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In the Belly of the Whale

They say the whale swallowed Jonah/ Out in the deep blue sea?  Sometimes I get that feeling/That same old whale has swallowed me

If you’re like me, you also sometimes get that feeling, that same old whale has swallowed you.  The circumstances vary for each of us, you might feel overwhelmed and stuck in a bad situation at work or in bad health, angry or depressed because you’ve lost somebody or something dear to you.  Maybe you just often feel in the dark about who you are and what you are supposed to be doing with your life. When I feel like this, I feel a little better listening to Mississippi blues singer, J.B. Lenoir’s soulful 1965 classic “The whale has swallowed me.”  Music is indeed great medicine, but like all medicine, it wears off after a while.  Soon the blues; feeling overwhelmed, lonely, depressed might find us again.  So for emotional and spiritual dis-ease like this, we need stronger medicine, and it just so happens that we can find a prescription in today’s Gospel reading.

Jesus, the great doctor of human souls, advises us that when-like the prophet Jonah-we are suffering, angry with God and others and in the dark groping for answers, we shouldn’t look for miracles, escapes or easy answers. Rather said Jesus, we must go inside the belly of the whale for a while. We must seek what Jesus calls “the Sign of Jonah.” “The Sign of Jonah” is Jesus’ metaphor for the mystery of transformation. In today’s reading he tells the growing crowd that they will get no miracles, shortcuts or easy answers to their life struggles, just this sign of Jonah. What is this sign? Well Jesus and the crowds knew the story of Jonah the prophet who ran from God, and yet was used by God almost in spite of himself. Jonah was swallowed by a whale and taken where he would rather not go. The sign of Jonah is the paradox of Christian faith; that rebirth springs from death, that the way up is down, that to emerge from the whale of doubt, anxiety and suffering, you first have to enter into it (Mt. 12:39).

The problem is, none of us easily tolerate anxiety, doubt and pain. We do almost anything to escape from the belly of the beast. For most of us it takes facing a major crisis or loss, a life-threatening illness, the death of a friend or the loss of a marriage or job, before we are forced to go there. As we talked about for several weeks this past Lent, as a culture we have forgotten how to deal with grief and loss.  It is our Christian faith alone that reminds us that the dark periods of our lives are often the best teachers, and shows us how to ‘breathe underwater’ in these uncomfortable times.  It teaches us how to resist grasping for easy answers, and instead ask questions. It teaches us to stay steady through the painful times of life, without answers, without conclusions, and some days without meaning, because that is the way of the cross, and the way to new life. For some mysterious reasons, this emptiness opens up room to be filled by God’s Love and grace.

Then and only then, like Jonah, can we be spit up on a new shore and understand our call, our place, our pain, our purpose. This is the Sign of Jonah, the Sign of the Cross and the mystery of our faith and life itself.  This cycle of death and rising is not only the mystery that is to happen at the end of our lives, but our whole life is to be something of a dress rehearsal for our final great transformation. For whatever reason, true growth, true love is learned mainly by experiencing this cycle of death and rising, of emptying to be filled, which presents itself to us on many occasions in our lifetime if we are paying attention. That’s the mystery of true growth and true love here on Earth, but also in Heaven, as even in the Trinity, God self-empties before the other can then fill the empty space. The Father pours love into the Son; the Son pours love into the Spirit; the Spirit pours love into the Father. Each is emptied and ready to receive the other’s love. Trinity is the foundational template for all true love.

So today, let us read the signs which Our Lord has brought before us, the sign of Jonah, the sign of the cross. Our scriptures, along with our Armenian Church worship and holy traditions regularly remind us that lamenting and times of darkness are sacred space; times of death yes, but leading to incubation, growth and transformation. Do not buy the lie, that we can control, deny or avoid these dark sacred spaces, for if we did we would remain half the person that God intends us to be.  It is just part of life that that “sometimes we do get that feeling, that same old whale has swallowed us.” But when we do, if we can prayerfully stay in that place of darkness, uncertainty and despair, we will soon find ourselves coming up for air, inspired and renewed with the Holy Spirit of God, which brings us from our lowest place to rise to the Glory of God.

-Adapted from Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer

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