The Way of the Whale: Beach or Ocean
It is becoming clearer, that without a living faith, we Catholics can be a body without a soul. We are buoyed up by the continuing strength of our great institutions in healthcare, education, parishes and pastoral organisations, just as we can appeal to past accomplishments, cultural and political influences of all kinds, to say nothing of impressive historical monuments found in our towns and cities.
Yet without a soul animating all these organisations and institutions, our Church is like a beached whale, slowly dying under the weight of its blubber and bones. Separated from the surrounding ocean, its native element, the great mammal asphyxiates; and, as it decomposes, its bleached bones will intrigue visitors from some distant shore.
Why did this creature of the sea want to experiment with living like a land-based animal, and leave the ocean behind? These are intriguing scientific questions: what kind of instinct could drive the great whale to live in an element in which it could not possibly survive? What enticed the whale to surrender the freedom of the endless ocean, to give up the nutriment and air of the open sea?
So, a question: how can the present situation of the Church, still an immense institution, be compared to with the stranded carcass of a the beached whale, let alone suffer a similar fate? Just as the ocean is a native element of this greatest creature of the sea, so the infinite ocean of God is the native element in which the People of God ‘live and move and have their being’ (cf. Ac 17:28). The infinities of God’s love and wisdom are the native space in which faith can live, expand and play. Like a sounding whale, faith can always go deeper into the mystery of God, and like a whale breaking the surface in a playful leap, the Church, in the joy of God, can show the vitality of adoration and thanksgiving.
The meaning of faith, and the religious education designed to serve it, cannot be thought of apart from the unfathomable, ever-present mystery of God. Without that God-ward orientation, religion loses its way.
In a time of crisis, the challenge faced by faith is less to look for an artificial identity by adapting to an unnatural environment, like the stranded whale. Rather, the urgent demand is to become freshly familiar with its native habitat. The whale has no need to leave the ocean to live and to breathe. Likewise, the life of faith unfolds only in the heights and depths of God. The Church lives in the presence of the Holy One, who unceasingly seeks ‘worshippers in spirit and in truth’ (see Jn 4:4-23). Christ remains the way into the boundless mystery of God, ever-offering us the food and drink of eternal life. The Holy Spirit is the inexhaustible gift, the divine air that faith inhales, to find the energies that only God can give .
The sign of the cross is familiar to us in a million ways. But it was once a shock when the first generations of believers came to realise that the great God could come amongst us in such a humble and vulnerable way. The Cross reminds us that the great ocean of God is not a capricious tide or a menacing force, for God is an infinite ocean of love and mercy, to bear us up, to wash us clean, and, in every moment, to enfold the whole world in the promise of life to the full .
The Church of our day can be likened to a beached whale. We can no longer lie inert and doomed, in a vain attempt to survive out of our element. On the one hand, we cannot just lie there, hoping to get a free ride on the tide of the great institutions that were the gift of past Intrepid generations. There is no clinging to the shore of some artificial identity. The challenge is to move to out and into the shore-less mystery of God; so to enjoy the freedom and bounty of that ocean.
We began with the image of the beached whale and its need to find the open sea again. This is a hard time for the church, given the hostility to traditional Christian values, the particular shame of the Royal Commission, and the depressed mood of public life. Being a Catholic today is like being recruited into a retreating army.
Well, the whale may have been beached, but with each incoming tide of faith, this whale can move out again into the freedom of the ocean. The church is, after all, the People of God.
The way of the whale is not to beach itself in the doomed security of the shore, but to return to fathomless depths and endless expanse of the wisdom and mercy of God.