Raging Waters – Br. Curtis Almquist

Psalm 124

For several years prior to my coming to the monastery I was a parish priest. Along with a good many other pastors in the area, I took a monthly rotation as a night chaplain in the local community hospital. During these night shifts, we chaplains would spend most of our time on-call in the intensive care unit and in the emergency room, caring for traumatized patients, whose urgent needs were beyond what only medicine could cure, and their family members, and sometimes the medical staff,. On more than a few occasions I recall standing beside a hospital gurney that was weighted down by a tragedy-in-the-making, and my having little or nothing to say to the patient or loved ones or the staff. What we often shared in those moments were tears, but I had few, if any, words. At those moments, my attempting to theologize – to say that there surely was something good in this terrible thing; that this beautiful child or cherished adult who had just died was in a “better place”; to say that this beloved spouse or parent or friend, now dead, was actually spiritually “closer” to their shocked family than if this departed family member were still alive; to attempt to rename a heartbreak with language about God’s love or God’s will – my attempt to theologize in such a way at such a time would have largely been for my own sake, an attempt to convince myself of something other than what I was now witnessing, an unspeakable tragedy.

I suspect that all of us here have our own experience facing trauma tic tragedies, on both a personal and corporate level. The Psalm appointed for this evening has a certain poignancy in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the Gulf regions.

If the Lord had not been on our side…
Then would the waters have overwhelmed us
And the torrent gone over us;
Then would the raging waters
Have gone right over us…
Psalm 124:2-5

In the soon aftermath of Katrina (and much the same with the Tsunami in Asia during Christmastide) the waters did go right over many people, washing away lives and livelihoods, and people’s hopes and dreams and plans for the future. Washed away. Gone. What’s to be said? I would think less rather than more, and for several reasons.

For one, a pastoral reason. People in trauma more likely need our presence than our preaching. We will bear a more comforting witness to someone facing deep loss by simply being with them, by re-presenting God Emmanuel – God with us – by our being with them. Not by our words, but by our presence. And we let the words come, first from them. They may need to speak words of rage or sighs of grief, or questions, or crushing doubt. By our presence, by our being with them and bearing this with them, they may find the courage to cry out, perhaps cry out to God, uncensored, unrestrained, like a child in great need. Like a child of God. I would say, the question is notwhether God is with this other person, these other people? The question is rather, how is God with them? We do well, most days in most ways to listen first before we define or deduce what God is doing in and with someone facing enormous loss. Before we speak, there’s often a prior invitation to simply be with another person – to listen and to help in the most prac tical of ways – and in so doing to re-present God Emmanuel, God with them in their grief and loss. God Emmanuel, not God Homiletical.

Second of all, if we speak too quickly or define too readily what we are witnessing or experiencing, we may actually confine God’s revelation to us. Other people’s tragedies can shake us to our core and fill us with our own uncertainty, which may be terribly disorienting but not necessarily bad. Our English word “doubt” comes from the Latin dubitare, which means, quite literally, to hesitate in the face of two possibilities. Did God will what happened with the hurricane and tsunami as if these disasters were in some way “necessary,” or is this something else? Something else, I would say.

There’s some things that we don’t want to say. We don’t want to say or imply that God in some way “needs” this suffering to be or to become God or to evoke God’s love or to offer God’s redemption. God does not “need” our suffering. (God does not “need” us to be God.) I’ll draw here on the insight of the Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart. “God is not nourished by our sacrifices or ennobled by our virtues, any more than [God] is diminished by our sins and sufferings.” God’s identity and God’s love is not dependent on or reactive to us, for God to be who God is… otherwise we have a God of or own making.i

Nor would we want to make some “Christian” identification or conflation between the incalculable suffering we know and witness and the cross of Christ, as if the cross justifies or explains the suffering. David Bentley Hart says that “the cross of Christ is not… simply an eternal validation of pain and death, but rather their overthrow.” The cross of Christ is God’s “immutable love sweeping us up into itself, taking all suffering and death upon itself without being changed… or defined by it, and so destroying its power and making us, by participation in Christ, ‘more than conquerors,’” using St. Paul’s words.ii

