To Walk on Water
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, August 21, 2016 at St. Mary Orthodox Church.
The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (14:22-34)
The storm through which the Lord calmly and peacefully walked is a metaphor for the storms that rage inside of us. All scripture is metaphorical. The deepest meanings lie below the surface.
There is a work usually ascribed to St. Symeon the New Theologian called “Three Forms of Prayer.” Although some no longer believe he wrote it, it was written most certainly by an Orthodox theologian with a deep experience of prayer.
In one of those three forms, the writer instructs that the monk should go into his cell, sit on his stool, place his beard on his chest and look within. What will the novice see at first? Chaos. A cacophony of thoughts and emotions. St. Theophan uses the image of buzzing flies to describe it and Buddha spoke of monkeys jumping from tree to tree.
The writer continues saying that at this point the monk must not be discouraged by what he sees. As no feeling is final, no storm is forever. Rather the monk should continue to sit patiently and practice faithfully no matter what. After an indeterminate time a great space will open within – a place of peace and calm. Remember that Peter failed at first to complete his stroll to Jesus on the water. And yet he rose up again by focusing on Jesus instead of his fear. That is how contemplative prayer happens; with persistence in practice, faith in God and in the knowledge that all matter of things will be well.
The storm is no match for the Spirit and persistent prayer.
The place of peace and calm, as this Gospel demonstrates, is exemplified in the Person of Christ. Where he is, there is perfect peace, where he is there is the kingdom, there is eternity, where he is storms no longer matter, waves appear as a smooth path, the wind is revealed to be the stirring of the Holy Spirit, the torrential rains a new baptism.
So we must dive into God. We must turn our attention to Christ. And where is he? Within. Where is his calm and peaceful kingdom? Inside.
To walk on water we must dive deep into ourselves and into the kingdom within. St. Augustine knew about this. He wrote,
“I entered into the innermost part of myself…I entered and saw with my soul’s eye…an unchangeable light shining above the eye of my soul and above my mind…He who knows truth knows that light, and he who knows that light knows eternity. Love knows it…I often do this. I find delight in it…”
And from St. Gregory the Great writes of the mind being “carried away into the sweetness of heavenly contemplation,” where it sees “the inmost realities as it were through a mist…”
And Thomas Merton speaks of it like this: “A door opens in the center of our being and we seem to fall through it into the immense depths which, although they are infinite, are all accessible to us; all eternity seems to have become ours...”
This experience of God in contemplative prayer is accessible to everyone and Jesus told us how.
"But you, when you pray, enter into your closet, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly."
The closet is a metaphor for the heart, closing the door is a metaphor for vigilance in guarding the senses. The Lord’s reference to doing this in secret refers to the need for solitude, stillness and silence for the Father, he says, “is in secret.” This is how we must pray. This is how Jesus prayed. This is how we learn how to walk on water.