Welcome to our virtual book club! We're reading Fr. James Martin’s bestseller, Jesus: A Pilgrimage. Each week we will tackle a chapter and look forward to a lively discussion together.
Chapter 12 – Parables
Chapter 12 of Jesus A Pilgrimage is one of my favorite chapters. It’s the best blending so far of the sights in the Holy Land with the Holy Scriptures. Thank goodness Fr. Martin was tenacious in his search for the Bay of Parables for it yielded such wonderful insights.
While being a Christian in the twenty-first century holds many advantages (a major one being that most of us have easy access to the Bible in a language we can understand), we are at a disadvantage with regards to vantage points. How many of us have listened to the parable of the shrunken cloth and the new wineskins and shaken our heads, unable to understand the point of the story? How many of us wish Jesus had explained all the parables as clearly as the Sower and the seeds?
In his search for the Bay of Parables, Fr. Martin was looking for that vantage point, so that he could understand. His confusion began with the question of why Jesus chose to sit in a boat in the water while teaching the people. Wouldn’t the people have had a hard time hearing him? It was only when he himself experienced how water amplifies sound that he understood. Realizing for the first time that the parables were grounded in real life, Fr. Martin was determined to find the Bay of Parables.
A chance encounter with a German monk provided the means for getting to this obscure location which was unknown to most experts. Upon finding the site, Fr. Martin and his friend George noticed immediately some familiar scenes:
“As I stood in the broiling sun, I was gobsmacked to see rocks, thorns, and fertile ground. No one planted the thorn bushes, carted in topsoil, or arranged the stones to make the locale look as it did in Jesus’ time, as if we were in a theme park called Jesus Land. They were just there.”
He then recalled the definition of a parable as stated by C. H. Dodd, a parable being:
“a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”
Fr. Martin began to marvel at all the parables Jesus crafted to tease our minds and challenged readers to try and come up stories just as succinct and just as rich with meaning. I had to smile at the thought of Jesus the Writer; after all, He is the Word!
But I had to think, isn’t it wonderful that Jesus wished to tease our minds? He didn’t want to cram us with facts to memorize; he wanted us to experience the Kingdom of Heaven and he used the common, every-day-things-of -life to make that glorious kingdom come alive.
Fr. Martin wrote,
“The parables are poetic explanations of spiritual concepts impossible to comprehend fully.”
Remember how hard it was to read Shakespeare or to interpret the poetry of e.e. cummings in school? Extracting the meaning from great literature requires study and guidance from an expert. In the same way, the parables require that kind of attention. It makes me want to copy down in my journal, word for word, some of the parables, just to see the new insights I can gain from that exercise.
To Ponder, Reflect, and Discuss:
- What are some of your favorite parables? Begin by asking the Holy Spirit, the Great Teacher, for guidance and then try copying out some by hand into a notebook or on the computer and then let your thoughts and feelings flow; see what comes out. I am willing to bet you learn something new! Perhaps after completing that exercise, you can share something that you learned here in the comments.
Chapter 13 – Storms
Father Martin’s description of the sudden and violent storms on the Sea of Galilee, coupled with the viewing of an actual boat from the time of Jesus certainly brought new life to the story of the Stilling of the Storm. How many of us can relate to the fear of the disciples who feel abandoned by Jesus as the storm rages? Why won’t He wake up on His own and help them?
The feeling of abandonment is a common experience for all of us especially during illness or hard times when the pain is palpable. Father Martin offers an explanation for why we might feel this way:
“One of the most common struggles in the spiritual life is a feeling of God’s absence during painful times. Even some of the saints report this. Why is this so common? Perhaps because when we are struggling, we tend to focus on the area of pain (my emphasis). It’s natural, but it makes it more difficult to see where God might be at work in other places, where God is not asleep.”
As I am writing this piece I am distracted by mild stomach pain. It’s proving to be quite the challenge to ignore it and press on. It reminds me of long nights of insomnia, tossing and turning, unable to find that “sweet spot” where I will settle down and fall asleep. Prayer becomes impossible and fear is magnified by the darkness; it’s when I feel most separated from God.
Storms in our lives don’t have to be as dramatic as the ones we read about in the gospels. Even the slightest amount of pain and discomfort can make us feel that God is far away. It makes me wonder how people with serious chronic pain deal with it.
I felt that Fr. Martin’s best advice was this:
“For when you say only the things you believe you should say, rather than being honest, any relationship grows cold, including one with God.”
Can any of us who have had close relationships with our families, spouse, children or friends say that we have never shouted in anger, cried, or vented our frustration at our loved one? No relationship is worth its salt if it can’t withstand disagreements. While I don’t recall ever being directly taught that expressing anger at God was sinful, there was always that sense that it was. Yet, as one who has a hot temper and a need to vent, I have shouted at God on various occasions when the pain had become too much to bear.
Think about what storms accomplish. Sometimes they are destructive; can lose a lot in the midst of a storm. But storms also have a way of clearing the air. Certainly on a hot and humid summer day, a fierce thunderstorm can usher in a refreshing breeze that lowers both the temperature and the humidity. There can be something cleansing about a storm.
It may feel very wrong to express our true feelings to God in words but the obvious fact is that He already knows what we are feeling. And He loves us so much that He will allow us to be honest in our expression. Certainly there are a multitude of psalms that express frustration with life and with God. Sometimes the healthy thing to do is to vent so long as the venting doesn’t become chronic lamenting.
Father Martin’s example of Aaron’s meditation on the Stilling of the Storm is a wonderful illustration of how our relationship with God can grow deeper if we are only honest with Him, and ourselves.
Aaron discovered that when he was honest before God. I imagine that God is not so much sleeping on the job as He is waiting for us to initiate the conversation.
To Ponder, Reflect, and Discuss:
- In keeping with the above exercise of writing out the parables in your journal, try copying the story of the Stilling of the Storm into your journal and see what such an exercise produces. Perhaps it will help you to recognize your need to be honest with God and to open up to Him.
Feel free to comment on your own thoughts from this week's reading, your impressions and reflections, and/or your answers to these questions.
Next week, we'll cover Chapters 14: Gerasa and 15: Tabgha. For the complete reading schedule and information about our Book Club, visit the Jesus Book Club page.
Copyright 2014 Susan W. Bailey
About the Author
Susan Bailey is the author of River of Grace: Creative Passages Through Difficult Times (Ave Maria Press), and Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by The Message (ACTA Publications), part of their Literary Portals to Prayer series. Along with her blogs Be as One and Louisa May Alcott is My Passion, Susan writes for the Diocese of Worcester newspaper, The Catholic Free Press.