On a recent flight from Indiana to Colorado with my wife and son, my mind went to the story of Jonah and his time in the belly of the whale. As I fought a migraine, my wife was experiencing the discomforts of first trimester pregnancy, and my son was acting the way two year olds act. It also happened to be one of those turbulent flights into the Rocky Mountain wind currents that allow you to imagine you’re on one of the wildest coasters Six Flags has to offer.
As I sat there rubbing my temples and comforting my son in that last row of the plane I looked up the aisle and imagined that this just might be a slight glimpse of the misery Jonah experienced as he rode through the sea accompanied by the nauseating smells and juices that exists within the guts of a whale.
As much as I would have liked to have escaped those circumstances I had no choice at 30,000 feet but to sit there, ride it out, and think about the comforts and quiet of resting in my own bed in a few short hours.
The Jonah analogy is one Jesus seemed to return to as his preferred symbol for transformation in life. Both Matthew and Luke’s gospel record a scene in which an antagonistic crowd of religious folks demand that Jesus perform an impressive and miraculous sign. Jesus responded, “The only sign I freely give away is the sign of the prophet Jonah.” (See Matthew 16:4, Matthew 12:38-39, & Luke 11:29)
What did Jesus mean by this?
As the Old Testament story goes, Jonah was a prophet who was called to be God’s voice to the people of the city of Nineveh. Jonah did his best to avoid that call. He had to be forced to sit and confront the dark questions he most needed to ask of himself. Amidst the internal and external storm he asked his travel buddies to dump him off the side of the boat as he desperately hoped that suicide would once and for all fix the problem and alleviate his having to confront the questions his life was asking. Jesus’ response to the Pharisees in Luke 11:29 indicates that it might do them some good to undergo the same type of experience that Jonah did.
Richard Rohr says, “We seldom go freely into the belly of the beast. Unless we face a major disaster like the death of a friend or spouse or loss of a job, we usually will not go there. As a culture, we have to be taught the language of descent.” Some might describe the belly of the beast experience as hitting “The Wall” in life. In any case, Jesus was describing and inviting them and us into the realistic pathway of spiritual transformation.
Attaining increased intellectual knowledge and developing and enjoying environments of affluence along with other large aspects of the “American Dream” seem to make it very difficult to understand what Jesus was communicating by “the sign of Jonah.” But in my work with marginalized people and places I’m learning that the poor have a head start on the rest of us in this regard. Only in impossible environments do we realize that all we really have left are questions and prayers. As Simone Weil said, “It is grace that forms the void inside of us and it is grace alone that can fill the void.” Without this pathway of descent and disorientation there’s really no necessity to confront our contradictions, our false self, who we are below the waterline and into the nakedness of our personal reality. Thomas Merton warns, “There is no greater disaster in the spiritual life than to be immersed in unreality, for life is maintained and nourished in us by our vital relation with reality.”
Although the difficult circumstances of my flight were hard, it wasn’t truly like being in the belly of the whale because I knew it would be over in a few short hours. The majority of the people living on this planet are poor and they exist without any indication that their suffering will end anytime soon. Instead, their only choice is to stay with the pain, the lack of rational conclusions or answers, and on some days sit in the perilous place of utter meaninglessness.
Most of us are quite willing to embrace reality when it fits with how we see ourselves and the world, and when it is not overly unpleasant like Nineveh. But according to Jesus’ powerful reminder we must willingly go where we’d rather not inside the belly of the whale for awhile. Sit with the questions... the powerlessness. And only then will we be spit upon a new shore and begin to understand our calling.