Discipleship has one door: surrender to God

With Elijah, hiding his face before the Lord, who is revealed in “the tiny whispering sound” that follows a storm, and with St. Peter, being plucked from the stormy waters of the Sea of Galilee, no doubt storms will show up in many a homily this weekend. Of course the tempests in question will be metaphorical. They will be “the storms of life.”

Good enough, but it is important to distinguish life’s true storms from its more work-a-day sorrows and struggles. All of these must somehow be borne in faith, but a life-storm is a specific form of suffering. We have no control over storms, which is what makes them so uniquely terrifying. Neither the onset, nor the intensity, nor the break-up of storms is ours to call.

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It is important to distinguish life’s true storms from its more work-a-day sorrows and struggles.

Also, a storm, at least one worth fearing, either sweeps away a world or it sweeps us out of the world, literally. Either we lose the farm or the home in the storm, most everything that was ours in the world, or, even worse, we ourselves die in it. So pondering the role of faith in the storms of life is different, more directed, than speaking of faith’s relationship to troubles and sorrow. Struggles require resolution, but storms are situations over which we have no control, situations that sweep our worlds, and perhaps our very selves, away.

Here is a story of storm and faith. On Dec. 4, 1875, the transatlantic steamer the Deutschland departed from Bremerhaven, Germany. It was on its way to New York. The ship had a crew of a hundred men, and it carried 113 passengers, mostly German immigrants bound for America. Among them were five Franciscan nuns, who had been exiled from Germany in the Kulturkampf, the struggle over religious liberty between the Catholic Church and Otto von Bismarck, Germany’s Iron Chancellor. In the face of sorrow and suffering, the sisters were resolutely leaving their homeland behind, bound for hospital work in St. Louis. They were still very much in control of their lives. They were meeting struggle with spunk.

Between midnight and the morning of Dec. 7, a winter storm off the coast of England sank the steamer. Some passengers and crew escaped. The five Franciscans were drowned. A Jesuit priest and poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, read about the tragedy. One detail of the story was particularly troubling for him. The New York Times reported that one of the nuns “was seen with her body half through the skylight, crying aloud in a voice heard above the storm. ‘O my God, make it quick. Make it quick.’”

The God of the storm is the God who either forbids or permits the tempest to sweep away world and life.

In the course of his life, Hopkins often worried whether his prayers reached God. Did they go unanswered through some fault in the person praying? What of those prayers that seem unassailable in intention—prayers in which we do no more than seek God’s aid? Wasn’t this just such a prayer? Here was a bride of Christ, begging into the wind. Did this prayer reach heaven? Did it move God?

This challenge to Hopkins’s faith produced a great poem of the English language, “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” It begins by addressing the God revealed in the storm, the God who can calm the waves, should he so will:

Thou mastering me

God! giver of breath and bread;

World’s strand, sway of the sea;

Lord of living and dead;

Thou hast bound bones & veins in me, fastened me flesh,

And after it almost unmade, what with dread,

Thy doing: and dost thou touch me afresh?

Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.

The God of the storm is the God who either forbids or permits the tempest to sweep away world and life. What can be said of this God if, when the clouds abate, the one who had prayed so desperately is either dead or stands amidst the ruins of her world?

The dead can bring that concern directly to God—that is, if simply coming into the presence of God, if seeing such storied love, hasn’t already stilled their questions. But what of us, who watched as our worlds were washed away? What can we say of our God, after the storm, amidst the rubble?

Hopkins’s answer is to link the prayer of this drowning nun to that of the Virgin Mary, the woman who allowed herself to drown in discipleship, whose deepest dimensions were only sounded in the midst of the storm.

Jesu, heart’s light,

Jesu, maid’s son,

What was the feast followed the night

Thou hadst glory of this nun?—

Feast of the one woman without stain.

For so conceivèd, so to conceive thee is done;

But here was heart-throe, birth of a brain,

Word, that heard and kept thee and uttered thee outright.

Was the will of God accomplished in the death of this German nun? Is that why the wind seems to sweep away her prayer? But wasn’t she found faithful in her great trial? Death found her calling upon the Lord, who snatched her to himself in answer to her prayer.

Jesu, heart’s light,

Jesu, maid’s son,

What was the feast followed the night

Thou hadst glory of this nun?—

Discipleship is a single door: surrender to God. It’s what Peter could not do, not at this moment in his life, in the Sea of Galilee, though he will gloriously surrender, years later, in the wind-blown dust of a Roman circus on the Vatican Hill.

The true storms of life demand such a discipleship of us, an absolute surrender, which mirrors that of the Virgin Mary herself. Hopkins writes:

Feast of the one woman without stain.

For so conceivèd, so to conceive thee is done;

But here was heart-throe, birth of a brain,

Word, that heard and kept thee and uttered thee outright.

Christ was birthed into the world because Mary surrendered everything to God. He comes forth, not from the work of nature, however powerful, but from her assent alone. Surrender has greater power than storm. “For so conceived, so to conceive is done.”

Sooner or later, the life of every disciple must face the storm that demands absolute surrender. For some, the tempest will come in the midst of life. In its wake we will move into a new, utterly unknown and forlorn world, having said “yes” to God. We will live on, in this new, wasted world by faith alone. The surrender will be slow and steady, demanding all the steely resilience of faith: I will live on after this death, without this career, in this place and not another, and I will do so in faith.

For all the children of Eve, death is such a storm. At this door we must surrender to God, or fail in the only thing really required of our soul. And life itself, however long or short, is nothing but a preparation for this decisive surrender. Will we be ready? Will God find us crying over the waves, into the wind, calling him to us?

Small wonder that even the simplest of souls, in the earliest years of life, is taught to pray the “Hail Mary.” Like the Lord’s Prayer, in which we ask such simple, necessary things—God be hallowed, God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done, feed us now, forgive us now, and free us from temptation—the “Hail Mary” sings Scripture’s songs to this woman, and then, ever so quickly, fixes its sight upon the decisive storm to come: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

Readings: 1 Kings 19: 9a, 11-13a Romans 9: 1-5 Matthew 14: 22-33

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Bruce Snowden
2 months 1 week ago

A most gripping story, a profound teaching Father Klein, your “Discipleship Has One Door: Surrender To God.” That poor nun, body half way through the skylight as the Deutschland sank, crying out above the storm, “O my God make it quick! Make it quick!” seems sinewed to Jesus in the Garden crying out, in the storm raging in his heart, “Father, make it quick! Make it Quick!” usually translated as “Father, if it be possible let this Cup pass me by!”

Yes, life is often disasterous in the batter of storms that wounds and even kills. God is irreversibly consistent, rarely reversing the natural order, allowing the flow of water for example, to sustain, or devour. He is just as consistent in the supernatural order, gracious in the aspersions of Grace. But it is his call, always!

How true a saying of American Capuchin priest Solanus Casey scheduled to be Beatified this November, “Praise God in all his designs!” Yes, Discipleship does have only one door, the door of surrender to God in all his designs. But we know it is not a servile surrender, but instead a surrender of love to love, as a lover surrenders to the beloved, despite the pain.
As those who try to surrender to love know, Love can hurt. A glance at the crucifix the “door” explains love, God’s imponderable love, a hard crust of bread to chew, but effectively Manna from heaven, in a word, “Discipleship.”

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