And we would not want to say that the people who are suffering globally from natural disasters – floods and fires and earthquakes and droughts, in present time and in times past – are somehow getting what they deserve. It would be too convenient, it would be imperious to impose such an explanation upon these sufferings, especially for those who are not Christian, or upon the sufferings of those who throughout the ages have lived and died apart from any knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth. I’m drawing here again on David Bentley Hart, who continues, that “it makes a considerable difference whether one says that God has eternally willed [suffering] and sin and death… as the necessary means of achieving [God’s] ends, or whether… God has willed his good in creatures from eternity, and will bring it to pass… by so ordering all things toward God’s goodness…. …Even evil (which [God] does not cause) becomes an occasion of [God’s grace].iii

And in the meantime, often, a very mean time, we witness and participate in a freedom, with which God has created humankind, to do all kinds of good stuff and all kinds of bad stuff in this world, and among God’s creation – among human beings, birds of the sky, fish of the sea, trees and flowers, and waterways, and the very air we breathe. We have the God-given freedom and power to do a great deal in this world, for good or ill. And we have been created with a God-given freedom to love – not the requirement of love but the gift of love – including the God-given freedom even to accept God’s love and to love God in return. (I think that God’s love is ultimately irresistible… though it may take some of us an eternity to realize it.)

But I’m now doing more of what I suggest we should do less. In the presence of suffering, listen more, say less. There is an ancient theological tradition, apophatic theology, that attempts to speak about God in terms of what one cannot say. That is, because God is beyond what we can intellectually understand or name or codify. God is always More. The apophatic tradition weaves it way through Christian mysticism.iv If I may be so bold as to say what is very “practical” about apophatic theology is understanding its profundity when you face unexplainable loss, suffering, and death. This may be in your own life or someone you know and love. There may be many things about God, at that moment, which cannot be said. Someone’s (maybe your own?) “belief system” may have absolutely collapsed. And yet, there still is something left of the God’s presence and God’s love evident and resilient in the soul. We’re hearing this from our brothers who are ministering now in Baton Rouge. We saw evidence of this on the front page of Newsweek magazine a week or so ago. The headlines were a plea of a woman, clearly ravaged by Katrina, who words were capture: “Pray For Us!” Why? What is left there of God in the soul of this devastated woman, this child of God? Something. Something very real, something to be listened to and reverenced. And so with you, here: with everything you now find you cannot say about God, things you may have been weaned from even in these past few weeks, what is left? You are here tonight. There’s something left!

I’ve been reading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. There’s a very touching scene where a young woman who has suffered greatly and lost much speaks to the wise old monk, Father Zossima. She asks him, “How can I get back my faith?” “How?” Father Zossima responds, “By the experience of active love. Strive to love your neighbour actively and indefatigably. In as far as you advance in love you will grow surer of the reality of God and of the immortality of your soul…. This has been tried. This is certain.”v “Strive to love your neighbour actively and indefatigably.” In this mean time, there is much to love. That is clear. There is much to love.

i David Bentley Hart in The Doors of the Sea; Where Was God in the Tsunami? (Erdmann’s, 2005). “This is the doctrine of divine apatheia, or impassibility, the teaching that God is, in his nature, impervious to any external force of change – any pathos or affect – and is free of all reactive or changing emotions.” Hart, pp. 75-77.

ii Hart, p. 82. St. Paul, quoted from the Letter to the Romans 8:37.

iii Hart, p. 79-82.

iv See the tradition surrounding Dionysius the Areopagite, a fifth-century monk, in Mystica Theologia , and from the 14 th century writings, The Cloud of Unknowing , and the Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross, who referred to apophatic theology as “the understanding of not understanding.” A very fine contemporary book is The Inner Eye of Love; Mys tic ism and Religion by William Johnston (Harper & Row), 1978 .

v The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (Barnes and Noble Classics, 2004), p. 60.

