Last year I was on a boat with 50 people on the Sea of Galilee. Admittedly, this makes praying pretty easy. Our joke during the Holy Land pilgrimage was that you didn’t really have to “imagine” anything, as you do in the Ignatian way of praying. All you had to do was open your eyes and look around!
In the Ignatian tradition, people are encouraged to use their senses to picture themselves in a passage from Scripture. You take a Gospel passage and “compose the place,” as St. Ignatius Loyola says, imagining what things would look like, sound like, taste like, smell like, and feel like.
But even on the Sea of Galilee, as it would turn out, using a little imagination was still good. And one sense really helped me—hearing.
While on the boat, a Jesuit priest read us the story of the storm at sea from the Gospel of Mark (4:35–41). In that passage, the disciples are on a boat in the middle of a raging storm. Even today storms can whip up in no time on the Sea of Galilee. (This has something to do with the configuration of the hills that surround the water or the prevailing winds, depending on whom you ask.) Jesus is asleep on the boat, and the disciples awaken him, asking if he even cares about them. In response, he stands up and “rebukes” the wind and waves, stilling the storm.
“Who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?” say the disciples. They are terribly frightened. The original Greek says, “They feared a great fear.”
The priest read this story with great passion and then gave us silence, so that we could pray. So I used my senses to imagine what it might have been like for the disciples. The only sounds I heard were the humming of the boat’s engine, the splashing of the water, the heavy wind, and something else: the loud snapping of a line of plastic pennants hanging from the edge of the boat’s awning, which was shielding us from the sun. Brightly colored, the pennants snapped in the breeze.
Suddenly I thought of what it would be like if that sound stopped—at someone’s command. I imagined the pennants suddenly being quiet and the sound of the wind and the waves ceasing. I thought of how frightening it would be to hear that!
All at once I felt a great compassion for the disciples, unlike I’d ever experienced.
So often we make fun of the disciples. “Oh, how little faith they had!” “Look how they misunderstood Jesus again!” “Look how they couldn’t even stop arguing among themselves.”
But that day I felt I was given a window into what it would have been like to be with Jesus when he performed what are called “nature miracles,” where he showed his command over the natural world. It would have been terrifying! How could the disciples have been anything but terrified, confused, and overwhelmed when they saw such things? Grateful and moved, of course—but also scared.
Just using one sense—hearing—unlocked something for me. It opened my heart to a deeper compassion for the disciples. And, in fact, for all of us, because we’re his disciples too. We get confused and worried and frightened. We’re just like the disciples.
Using my hearing helped me to see that we’re in the same boat.