I suspect it’s fairly common for faith-filled people to nevertheless long for a sign of some sort — something to let them know for sure that God is really there, that there’s an Almighty Hand on the tiller. I was a skeptic for a lot of years myself; even called myself an agnostic, which I thought was sensible, even clever, and didn’t recognize until later was a lukewarm atheism at best, and at worst, a lukewarm faith:
“I know your works; I know that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” — Revelation 3:15-16
Even when I began to come around to faith, I was, like Thomas, a doubter, and wanted to touch and be touched by God. And I believe I was once — an event I recorded in an essay of sorts called Thomas and Me. (Weak title, I know, but I was emotionally weak at the time, and who ever heard of a soft-hearted editor?)
At any rate, for a few brief moments I felt full-up with God. After that, I’m been hesitant to ask for more signs.
It’s not that I don’t still wish for something tangible, or want to be closer to God. And it’s not that I doubt more or less than I used to: distance and time has diminished the certainty I felt in that moment, but in the years since, I’ve met so many people (who I know and trust) who have experienced soul-shaking, life-altering, heart-changing conversions — and yeah, even miracles — that the tendency to raise an eyebrow is now tempered.
But touching the supernatural is a scary thing. First, there’s the immensity of it all, of a God who exists outside time and created everything of which we can conceive. Then there’s that feeling of smallness, which may translate in our tiny human hearts into insignificance or desperate unworthiness, misguided though it may be. Then hits the enormity of the implications: that if we are not the be-all-and-end-all, the bomb-diggity, all-that-and-a-bag-of-chips, as it were, maybe we owe something to Someone who is…
So when a friend mentions a miracle in his or her own life, I only pursue the conversation so far, and when my own close encounters crop up, like last week’s God-Incidence, I find myself both shaken and stirred. And I don’t think this discomfort is mine alone. Another friend of mine talked about his own unease with anything to do with the Catholic Church’s teachings on the devil, demons, or even angels. And watching the mainstream media’s coverage of the beatification of Pope John Paul II, you could hear and see the journalists’ discomfort with miracles and intercession…they’d like to believe, but it would shake their very sense of who they are.
Then on Saturday morning I went to daily Mass at St. Michael’s with my bride. The gospel reading was from John, which recounts Christ walking on water, but was a telling I’m less familiar with:
That evening the disciples went down to the shore of the sea and got into a boat to make for Capernaum on the other side of the sea. It was getting dark by now and Jesus had still not rejoined them. The wind was strong, and the sea was getting rough. They had rowed three or four miles when they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming towards the boat. They were afraid, but he said, “It’s me. Don’t be afraid.” They were ready to take him into the boat, and immediately it reached the shore at the place they were making for. — John 6:16-21
These men, who had been with Jesus and seen him perform wonders, were again amazed, this time by his appearance on the stormy waters. And guess what? They were afraid, too, and doubted as to his very identity (as evidenced by his very loving response, like a father to a child: “It’s me. Don’t be afraid.”).
I take comfort in the fact that his disciples, too, were frightened to encounter the supernatural and continuously awestruck and terrified by the power of God. But I took something else from this passage. In the better-known version (at least to me), Peter steps from the boat to walk toward Jesus, but falters in his faith and begins to sink. But John’s account is different. Read that final line again: “They were ready to take him into the boat, and immediately it reached the shore at the place they were making for.”
Here is a kind, gentle, and generous God: just welcoming Him aboard is enough to get us where we need to go.