an opportunity to be the rescuers that so many people will desperately need. This is how we will restore the faith for countless people. Then, we can all continue on our journeys at sea, strengthened by the outpouring of love, ready to embrace the next storm. And through it all, remember this: we are never truly lost or alone.