Nothing brings home to us how much we need each other as a catastrophe like the one unfolding as a result of hurricane Harvey in Texas. The images are so terrifying, the dangers so real, that our hearts break open in compassion. And also fear, precisely because we know that a similar catastrophe could happen to any one of us or to someone we love. We are as terrified of being stranded on a rooftop in a flood as were the disciples in the boat during a violent storm on the Sea of Galilee.
We imagine ourselves dialing emergency numbers until our cell phone goes dead; screaming for help after hacking our way from the attic through the rooftop; standing in the pouring rain, waving a sheet to attract attention, just like the thousands who have called 911 and prayed that help would arrive before the waters closed in over their heads.
When someone finally answers 911, we are not asked whether we are white or black or brown; documented US citizens or undocumented workers; native-born Americans or recent immigrants; LGBT or straight; young or old; Jewish, Christian, Muslim, atheists or agnostics; Republicans, Democrats, or Independents. We do not have to give our social security number or insurance information to ascertain if we can pay for the rescue service out of pocket. We don’t have to state annual income or professional credentials. We are promised help solely on the basis of our shared humanity: because we are people in need and therefore eminently worthy of help.
When help comes, whether by helicopter in the sky or a boat on the water, we are not judged by whether we live in a large house or a tiny one; both are nearly submerged. Everything inside, whether valuable or not, is already destroyed. Whether we own a big business, labor in a factory, grocery store, or work on the land, all the merchandise, food, and crops are already a total loss. The only thing that matters in that moment is escaping with our lives.
The Kindness of Strangers
And that depends on the kindness of strangers who are willing to risk their own lives to save ours. All we can feel is gratitude, relief, a glimmer of hope. Even though we have lost everything we thought we needed to survive, we begin to believe again, not in ourselves, but in the goodness of people. All people. Suddenly we realize what we have in common, that no ideology or class or color or creed or sexual orientation can separate; we are one living, breathing, magnificent creation. And we are, at heart, all bound together by our need for each other. Just as no wall can separate the floodwaters from county to county or country to country, so nothing can contain the human need for help.
We also find hope in the realization that we are not alone. That person we feared or resented or who we thought didn’t “belong” in our country is the very one who arrived to save us in a flat bottomed boat or an inflatable canoe. That person we discriminated against—or who discriminated againt us—is the very one being let down in a helicopter to our rooftop, strapping us in a life jacket, and lifting us to safety. That man or woman with whom we had an argument last week is the same one offering us and our family a ride through the rising waters in a pickup truck.
Julian of Norwich lived with the constant threat of violent storms and giant waves that blew in from the North Sea and inundated the marshlands and peat bogs, causing the Wensum River by her home to overflow its banks, sweeping houses and families away in a sudden rush of floodwaters up and down the East Anglia coastline. All her life, she must have heard about fishermen who had drowned in the sea, as well as sailors and soldiers lost in the English Channel while crossing to and from France. She herself may have had a great terror of drowning, since few people in the Middle Ages knew how to swim. Deadly stories of the dangers of the sea were the stuff of nightmares for children and grownups alike. This is what she wrote out of her deep fear of rising waters:
One time my understanding was led down into the sea ground, and there I saw green hills and dales, seeming as it were overgrown with moss, with debris and gravel. Then I understood thus: that if a man or woman were there, under the broad water, and he might have sight of God—since God is with a man continually—he should be safe in soul and body, and take no harm. And even more, he should have more solace and comfort than all this world may or can tell.
Do Not Fear!
Yes, Christ walks on the water, then as now. He tells us not to fear, and calms the wind and waves, and takes us safely to dry land. But sometimes Christ looks and sounds like someone against whom we discriminate or hold a grudge, or whom we have built up into our personal “enemy.” However, when we’re desperate, the only thing that matters is that this same person is offering us help. Then we know it is surely Christ: “Don’t be afraid. It is I.” Hopefully, in our extreme gratitude at being rescued from certain death, we are transformed by the experience. Perhaps our minds, our attitudes, our very hearts undergo a metanoia, a complete and lasting turnaround. We come to realize what we had failed to acknowledge before the disaster: That, as God’s children, we’re all in the same boat.
PLEASE NOTE: The quotations above are from Julian's Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books), Copyright © 2013 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved. This article may not be copied or reprinted without the written permission of the author.
All text copyrighted © 2013-2018 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved. No copying or reprints allowed without the express permission of the Author.