On another day; also, while St. Columba was engaged in his mother-church, he suddenly cried out, with a smile, “Columbanus, the son of Beogna, has just now set out on a voyage to us, and is in great danger in the rolling tides of Brecan’s whirlpool: he is sitting at the prow and raising both his hands to heaven: he is also blessing that angry and dreadful sea: yet in this the Lord only frightens him, for the ship in which he is shall not be wrecked in the storm; but this is rather to excite him to pray more fervently, that by God’s favour he may escape the danger of his voyage, and reach us in safety.”
~ St. Adamnan’s Life of St. Columba 5
St. Columcille of Iona (or St. Columba, as his name was Latinized) is one of my favorite saints. I’m not sure if the Columbanus (or Columbán) in this story is the St. Columbanus, but if so this would be quite the meeting of two Celtic saints.
In any case, however, this story is not about their meeting, but rather the journey of this Columbanus along the way. While sailing to meet St. Columcille, he suddenly encounters “great danger in the rolling tides of Brecan’s whirlpool.” Yet, according to St. Adamnan our narrator, St. Columcille is certain that his ship “shall not be wrecked in the storm; but this is rather to excite him to pray more fervently, that by God’s favour he may escape the danger of his voyage, and reach us in safety.”
Storms on the sea are a recurring theme in the Scriptures. There is, of course, the storm of storms that causes the great deluge of the story of Noah’s ark. There is the storm in the story of the prophet Jonah, who ran from God’s calling only to be redirected by a storm (and a giant fish or whale or something). And then there is this story from the Gospel of Matthew:
Now when [Jesus] got into a boat, his disciples followed Him. And suddenly a great tempest arose on the sea, so that the boat was covered with the waves. But he was asleep. Then his disciples came to him and awoke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!”
But he said to them, “Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?” Then he arose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. So the men marveled, saying, “Who can this be, that even the winds and the sea obey Him?” (Matthew 8:23-27)
Certainly some storms are tragic, yet Providence can even use even tragic events for good. Nevertheless, people write whole books on the problem of evil, and I have no interest in discussing the question here.
What I am interested in are storms. Whatever their devastating effects—the gravity of which I do not mean to deny—storms also have a spiritual element. I am reminded of a verse from the song “Water Landing” by the band Third Eye Blind:
Put on your life vest only if told to do so
Well, I’m telling you now
Strap it across your chest
Prepare yourself for impending death
You and me are nose-diving at the speed of whiplash
Life flashes by in an endless plane crash
Muffled I love you through an oxygen mask
On my face, brace, brace
And the cabin erupts with religious conversions
God’s sick joke as we lose the engines
Some people scream, some people are gracious
And the reason’s the same
‘Cause the sky outside is so spacious, it’s so spacious
Now, of course, the crash landing described here is meant for a metaphor of a relationship, but the description is striking nonetheless. Faced with what seems to be (and may actually be) one’s “impending death,” “the cabin erupts with religious conversions.” The same thing happens to Columbanus in the midst of the storm, “sitting at the prow and raising both his hands to heaven.” According to St. Columcille, “this is … to excite him to pray more fervently, that by God’s favour he may escape the danger of his voyage, and reach us in safety.”
There is truly something spiritual about storms, both literal and figurative. When the waves of life crash against our puny boats, when we feel hopeless and on the verge of despair, when our hearts buckle under the stress, we tend toward one of two options: “Some people scream, some people are gracious.”
At the risk of sounding more fatalistic than I am: storms are inevitable and do not discriminate. Our task is not to rescue ourselves but to remember that he who “has his way in the whirlwind and in the storm” (Nahum 1:3) is with us in the boat, calm, passionless, and undisturbed.
In the story of the storm from the Gospel, there is an intentional ambiguity. When Jesus rebukes the storm and the waves subside, it does not say that the storm was calmed, but that “there was a great calm.” That is, there were two storms on the sea that day, one in the water and one the hearts of Christ’s disciples. For their failure to endure the second storm they are rebuked: “Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?”
Columbanus does a little better. He does not despair but rather reveals that a more firm faith had already been founded in his heart, even to the point of “blessing that angry and dreadful sea.”
If we view faith from a more traditional perspective, i.e. as a virtue, then we must regard it not in black and white terms—as if one either has it or does not—but rather as something to be cultivated through habit and discipline. This Columbanus was likely a monk, and in any case I can attest that ancient Celtic Christian spirituality was quite austere—I have no doubt that he had woven such discipline into the fabric of his life long before this story.
Thus, if we want to pass such a test—and such tests will surely come—we need to begin now. Someone offends me; a little anger stirs within my heart; yet I must remember through prayer and watchfulness that Christ is in the boat. I am criticized or rejected, yet Christ is in the boat. I’m overwhelmed by the stresses of life, yet Christ is in the boat.
The words of the Lorica of St. Patrick (of which I swear I’ve read a translation that used nautical terminology) seem quite appropriate, and would make an excellent rule of prayer for anyone looking to form better habits of faith:
Christ to protect me today
against poison, against burning,
against drowning, against wounding,
so that there may come abundance of reward.
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left
Christ where I lie, Christ where I sit, Christ where I arise
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
And Christ in the boat, I would add, in the midst of every storm that assails me.