Walking across the waves:

Finding a place of calm


In meditation we learn to be still, to be silent.

As we learn to be still, to be silent, we discover the peace that is always present in the depths of who we are.

We discover that this peace, which can sometimes seem a long way off, or completely hidden beneath the waves of our thoughts and feelings, is always close-by: because it’s the deepest truth of who we are. As the author of the Cloud of Unknowing wrote to his student, “God is your being.”[1]

One of the great gifts of meditation is that the internal barriers that confine us within ourselves and isolate us from each other are gradually broken down.

Little by little, these barriers dissolve and lose their power as God restores us to ourselves. We come to encounter our life in a way we never expected. We become open to other people in ways we never imagined.

Being restored to ourselves always involves being restored to each other.

Depending on how the weather of our life happens to be at any given moment, our surface mind can be relatively calm or full of noisy waves.

In times when we are finding life challenging, it can feel as if there is no way to find peace, a refuge from the waves crashing against us. But if we think this, we are mistaken. There is always a refuge of peace deep within us, however large and noisy the waves may appear.

The 5th century guide to prayer, Saint Diadochos, likened the surface mind to the sea, which, when calm, invites us to look deeply within it.

“When the sea is calm”, writes Diadochus, “fishermen can scan its depths and therefore hardly any creature moving in the water escapes their notice. But when the sea is disturbed by the winds it hides beneath its turbid and agitated waves what it was happy to reveal when it was smiling and calm; and then the fisherman’s skill and cunning prove vain. The same thing happens with the contemplative power of the intellect.”[2]

All that’s needed to connect with the peace within is to dedicate time to being still, to being silent, to trust that God will calm the waves and patiently continue with our practice.

In chapter 14 of Matthew’s gospel, we find Jesus instructing the disciples to make their way by boat to the other side of the lake.[3] It’s an extraordinarily rich teaching on prayer. The dramatic sequence of events has much to tell us about our practice of meditation, and how to meet the challenges that internal waves of negative thoughts can present to us.

In the depths of the night, at a great distance from the shore, the weather deteriorates and the disciple’s boat starts to be tossed about, “tormented by the waves because the wind was adverse.”[4]

At this very scary moment, Jesus comes toward them, walking on the sea.

At first, the disciples don’t recognise him and cry out in fear.

Jesus tells them who he is and that they should take heart, have courage and not be fearful.

Peter, says “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you upon the waters.” Jesus says, “Come,” and Peter gets out of the boat and starts to walk towards him.

So, far, so good.

When Peter’s attention is fixed upon Jesus, when he’s completely focussed on responding to the invitation “Come,” he’s able to do something we would not ordinarily think possible, something we might not think possible for ourselves when we are tormented by strong headwinds of negative thoughts — he can walk across the waves.

But then Peter looks away and seeing the strength of the wind he starts to become afraid, and begins to sink beneath the waves.

Looking towards Jesus, Peter can walk through whatever the weather is doing. When his attention is distracted by the weather and he looks at that, he starts to sink beneath the waves.

As he starts to sink, Peter cries out “Lord, save me!” And Jesus immediately stretches out his hand and takes hold of him, teaching him with words as if to say, “Trust, keep your attention fixed on me, and all will be well.”

They get into the boat together. The wind dies down. The lake becomes calm again.

Meditation is a very simple, very ancient way of answering the call “Come.” Looking towards Christ, we allow him to guide us through the weather of our life to where the mind is quiet and the heart is at peace: the still, calm centre.

To know the peace that is always present in the depths of who we are.

To know that we are home.

[1] The Book of Privy Counselling, chap. 1.

[2] St. Diadochus On Spiritual Knowledge, in The Philokalia, Vol.1 (Faber and Faber).

[3] Matthew 14:22–32.

[4] David Bentley Hart’s evocative rendering of Matthew 14:24 in his translation of the New Testament (Yale University Press).

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