“The Belly of the Whale and New Life” (3/13/2019)
Fr. Ignatius John Schweitzer, OP
Sometimes things can get tough in the monastery. You don’t need me to tell you that. Usually things go well, and with a little patience and docility life goes on pretty smoothly. This is normally the way things are and what we try to maintain. A balanced, fairly pleasant life in praise and love of God and at peace with one another. How good and how pleasant it is when brothers or sisters life in unity! There are surely difficulties in the normal life of service of God but usually these difficulties are quite manageable. Things progress pretty well with their little hills and valleys but the goodness of God and the goodness of community life are what we most experience. And life is good.
However, sometimes despite our best efforts, there are times when things can get tough in the monastery. Even for those with a true vocation, things can get tough in the monastery. It can happen for periods of time that most everything tends to rub us the wrong way. The different temperaments of the people we live with wear on us and grate on us. We may look for a word of consolation but despite kind words of others, nothing consoling reaches into our souls. The schedule, horarium, and daily duties can be burdensome at times and a bit constricting.
There are times when we are in the furnace. The heat is cranked up and things are getting hot. Our inner impurities are being boiled off and rising to the surface, for ourselves to see and sometimes for everyone else to see. It’s a painful situation. But it happens.
The image that our Gospel today offers us today is that of being in the belly of the whale like Jonah was. Sometimes being in the monastery can be like being in the belly of the whale. Things have gotten confined, constricting, the monastery’s walls are closing in on us. Like in a belly of a whale, we feel trapped. It’s dark and uncomfortable in the belly of the whale, digestive juices eat away at the skin, there’s a foul odor, and there’s the feeling of being a bit sea-sick by this great beast swimming through the waters.
At times the monastery can be like a furnace. It can be like being in the belly of the whale. We know it’s part of God’s plan, but what is he doing? What is God up to through all this? When we occasionally find ourselves in this unpleasant situation, I don’t know maybe a few times a year, what are to make of it? If we have some idea of God’s designs it can help us.
One spiritual master and doctor of the Church who describes such things is of course St John of the Cross. We don’t need to follow his way exactly but surely he has some insights to offer. And at one point, the image he uses of the dark night is the very image we have in our Gospel today, that of being in the belly of the whale like Jonah was. He sees it as a stripping off of the old man in us that we might more fully live the life of the new man in Christ. Maybe that’s what the digestive juices of the belly of the whale are doing, stripping away the old man through the contradictions of our preferences.
John says all this strips one of the disordered “habitual affections and properties of the old self to which the soul is strongly united, attached, and conformed…[and] so disentangles and dissolves the spiritual [core of someone]—absorbing it in a profound darkness—that the soul…feels that it is melting away and being undone…It feels as if it were being swallowed by a beast and…in [its] dark belly…[in] an anguish comparable to Jonah’s in the belly of the whale” (DN II.6.1). John’s description captures something about our experience of being in the furnace or in the belly of the whale. We feel a little like we are “coming undone,” “melting away,” being “dissolved” to use John’s terms.
But what is happening in this feeling of coming undone a little? There’s a bad coming undone, but we are not speaking of that. Assuming all else is well and things are proceeding along in God’s plan, this “being undone” John describes he also calls a “disentangling.” And that is precisely what is happening! We are being disentangled from our old selves and our old manner of being. The old man is coming undone with all his petty preferences, self-centeredness, claimfulness, possessiveness, and pride. It’s the feeling of being slowly disentangled from the knots we have tied, maybe in part to protect ourselves. It’s the knots of our false solutions to life’s difficulties and the knots of selfish living that are being disentangled in this feeling of being undone. These knots restrict us so once they are undone and broken open we can find our center, no longer in self but in God. Finding our support in God and in his abundant life. It is this abundant life of God that bursts the seams of our narrow ego wide open.
Some lines of John’s poetry capture this. “My soul is disentangled from every [disordered] created thing. [And my soul] is lifted above itself, in a life of gladness supported only in God.” (Poem 11.1) It is this greater life of gladness that awaits us after being in the belly of the whale. And as the Lord Jesus says, the image of Jonah in the belly of the whale is also an image of the Son of Man three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. So if you find yourself in the belly of the whale, not that Jesus is there with you, and you are entering into a deeper share in his death and Resurrection, where the old man dies and the new man rises to new life.
So during this Lent, during the occasional period of trial, or whenever the Lord may call us: Let us go down, let us go down into the belly of the whale. Let us go down into the heart of the earth with the Son of Man, to be refashioned, and maybe save some souls too. Let us humbly go down to the self-emptying of the Cross, so that, in due time, we may rise up, rise up full of God.