During Sunday Mass this past weekend, my ten-year-old son leaned over to me during the Psalm and mused, “I wonder who it’s talking about?” I think it was during this verse:
“They cried to the LORD in their distress;
from their straits he rescued them,
He hushed the storm to a gentle breeze,
and the billows of the sea were stilled.”
It’s a remarkable question for getting at the “four senses” of Scripture.
My first answer was on the level of what the Tradition calls, “the literal sense.” When the Tradition talks about how we read Scripture, “literal” doesn’t mean, “without metaphor.” It means, “what did it mean to the human author at that time?” So I pointed earlier in the Psalm:
“They who sailed the sea in ships,
trading on the deep waters,
These saw the works of the LORD
and his wonders in the abyss.”
“Trading on the deep waters”: This is interesting. The people of the Bible are mostly land-bound. It is more their pagan neighbors, the Phoenicians, who “traded on the deep waters,” doing commerce throughout the Mediterranean.
But the people of the Bible were familiar with the Phoenician business, and sometimes used it as a metaphor for themselves.
This takes us to the first “spiritual” or “mystical” sense of the reading, what is called the “moral” or “tropological” sense. Here, “moral” doesn’t mean, “what rules are we breaking?” It means, “how do we live our own lives?”
My son’s question puts it better: whom is the Psalmist speaking about? Well, on one level, the Phoenician trader. But on a deeper level, he’s talking about “us”: us now, and even the us of then. The Phoenician trader is a symbol of the Israelite’s own life. Even if he doesn’t go on the waters, he sees in that ship an image of himself.
Our first Sunday reading works this way. The Lord asks Job:
“Who shut within doors the sea,
when it burst forth from the womb…
When I set limits for it
and fastened the bar of its door,
and said: Thus far shall you come but no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stilled!”
Now, Job was not a sea-faring man. The sea only appears in this book in these big general kind of statements. But the sea is a potent symbol: first, of our own helplessness, as we feel threatened by the impending storm; then, of the power of God, who made those crashing waves, and has the power to get us through them.
Whom is the Psalmist talking about? Job. Me.
This is the “moral meaning.”
(But notice that this symbolic reading is rooted in the literal meaning. Unless you clearly see the image of the Phoenician trader, you have no symbol to apply to yourself.)
Who else is the Psalmist talking about? Obviously Jesus, who in this week’s reading was “asleep on the cushion” as “a violent squall came up and waves were breaking over the boat” – not on the “deep waters” of the Mediterranean, but on the See of Galilee, not with “traders” but with fisherman, but still the same idea. That’s how metaphors work – different situations can still be basically the same.
But this Gospel reading itself works on multiple levels. First we see the historical, “literal” meaning: Jesus with the disciples. Once we have that image, we can see the “moral” reading: this Gospel reading, too, is about me.
On the stormy sea of my life, I too say, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” and Jesus responds, “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?” and now and then I have the wisdom to say, “Who then is this whom even wind and sea obey,” who can actually bring me safe through the mess of my life?
But here we see, too, the “allegorical” or Christological meaning. Paul takes us deeper into this in our reading from Second Corinthians, where our image of the tossing sea leads us to the Cross.
“We have come to the conviction that one died for all; therefore, all have died.” The boat can be an image of fallen humanity. Christ has entered in with us, experienced the very depths of our stormy sea – even unto death – and so we are no longer alone on that sea, no longer alone in the terror of this valley of tears.
This changes everything. Now those who live in this life – and face death – “no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” Now we are “a new creation.” Because now we are out on the sea with Jesus.
Whom is the Psalmist talking about? Jesus, who calms the storms by becoming flesh, even unto death.
Finally, a brief word on the “anagogical” or eschatological sense. Whom is the Psalmist talking about? Whom is the Gospel talking about? It is also about heaven, where finally the winds will cease and we will know the perfect calm of the infinitely powerful God.
How could you use the four senses of Scripture – literal/historical, “moral”/practical, Christological, and eschatological – in your own prayer life? How could it help you understand your own stormy seas?