Surviving and Thriving on the Journey towards Christ
In her fifth Letter Lesson, Cora Evans engages the imagination along the lines of a nautical theme.
If we are an ocean liner, the sea represents God. St. Paul reflects on the grandeur of God, “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” (Rom 11:33-36) An ocean is an apt comparison to God, in light of St. Paul’s exultation. Who has numbered the drops of water in the ocean? Who knows the depths of its deepest trenches? It can be hard to conceive a picture of God, since God the Father isn’t incarnate. Jesus became man, and we know what a man looks like—to me, it feels easier to picture a man as being divine than to picture what a pure spirit “looks” like.
That’s where analogies and images help our finite minds. Although it’s hard to picture an eternal spirit, we do know what the ocean looks like. We know that the ocean is breathtakingly deep in certain spots. Even though scientists have estimated the amount of water in the ocean, it may as well be infinite for our conception. The National Geophysical Data Center estimates that there are 321,003,271 cubic miles of water in the oceans. If that was put into the gallon-sized milk cartons, that would be 352,670,000,000,000,000,000 containers! Cora notes that the ocean “grasps at our sense of awe, and we feel both the pangs of joy and fear. As a creature, we are each a little giant for God allows us to see, feel, and smell the sea and even taste of its salt spray and hear the moan and sign of the tides. Yet, in all of this, we do not know the sea.” It remains mysterious, no matter how much it is studied.
Cora describes each individual soul as a boat on the ocean. Think about the construction of the boat: as a vehicle, it operates on water. More specifically, it was made for the water. The ocean liner that Cora began the Letter Lesson with would be useless as a car, a tank, and a train. In addition to being made for the water, Cora notes that “any ship set afloat (and that is what it is built for) is ever reaching for a destination. For what destination are we reaching? There are three ports: Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell. Let us ever keep in mind that we are reaching for Jesus. Reaching for Jesus must be our aim and routine in life lest we become as driftwood without an aim for the greatest harbor.” It’s easy to go along in life, from work to home, from TV to baseball game to social media and hardly notice God or the work of His grace in our lives. In drifting times like that, we’d do well to recall our destination—and the same goes for any moral choices we encounter. If things in life are unsettled and adrift, reorient yourself to God. With moral choices, what’s the end result of the choice? Popularity? Pride? Vanity? Temporary pleasure? Or what would please God?
Throughout the Letter Lessons, Cora regularly points out the importance of mortifying our five senses. Using the ship analogy, she portrays the senses as sailors. In their mundane tasks in keeping the ship running, do the sailors curse at every inconvenience? Do they roll their eyes and sigh at every minor frustration? Without disciplined sailors, the ship can’t run efficiently. Our senses work in the same manner: if we do not discipline them with fasting and mortification, they can get unruly.
The next portion of the Letter Lesson focuses more intently on reaching for Christ. It’s a question that should give us pause: what do we reach for? What we reach for and what we take into ourselves have a powerful effect on our soul. This goes for the whole human person: the senses, what we read, and what we take into our minds. Remember that the mind/intellect, soul, and body are one composite whole. What happens in one of them affects the others. Taking in sinful music, movies, pornography, and TV shows into our minds will affect our souls. Not all pleasure is bad—but seeking sinful, physical pleasure isn’t something that stays confined to the body. It cannot but affect the mind and the soul! St. Paul provides three lists of mortal sins along the lines of sinful pleasure—1 Cor 6:9-10, Gal 5:19-21, Eph 5:3-6—with the same motivation. He reminds the Christian communities that those who do these things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Even if nothing on St. Paul’s lists apply to us, the danger of reaching for something other than God comes upon us in smaller ways. And those smaller ways are to be guarded against with just as much vigilance. Msgr. Charles Pope reflected that “the Lord warns us in love that sin is very serious. Even smaller sins, unattended to, begin to grow like cancer and can ultimately kill us spiritually.” Cora pulls no punches when it comes to “sneaks, snoopers, and thieves.” Their “eyes are ever reaching for scenes that are not becoming in this state of life. We could ask, ‘Are we Toms who delight in peeping through windows in neighborhoods? Do we like reading about neighborhood scandals, murders, thieves, and accidents?’ These public scandals and neighbor troubles do not belong to us.” Hopefully, peeping through windows is not an issue for most. But can’t social media be used in the same way? Can we not pry into the lives of anyone with an online footprint? With the recent episcopal scandals in the Catholic Church, there’s a fine line between keeping up to date and reveling in the public scandal. Especially if it is a bishop that we hold in low esteem! Both St. Paul and St. James are similarly unsparing in their warning against gossip. “If anyone thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is vain” (James 1: 26). “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear” (Eph 4:29). The warning is clear from both apostles. We have great power for good in our conversations, to impart grace to others. And we give that ability up, to gossip? That’s it?
When the Church has a moral teaching, it’s tempting to think that the rules exist for the sake of having rules. Or worse, that an excessively strict moral code subsists for the sake of smiting people. Cora’s forthright condemnation of gossip aligns with the Church’s teaching on the vice, but it doesn’t come from a sense of arbitrariness or a joy of smiting. First and foremost, the Catholic Church has the authority to speak on such matters because it was given authority by Jesus Christ. Second, through revelation, God tries to show humans how we ought to live. Again, that “ought” comes from a deep place and a pure motivation: God wants the best for us. Having created us, and having knit each of us together from the moment of conception (cf. Jer 1:5), God knows what is good for us. Gossip is definitely not good for us: it relishes in tearing another person down, even in its mildest forms. It harms the community as a whole, and it harms the Body of Christ in particular. It bears repeating again, that St. Paul warned against sin because those that engaged in it risked their eternal inheritance.
This brings us back to the beginning of the Letter Lesson: the mystery of God Himself and His love for us. Meditating on God begins shrouded in mystery; drawing out implications like living a moral life incarnates the mystery; making sense of the moral life returns our gaze to God Himself. It centers on divine love. The love of God is at once our source and destination. No matter the storms that assail our vessel, devoting ourselves to a true course will get us to our heavenly home.
If the storms are in your life right now, and your moral and spiritual life is a slog, consider this point from Cora’s Letter Lesson: “Are we reaching for the right things in life is another meaning to the thought are we praying in the right spirit?” She ends the Letter Lesson with some practical tips for reaching for the right things:
- Include your reading list in this reaching. “Do we reach for the Bible, the Imitation of Christ, or Lives of the Saints along with other reading material such as the Catholic Digest or a good history book?” Draw closer to Christ by nourishing your mind.
- Strive to keep good friends, who share the same hope of eternal life.
- Remember the joy inherent in the Christian life! “The contemplative life must not cramp our style of cheerful laughing and having innocent joys with funny literature or through hearing a good joke.”
- Read the Second Letter of Peter “with the thought of reach and the right goal in life.”
- How we dress and even how we dance can tell us if we’re reaching in the right or the wrong direction
- Reach for Jesus and pray a simple phrase: “I will trust in You!”