From time to time I meet a hospital patient or a nursing home resident who is deeply bothered by the burdensome thoughts that can arise from being confined to bed due to health problems. Severe illness can be an emotional burden as well as a physical burden. The thoughts that result from those burdens can make an unpleasant situation much worse.
Worry and fear about one’s health or future can lead to a great deal of internal conflict. Occasionally, I’ve come across people who were so upset by worry about their health that they were reluctant to receive the Sacraments. It’s not uncommon that a physical or emotional burden becomes a spiritual burden.
I sympathize with those folks who are troubled by their health concerns. I know I would be a very bad patient. The Scripture readings this Sunday speak about how to deal with a physical or emotional burden that threatens one’s spiritual health.
Because the feast of the Transfiguration occurred last Sunday we missed hearing the antecedent to the event in today’s Gospel. When Jesus learned that John the Baptizer had been executed he tried to find a quiet place to mourn John’s death. The crowds that had been following Jesus tracked him down. He felt sympathy for them. He cured the sick among them, and fed the entire crowd with five loaves of bread and two fish. (Matthew 14:14-17)
Today’s Gospel reading begins with Jesus’ second attempt to grieve the death of John. While Jesus was praying alone on a deserted hilltop the disciples sailed north across the Sea of Galilee. The wind was against them; they would have had to lower the sails, and row the boat. The physical burden of rowing the boat was made worse when they saw what they thought was a ghost coming toward them on the water. (Matthew 14:26)
The disciples were tired and afraid, but there is nothing extraordinary about those experiences. Everyone experiences exhaustion after intense physical exertion. Everyone has experienced fright or surprise because of unexpected or unwelcomed events. The events of that early morning took on a completely new character when Peter’s faith wavered.
After getting over their initial fright at seeing Jesus walking on the lake, the disciples calmed down, and prepared to resume their journey. At this point, Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” (Matthew 14:28) At first, Peter walked confidently toward Jesus, but then he faltered and began to sink. (Matthew 14:30) A physical and emotional burden had become a spiritual burden; Peter’s trip in the boat, and his surprise at seeing Jesus, degenerated into a lack of faith. This same dynamic can happen to anyone.
It is unavoidable to encounter physical burdens such as illness, injury, unemployment, aging and the like. It is very common to suffer loss, grief and fear. Our culture considers these manifestations of human weakness to be moral failings, but our culture is dead wrong about this. Human weakness is a normal part of everyone’s life; it’s unavoidable, and most often no one’s fault. Culpable failure on our part occurs when we let physical or emotional burdens cause us to lose faith.
Peter’s physical and emotional burdens became a culpable failure of faith when his thoughts turned away from Jesus’ command, and toward worry about walking on water. This lesson applies directly to our lives. Our physical and emotional burdens remain nothing more than burdensome unless and until we turn our thoughts away from Jesus’ words, and toward self-concern.
The event in today’s Gospel could have turned out very differently for Peter. He could have stepped out of the boat, kept his eyes focused on Jesus and his thoughts focused on Jesus’ words. If he had done so, he would have walked easily to Jesus, and then back to the boat. Our personal burdens can have the effect of leading us to Jesus, but only if we keep faith.
It is possible to navigate life’s stormy seas, and not become spiritually lost. Keeping our thoughts focused on Jesus’ words, while bearing our burdens, gives us the guarantee of not losing faith. Even when we fail, returning our attention to Jesus’ teaching, can lift us out of the sinking feeling that results from a lack of faith.
If you’re worried about your future, a loved one or world events, you’re not experiencing anything out of the ordinary. If you let your worry drag you down, you are depriving yourself of the possibility of experiencing God’s presence. There is no sin in being burdened, but there is no salvation in sinking into self-concern. When burdens threaten to drag you down, keep in mind Jesus’ words, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” (Matthew 14:28)