Here in the Midwest we don’t get too many stories of shipwrecks, but when you hear stories, you really have to respect the resolve of the shipwreck survivors. I was reading about a shipwreck off the coast of Christmas Island near Australia in 2010, where 42 people survived by clinging to the wreckage until they were rescued. When you’re in a shipwreck, what’s the first thing you do? Search the nearby island for the Others? Paint a busted volleyball to have as your companion? Decide who will be the skipper, the first mate, the professor, etc? No, the first thing you do is grab hold of the debris around you and hold on for dear life until safety is achieved. You know that you can’t let go no matter what happens, because without that debris, you’ll drown.
In a sense, a truly humble person is like a shipwrecked person. Humility is that recognition of our dependence on Christ, and then, like a shipwreck survivor, we cling to him to save us from disaster. Lots of times people think that to be a humble person you have to be a floor mat for anyone else who has an opinion. In that view, if you’re humble, you’re weak, not strong. But really, in order to be strong and powerful, we need first to be humble, and to recognize our dependence on God.
Let me give you an example from the French Revolution. Now, I have to admit, this is one of my pet peeves about the French Revolution. Lots of people probably think of Les Miserables when they think of the French Revolution, but for me, I hate to admit it, but I’d probably be on Javert the policeman’s side. Lots of terrible things happened during the French Revolution. Probably most of the Church’s modern martyrs come from this era. The Revolutionary government took over the Church, and Catholics who refused to go along with it were imprisoned or guillotined. In the midst of that, we have the example of Jean Chantebel. He was a man of strength and humility in the real sense of the word. He was a farmer, and the only education he had came from his little catechism. He loved that book, and used to just sit and reflect, savoring the truths he read in it. He refused to attend the revolutionary church, so the authorities seized his house, and as they searched, they found the worn catechism in his belongings, which was an act of treason against the Revolution. So the revolutionaries set up a bonfire in the middle of the town and gathered people around it so that they could pass sentence on their prisoner. They put the catechism on the pyre and put a torch in Jean’s hands, ordering him to burn the catechism and religious items. But Jean replied, “I will never do it. That book contains the principles of my faith, and you will never get me to renounce it.” So they took the torch, and burned his hand, pressing him to do it. But he continued to resist, saying, “You may burn not only my hand, but my whole body before I consent to commit an act unworthy of my religion.” They humiliated him, spat at him, and beat him, but nothing could tear him away from his faith. This was a man clinging to life, clinging to that one piece of wood in the midst of his spiritual shipwreck – the Cross.
In the Gospel, we have a woman who had been afflicted with hemorrhages for twelve years. She had spent her whole life looking for a cure, searching for the best doctor in the region. She spent her livelihood to find a cure for what was probably a painful and embarrassing illness. But with all that money spent, and all of that work done, she found herself with nothing. And so when Jesus passed by, she found a glimmer of hope, and reached out to him for healing, clinging to his tassels.
How often do we find ourselves in a similar position? Sometimes we might feel like we’re reaching and reaching, but are simply unable to grasp hold of anything, unable to even touch the tassels of Jesus’ cloak. We can’t bring ourselves as close to Jesus as maybe we know we want to be, or as we know we should or could be. We become too consumed with other things, with the doctors of the world, like the woman – things that we think will make us feel stronger. Things like passing pleasures, or various addictions. But we need to have the humility to recognize that even as we’re reaching out to these other false remedies, the true and divine doctor is standing in our midst. He is the one who offers fulfillment, healing, and forgiveness, especially through the sacraments.
That’s a tough thing to recognize. It’s not always fun to have this faith. Sometimes it even becomes easier when we’re in the midst of a crisis or disaster. Lots of people have faith when there’s nothing else out there. But what about when it’s not that clear? Probably a lot of people have been teased or mocked for going to church, even if it’s completely out of fun. Still, if you know that humiliation is coming, why bother with your faith in the first place? Or maybe there are some things that the Church says or does that we don’t want to hear and don’t want to take the time to understand. It can be tough to know when to reach out to Christ.
But in the midst of that spiritual shipwreck, even if it doesn’t seem that severe, that’s where we need to cling for survival and life. Much as you and I might not feel like it, we should always try to find the time to put ourselves in the presence of God, especially here in church. Weekend Mass is a given of course, but try making it up for daily Mass once or twice a week. Or try to take some time for adoration if you can, even if it’s just for 20 minutes. Whatever it is, it’s important that we do what we can to cling to Christ, having the humility to recognize that we need him.
So let us turn to him now. We know that as weak as our faith is, and as much as we might struggle with humility, and as little as our hope might be sometimes, if our lives are directed to Christ in a genuine love, and if we cling to the tassels of his mercy and goodness, Christ will reach down to us and say, “My child, your faith has saved you, go in peace.”