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  1. Lynn on October 8, 2017 at 21:57

    I must admit I am so partial to hearing Br. Curtis’ spoken word that I often pass right over if I don’t see an audio link. Not today, and I am so thankful. Such a beautiful melding of the practical and spiritual. We always want to rush to fill the silence of loss with words and answers. Now I see that there are even more blessings to be found within the stillness than just the expression of compassion that is Immanuel. Thank you, Brother, this is a keeper.

  2. Ruth West on October 8, 2017 at 18:29

    Dear Br. Curtis, thanks for this sermon. It is about a very complex subject. I read through it a second time, thinking and listening to your words and also the interesting enlightening comments. I so agree with you about little talking, but making God known by our loving presence. I have tried to make that my policy in visiting the sick and suffering. Why does God allow suffering? Since God himself sufferied to the moment of death, why would he not allow us, his servants, his children to suffer also. I know he will not spare us from suffering. What I do know is that “His grace is sufficient” for coping with any and every situation. Regarding the horrible weather-related experiences, I first thought I would say, God does not interfere with acts of nature, but, on second thought, I know that is not true.
    When the waves were overcoming the disciples in the storm-tossed sea, and it looked as if they would not survive, Jesus walked on the water to their boat (which frightened them before they recognized him) and he said, “Peace be still.” They were astonished to the nth degree that even the forces of nature obeyed him. We do not have all the answers as to why God allows certain things, but prevents or heals in other cases. We simply must continue to love Him and know that He is love and listens to us in the midst of sorrow as well as joy. Alleluia!

  3. suzanne robinson on August 5, 2015 at 04:48

    Dear Br. Curtis: I am in awe of the synchronicity of the deep truths shared in your sermon
    entitled Presence to two encounters experienced this past Sunday by grace – one in the driveway of the church where I had dropped a notice of a forthcoming Centering Prayer Gathering and the other in a Fish House where I went to purchase some soup on the run. In both instances I found myself caught up into Love’s presence.

    In the driveway there was a man picking up twigs. Greeting him, he allowed that he was a visitor but he loved to garden and keep church property tidy. As we walked toward his car, he pointed to the three crosses dangling from the mirror. “I am Catholic,” he said. “My mother died a month ago. I loved her very much.”
    Tears started to roll down his face and mine. The sheer intimacy of such a revelation from one I did not know let me know that the Kingdom of God was here, present in his sharing. I told him that I wept unexpectedly in the vegetable department of the supermarket following my mother’s death to this world… that tears would come unbidden, often embarrassingly, until I learned that they served to heal me from the deepest wounds within.

    “Do you know the painting of Christ the Light of the World,” I asked? “No,” he replied. “In the painting, Christ is standing in a doorway lifting a lantern that has light streaming out from it. Whenever I see this image, I think of Christ lighting up the depths of the cave within my being until all of me becomes Light, His Light, His Life.” [ From a place deep within, I could feel a stirring at the intimacy of this revelation and Isensed we were being used one for the other for God’s purposing, for Godly healing.]

    My new friend brightened and said, “I can identify with this. I used to have to go down into the tunnels of Boston, deep, deep, deep in the subsurface in order to bring water to the people of Boston. He paused, smiling. ” I guess I was a water bearer in Jesus.”

    We simply stood there in silence until he leaned over and gave me a hug and turning,he got into his car and drove off with a wave.

    I walked to the Fish House nearby and went in to purchase some chowder. A woman came through the door who had been at one of our Centering Prayer gatherings but whom I did not know well. There were other people present. She seemed filled with anguish as she placed her order. I introduced myself and asked if she had time to talk a bit while she waited for her order. We moved to the back of the room. “My dog died yesterday andI feel guilty because the vet was closing and the medical assistant said there was nothing he could do to make my dog better and that he would have to be put down. But maybe if there had been more time, we could have figured out an alternative to his death. I feel responsible for his dying.” Her
    suffering and the intimate immediacy of
    this revelation caught my attention. Tears
    rolled down her cheeks and mine.

