47. Why Do We Doubt? (Matthew 14:22-36)

“If I try by myself to swim across the ocean of this world, the waves will certainly engulf me. In order to survive I must climb aboard a ship made of wood; this wood is the Cross of Christ. Of course, even on board ship there will be dangerous tempests and perils from the sea of this world. But God will help me remain on board the ship and arrive safely at the harbor of eternal life.” – St. Augustine

Matthew 14:22-36: Directly after this he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side while he would send the crowds away. After sending the crowds away he went up into the hills by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, while the boat, by now far out on the lake, was battling with a heavy sea, for there was a head-wind. In the fourth watch of the night he went towards them, walking on the lake, and when the disciples saw him walking on the lake they were terrified. ‘It is a ghost’ they said, and cried out in fear. But at once Jesus called out to them, saying, ‘Courage! It is I! Do not be afraid.’ It was Peter who answered. ‘Lord,’ he said ‘if it is you, tell me to come to you across the water.’ ‘Come’ said Jesus. Then Peter got out of the boat and started walking towards Jesus across the water, but as soon as he felt the force of the wind, he took fright and began to sink. ‘Lord! Save me!’ he cried. Jesus put out his hand at once and held him. ‘Man of little faith,’ he said, ‘why did you doubt?’ And as they got into the boat the wind dropped. The men in the boat bowed down before him and said, ‘Truly, you are the Son of God.’

Having made the crossing, they came to land at Gennesaret. When the local people recognised him they spread the news through the whole neighbourhood and took all that were sick to him, begging him just to let them touch the fringe of his cloak. And all those who touched it were completely cured.

Christ the Lord  A few hours earlier, Jesus had demonstrated his divine power by the miraculous multiplication of the loaves. As his disciples struggle to keep afloat in the midst of one of the Sea of Galilee’s characteristic storms, which arise suddenly and progress violently due to the peculiar geography of the region, Jesus gives them more signs of his divinity: walking on the water, enabling Peter to walk on the water, and calming the gale as suddenly as nature had stirred it up. The reaction of the astonished Apostles leaves no room to doubt the extraordinary quality of this encounter: they “bowed down before him” and acknowledged him as the Messiah. If we take enough time to contemplate the episode, we will find ourselves doing the same.

Christ the Teacher  The incident overflows with lessons for the attentive Christian. First of all, the Church has long viewed the back-to-back miracles having to do with bread (multiplication of the loaves) and with Christ’s body (walking on the water) as a preface to the mystery of the Eucharist, the ongoing miracle involving bread and Christ’s body. Just as the Apostles share in these two miracles – they distributed the miraculously multiplying loaves, and Peter walks on the water – so through the Eucharist all Christians will come to share in the transforming power of divine grace. Christ proves he has power over elemental objects and material forces; why could he not have that same power to turn bread and wine into his own body through the hands of his Apostles?

Secondly, Christ teaches us by example the importance of spending time in prayer. St Matthew notes how Jesus went up into the hills by himself to pray. Before the miracle of the loaves, Christ had received news of John the Baptist’s martyrdom and had attempted to go off by himself to reflect and pray in its aftermath, but the needs of the crowds deterred him. Nevertheless, here we see that although he delayed his time alone with his Father, he did not let his busy schedule crowd it out altogether. As soon as he could, he retreated into the quiet of prayer. Jesus teaches us to keep first things first; if he who is the Son of God needed time alone in prayer, how much more do we!

Thirdly, Christ uses Peter’s impulsiveness to teach us the secret of navigating through the winds and waves of life. As long as Peter kept his eyes on Christ he was able to walk unhindered through the stormy sea; as soon as he let his eyes wander away from Christ to examine the intimidating waves, he began to sink. Just so, as we strive to make our way to Christ through the stormy temptations and challenges of life in a fallen world, focusing on Christ is the only way to keep afloat.

Christ the Friend  Christ never abandons us in our need; he only asks us to believe in him. In his words to Peter, tinged perhaps with disappointment, we catch a glimpse of his heart, longing so deeply for us to trust him without limits: “Why did you doubt?” And when he steps into the boat, the storm dies away and peace resumes. Christ wants to be our peace, our strength, and our solution to all of life’s troubles. As the continued healings St Matthew mentions at the end of the chapter attest, he wants to accompany us on each stage of our life’s journey. St Peter learned this lesson well; in his first Letter he put it like this: “cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you” (1 Peter 5:7).

Peter: How could I ever forget that night? We were terrified. Have you ever seen someone walking across the stormy waters right next to your boat? When we heard his voice telling us to take courage, I felt a surge of recognition and confidence, but when I looked into the others’ faces, I could tell they didn’t know what to think. That’s when I got the idea to have him call me to walk on the waters with him, to put everyone’s fears to rest. And I did! I walked on the stormy sea. Who had ever heard of such a thing? After a few steps, as the boat retreated farther behind me, I began to notice how great the storm really was. That’s when I took my eyes off the Lord. Whenever I took my eyes off him, I always got in trouble. I started to sink. The whole world was caving in on me. I could barely even cry out for help. But he was there. He was always there. He never gave up on me. He believed in me even when I didn’t believe in him, or in myself.

Christ in My Life  Why did you need to pray, Lord? You were God! But you did need to pray. Do I feel such a need to pray? Am I willing to sacrifice other things in order to make sure I spend time with you? Why am I not more concerned about learning to pray better? Jesus, you want me to pray. I want to pray better, so that I can love you better. Teach me, Lord, to pray. Thy will be done…

That boat was the infant Church, with Peter at the helm. It struggled then, and your Church still struggles today. Lord, give strength and prudence to our Pope, to the bishops, to the priests and consecrated men and women, and to the laity. Grant saintly priests to the world. Take us by the hand, save us, increase our faith, calm the storms. Never let me be separated from you…

You always saw the needs of others and went out to meet them. Why I am so slow to do good, especially with those who are near to me? My heart goes in slow motion sometimes, weighed down by my immense selfishness. Your grace can change me. Jesus, meek and humble of heart, with the zeal of your heart inflame my heart…

Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC

PS: To learn more about The Better Part – A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer, click HERE.

About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller “Inside the Passion”–the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: “The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer”. He has also published three other titles: Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions, “Meditations for Mothers” and “A Guide to Christian Meditation”. Fr. John currently splits his time between Rome and Rhode Island, where he teaches theology as an adjunct professor at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum and at Mater Ecclesia College. He is also continuing his writing apostolate with online retreats at www.RCSpirituality.org and questions and answers on the spiritual life at www.RCSpiritualDirection.com. FATHER JOHN’S BOOKS include: “The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer”, Inside the Passion–The Only Authorized Insiders View of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, Meditations for Mothers, and A Guide to Christian Meditation.

This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Roman Catholic Spiritual Direction.

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