As Catholics, we believe in the seven Sacraments, which are traditionally defined as “outward signs instituted by Christ to give grace.” These are effective, or work, in and of themselves because of the loving power of God and the spiritual authority of the Church, though the more we are open or receptive to the grace they give, the more spiritual benefit we receive. The Church also makes use of something called sacramentals, which are actions or blessed objects that can also be a secondary source of grace and spiritual assistance. Examples include holy water, the Sign of the Cross, rosaries, candles, religious medals, and scapulars. A scapular, of course, consists of two pieces of cloth joined by a pair of cords and worn around one’s neck; the most famous is the Brown Scapular which shows a devotion to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. Unlike Sacraments, which are spiritually powerful and effective in their own right, sacramentals depend on the faith of the person using them; Catholics with great faith in God have received great blessings, and sometimes even miracles, as a result of using sacramentals.
For instance, in 1845 an English ship named King of the Ocean was sailing to Australia. Off the coast of South Africa it suddenly encountered a fierce storm and was in real danger of sinking. Most of the passengers and crew lost hope, but a young man named John McAuliffe—a Catholic—stepped out onto the deck and, despite the pounding waves and howling wind, unbuttoned his shirt, took off his Brown Scapular, and held it out toward the storm. He made the Sign of the Cross with the scapular, and then threw it into the raging waters. Instantly the winds stopped and the waves were stilled—except for one final wave which splashed at John’s feet, bringing his scapular back to him. Many stunned passengers witnessed this miracle, including a Protestant minister; he asked John about the scapular’s meaning and history, and when the ship finally docked in Sydney, Australia, the minister and his family went straight to the nearest Catholic parish and arranged to be received into the Church (Philip Kosloski, “How A Ship Was Miraculously Saved by God Through A Brown Scapular,” Aleteia, May 17, 2019—homily notebook, “Scapular”). We face many storms in life—real or metaphorical, large or small, and mildly inconvenient or potentially deadly. Jesus does not leave us to face them on our own—and as long as we place our faith in Him, we have nothing to fear.
God does not abandon His people. As we see in the Gospel of Mark (4:35-41), the apostles experienced this truth first-hand, even though Jesus afterwards chided them for their lack of faith. When Job (38:1, 8-11) complained about his many tragic sufferings, God reminded him of His Divine power over nature, thereby implying that while Job didn’t need to understand everything that happened, he did need to believe that everything can serve a purpose in His loving plan. As St. Paul (2 Corinthians 5:14-17) teaches, whoever is in Christ is a new creation—which means we are invited to let go of all our fears and doubts.
Why do we experience storms in life—whether in the form of difficulties, problems, disappointments, failures, or the loss of someone or something valuable to us? Christian theologians, philosophers, scholars, and other authors have struggled to answer this question for 2000 years now. No one has come up with a complete or perfectly satisfying answer, but some general ideas or themes can be useful. First of all, God may allow one of life’s storms to confront us so that, by rescuing us, His Name may be glorified and our faith in Him may be deepened. Both these dynamics were at work in today’s Gospel; the apostles were in awe of Jesus when the wind and sea obeyed His command, and this helped strengthened their faith in Him. Secondly, we must remember that life is harder than God intended because of original sin. His creation was perfect, but the sin of Adam and Eve—a share of which we’ve all inherited—introduced pain, suffering, and death into the world, and that’s the very reason Jesus came to save us. We still have to experience some of the unpleasant effects of sin, but we can give a deeper spiritual meaning to our sufferings by freely uniting them to the sufferings of Christ—and by taking up our own cross and following Jesus, we can grow in holiness, make reparation for our own sins or the sins of other people or of our country, be strengthened to face a future challenge in life, lessen any time we may need to spend in purgatory, and increase our capacity for eternal happiness while earning a higher place of glory in Heaven.
Thirdly, we may experience storms in life because of our own sins, or the sins of others. God’s respect for human free will may mean other people will hurt us, as happened to Jesus Himself. The Lord understands our suffering, and gives us the strength to bear it and even bring some good out of it, though we may not see or understand this at first. In terms of the suffering we cause ourselves by our own sins, God may allow it to remind us of our absolute need for Him—and with some sinners, suffering may be the only way the Lord has of getting their attention and of begging them to repent. Sometimes we can be our own worst enemies, whether by ignoring God’s call to us and stubbornly insisting on having things our own way, by clinging to one of our vices or bad habits instead of repenting of it, by having an unconfessed mortal sin on our conscience, by harboring a grudge or refusing to forgive someone who sinned against us, by dabbling in the occult and thereby opening up an avenue for evil spirits to enter our lives, by failing to take our religious responsibilities seriously or just going through the motions in prayer or at Mass, or by centering our lives around something or someone other than God. Sometimes the solution to our problems is simply to make a good confession, receive Holy Communion worthily, pray the Rosary, or seek the intercession of Our Lady and our favorite saints.
Every situation is different, and only God can know for sure why a particular person is bearing certain sufferings—but His peace and grace are always available to those who seek Him with a humble and sincere heart. Miracles still happen sometimes, whether as the result of the Church’s Sacraments, scapulars or other sacramentals, or our own fervent personal prayer—and even when this isn’t the case, the Lord is still always able to help us and even bless us through what we suffer, as long as we place our trust in Him. Because we live in a world touched by sin, each of us will experience some storms in life, but Jesus—even if He seems to be sleeping in our boat or otherwise ignoring us—travels our journey with us, while promising that, through His grace, we will one day safely arrive at our heavenly home.