    I had no words, I had been there, 12 years before, when my dog had to be “put down” and I had never had a dog since because I vowed I would never experience such love and such a death again.

    But then Jesus came into my life and everything changed.

    Gradually as I listened,her suffering eased in the simple sharing until her breathing was more even and she became more accepting of her dog’s passing. She said, “I may go through these ups and downs a number of times
    until I can really be at peace.” I nodded and her suffering was lifted up silently as we held hands. The salesperson called our names and we turned as one to retrieve the orders we had placed and went on our way. Without being
    named as such, Leo Tolstoy’s reverie entitled “Where Love is There is God” had brought the three of us together. We simply found our- selves, each and all, at the confluence of the cataract of Love’s outpouring grace. “Where two or three are gathered together in my Name, there I am in the midst of them.” Mt.18:20
    To God be the Glory !

  4. the Revd Sarah V Lewis on August 4, 2015 at 09:15

    In reading “Presence” as Word of the Day before coming to this page, I was moved by the idea that it is not only in times of others pain or sorrow that we need to be deeply aware, but also in their moments of deep joy & overflowing happiness. To rejoice deeply with another & without envy is to also celebrate the other person, aware of God’s goodness to each & all of us.

  5. Sallie on August 4, 2015 at 08:23

    But just not speaking is not enough. When we were with my dead husband and all the priest did was to offer the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm it was horrible. First it required me to be active and say those things too- but mostg of all there was no prayer for my husband and no prayer for me- we were alone with someone else which is one of the worst lonelinesses…..so speak minimally but to the need of the other

  6. Maureen Doyle on November 28, 2012 at 18:11

    Jesus cried when Lazarus died. Jesus was often filled with compassion and this shows one of the ways he expressed it.
    After I was hit by a car and lay between life and death, our priest kept telling me everyone was praying so I would be okay. I realized he repeated the reassurnces because he couldn’t see the wall of angels around my bed. ( I thought I’d best not tell him since he might tell the doctors that I was hallucinating.) I see now that his reassurances were as much for him as they were for me.

  7. David Chandler on November 28, 2012 at 07:46

    I read your most helpful message. And then I reread it, hoping to be able to retain some of its richness for those inevitable days when it’s most needed. Thank you, Brother, for helping me and – I am certain ! – many others, as well.

  8. Melanie Zybala on November 4, 2012 at 09:37

    Thanks for your strong, honest perspective. I read most of these meditations andfind many well written. But some of your writers become emotionally less than honest. You’re right: there is little we can say to persons in such difficult situations. Much of what preaching and religious writing offers us is false,
    dishonest. Go back to Jesus, who was not ever treacly or dishonest.
    He saw reality, tragedy, and oppression, and he named them and was
    passionately angry.

  9. Pamela Post-Ferrante on September 30, 2012 at 13:35

    Dear Brother Curtis,
    I love the reminder to listen to those in grief and not try to offer something so we don’t feel so helpless in the company of their pain.

    That is a way of loving and fits right in with what we are to do when we have lost so much that we, in the end, lose our faith. We love. Perfect. We can do that from a sickbed or a lonely house or a shelter in Louisiana.
    Beautiful sermon.

  10. Mino Sullivan on September 30, 2012 at 12:30

    Dear Curtis,
    I’ve been told recently that God needs us to love him. This was new information to me as I thought God was everything and therefore needed nothing. It seems thast if God is not reactionary our living or not loving him makes no difference to him. The difference would be felt by us.

    • Pam on November 28, 2012 at 10:05

      The question of whether God “needs” us is very interesting. God is still God no matter what happens, but we do know that he suffers for and with us, that he weeps over us. But there is one sense in which God needs us. Teresa of Avila said it best when she spoke of our being God hands, feet, eyes, etc. Because of the free will God gifted us with, he does need us to say yes. Our covenant with God is not like the one described in the Old Testament (it’s not like a contract in which God does this and we do that), but it is one of being led through our willingness to participate in God’s plan.

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