Navigating the Storms of Life

Navigating the Storms of Life

The apostles weren’t the only saints in the Church’s history who had bad experiences while at sea. St. Paul, of course, was shipwrecked three different times; others who experienced shipwreck included St. Francis of Assisi, St. Margaret of Scotland, and St. Bridget. They all survived; Blessed Jordan of Saxony, however—who followed St. Dominic as master general of the Dominican Order—drowned in the year 1237 while traveling to the Holy Land on a pilgrimage. St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, the first American citizen to be canonized a saint, frequently had to journey from the United States back to Italy; she was never shipwrecked or in any danger, but she constantly had to struggle with seasickness.  Some of the saints had amusing experiences on the water. For instance, on one occasion the ship carrying the French priest St. John of Matha and his fellow monks was badly damaged, and its sails were so shredded as to become useless. John’s solution was ingenious:  he created new sails out of the monks’ habits, and the ship reached shore safely. (It’s not recorded what, if anything, the monks wore in the meantime; perhaps they wrapped themselves in the old, tattered sails.)

A more dramatic incident involved the Franciscan missionary St. Francis Solanus, who was busy instructing 80 African slaves imprisoned on a ship approaching Peru when a fierce storm arose. The ship’s captain ordered everyone in the lifeboats, but there was no room for the frightened Africans—so Father Francis gave up his place to remain with them. He finished instructing them and then baptized them all just before a giant wave overturned the ship. Many of the slaves drowned, but Francis and the others clung to the ship’s hull; for three days he encouraged them and led them in prayers before a rescue boat arrived. Francis was the last to leave; just as he was about to step into the boat, a wave pushed it away, leaving him alone on the sinking vessel. Fortunately he was an excellent swimmer; he dove into the water and was soon hauled to safety by the rescuers.

Holiness doesn’t guarantee freedom from all trouble while at sea, but trust in God does give us assurance in the face of life’s problems. In the 19th century a military officer and his wife were aboard a ship caught in a raging ocean storm. The wife was frantic, and when she demanded of her husband, “How can you be so calm?,” he stepped back, drew his sword, pointed it at her heart, and asked, “Are you afraid of this?” She immediately answered, “Of course not,” and when he asked why, she said, “Because it’s in your hand, and you love me too much to hurt me.” Her husband responded, “Yes, and in the same way, I know the One Who holds the winds and the waters in the hollow of His hand, and He will surely care for us!” (homily notebook, “Trust”). That same degree of assurance can be ours, if we have faith. Life’s storms rage around us all the time, but they will never overcome the love of the God Who created us, the God Who died for us, and the God Who guides and strengthens us. Fear may be a natural human reaction, but for a Christian, it’s also an opportunity to become more aware of Christ’s presence and to give Him all our trust.

When we were young, we believed at first that our parents, and perhaps also our teachers at school and any other significant adults in our lives, could do anything or solve any problem, and that they had all the answers.  It usually doesn’t take too long for children to discover that this is by no means true—but we can spend a lifetime learning of God our Father’s powerful yet gentle and loving care for us, while barely scratching the surface of this amazing reality. The Lord God reminded Job (38:1, 8-11) that He, as the Creator, controls all the forces of nature, including the wind and the waves, the sky and the sea. For this reason, the apostles (Mark 4:35-41) were actually in no real danger while Jesus was with them, but they didn’t understand this at first. Later they reached the point—by means of divine grace—where they were able to brave many dangers, preach boldly in the Name of Jesus, and even gladly give their lives for Jesus as martyrs. As St. Paul (2 Corinthians 5:14-17) says, for those living in Christ’s grace, the old order has passed away, for they have become a new creation.

In 1911 an ocean liner named the Olympic was involved in a collision with a British warship; fortunately no one on either ship was killed or injured. The Olympic’s famous sister ship Titanic wasn’t so lucky; as you certainly know, the following year it sank with heavy loss of life after striking an iceberg. These two ocean liners had another sister ship, the Britannic, which served as a hospital ship during World War I a few years later; it sank after striking and detonating a naval mine. The amazing thing is that there was a British stewardess and nurse named Violet Jessop who was serving aboard each ship, one after the other, and incredibly survived all three collisions or sinkings. Her life is almost a parable of how, through the grace of God, we can weather all of life’s storms and survive whatever fate may throw at us.

If I were to ask, “How many of you have ever experienced suffering, pain, fear, worry, or trouble?,” I’d expect that almost everyone’s hand would be raised. If I then asked, “How many of you were somehow helped by God to bear that suffering, overcome those fears and worries, or get through that trouble?,” again I’d expect that almost everyone would raise a hand. God never abandons us; as a loving Father, He never ignores our prayers, and He never leaves us to face life’s challenges alone.

Not only does God watch over us with a Father’s love; He also sends special people—including our loved ones on earth, and the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, and the other saints in heaven—to assist us. It is impossible for any of us to escape all the worries and problems of life, but it is quite possible to use them as opportunities to grow in wisdom, holiness, and grace. The great preacher St. Paul of the Cross once said, “Your ship is at sea without sails and without oars. Nevertheless, it is guided by the great Pilot Who will certainly bring you to a secure port. It is battered by storms and winds so that the Power and Wisdom of that great Pilot will shine forth for you.” In other words, the more difficult our journey through life, the more we will rejoice and sing God’s praises once He has fulfilled our hope and trust by bringing us safely home.   

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Written by
Fr Joseph Esper