It is thirty years since I was on Lough Corrib in Co Galway in the west of Ireland. A friend had a small sailing dinghy, a clinker-built wooden boat that had been in his family for years and invited me to join him in going out to sail on a fine summer’s afternoon. Being unable to swim at the time, and being apprehensive about going out without a lifebelt or any of the things now assumed as necessary, it was with a great deal of trepidation that I stepped into the boat.
We set sail and the experience seemed very pleasant; a gentle breeze filled the sail and we skimmed over the deep, dark and cold waters of the lough. The enjoyment came to a sudden end when a sudden strong wind seemed to come from nowhere, whipping up the water and driving the boat sideways.
My friend acted quickly to bring the situation under control, turning the boat and bringing it back onto an even keel. “A sidheóg,” he muttered, a fairy. Fairies in the west of Ireland were not gentle winged creatures from children’s story books, they were dark and mischievous creatures; the near capsizing of the dinghy had been attributed at the spur of the moment to a malevolent force.
The fear felt at that moment seemed always an insight into the fear that must have been felt by the friends who accompanied Jesus across the lake at Galilee. We are not told who accompanied him, his three closest companions were fishermen, but among the others there may have been those who stepped into the boat with a great deal of apprehension. It is evening, darkness is falling and in Saint Mark Chapter 4 Verse 35, Jesus says, “Let us go across to the other side.”
The immediate feeling was probably one of relief, to escape from the noise and clamour to the peacefulness of the lake would have been welcome, Chapter 4 Verse 36 says, “And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him”. Saint Mark seems to emphasize that this is a reasonable choice that has been made. The crowds with their demands and their cries for help are left behind on the shore. Everyone seems relaxed as they set sail out into the waters. Jesus has gone with them and they were not sailing alone, there were other vessels making the crossing. The mood is so relaxed that Jesus goes to the stern of the boat and falls asleep.
Then there came a moment that made a sidheóg on Lough Corrib seem like an innocuous summer breeze. We are told in Verse 37 that “a great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped”. Can we imagine the fear felt at that moment? Can we sense the sheer panic in the hearts of those in that boat? There were no life preservers, no means of calling for help, no prospects of anyone coming to save them. While my friend’s comment concerning fairies was a casual and throwaway remark, the disciples would have believed in the presence of malevolent powers.
In this extreme moment, the disciples are challenged about what it is they believe, “Teacher,” they shout in Verse 38, “do you not care that we are perishing?” It is in extreme moments that we are challenged about what it is that we believe ourselves. In moments when life itself is under threat, we become sharply focused upon the things that matter to us; we resolve that if we come through the experience, then we will be different people.
Jesus wakes and he responds to the cries for help, the storm calms, and then in Verse 40 he turns to his companions and asks, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
Fear can be the most destructive of human emotions, undermining confidence, destroying hope, causing people to abandon the things they held most dear. Jesus’ friends are asked about their fears, why is it they are afraid? Why are they so uncertain about the beliefs that have shaped their lives?
Like the disciples in the boat, we might ask ourselves what are the things that we fear? Why are we not committed to the things that most matter?
Frightening moments can linger in our thoughts long after they have taken place; the disciples never forgot those crucial minutes on that lake. Frightening moments can be lifelong lessons.