Christ in the Storm, Rembrandt, 1633
I came across this painting in a book a little while ago and could not stop looking at it.
It was in a book called Contemplative Vision – specifically looking at paintings, visual art. The author, Juliet Benner talks about about how “seeing” spiritual realities depends on our noticing, our seeing what is around us. Looking at visual art helps hone the ability to stop, notice and see what God is doing—it helps us to see where God is and where we are.
And then I read this a few days later in an article by Amanda Benckhuysen in the Calvin Theological Journal where she specifically looks at the work of Rembrandt. “Art is a way of acting with the world that engages with its materiality such that it illumines something about the world’s depth and reality…Art’s ability to open up its viewers to new ways of seeing and understanding is not only true of the world but also of the biblical text….It brings out the new and unexpected, the hidden and the silenced in the text.”
I was already sensing this, as I looked at that Rembrandt. There is something about this painting that captured me. Something the painter understood about what it meant to be human, what it meant to be in a storm and something he hoped for about God that made me see this story in a new light. And more than just aiding me to “see” this story, this painting opened a door for me to know this story somewhere within myself considerably more intimate than my good, moral-of-the-story analysis had ever done.
I brought the picture to mom’s one afternoon in the spring, just to show it to her. And she said, “Didn’t I tell you how God got me ready for all this with that story?”
I started to pay attention.
And I’ve been sitting with this picture all summer. I’ve had it printed in big and in little – there are multiple copies sitting on shelves around my house. I stare at it a lot.
The following meditation is what it brings up for me but what could it bring about for you? Take time and look at the picture. What strikes you the most about it? What is grabbing your attention? Bypassing our long ingrained habit of only looking for the behavioral takeaway, what is God speaking to your heart about him, his character, his ways, about you, about yourself, about where you are, about how you are in this world?
Look. See. What can you not stop seeing the most?
Is it the water? Is it the way the water looks alive and terrifying? How it is dark and endless. What would be lost under that water? What is already down there?
Is it how the water washes away any sense of where the boat begins and ends? It washes away their safe place, their only way of keeping their heads above the darkness. The water washes over, gets in, takes over that boat. The water looks cold and rough and like it goes down forever. There is nothing solid about that water, no footing to be had and it makes me nervous. I am a prairie girl and while I love and thrill being at the ocean, there is something about how deep the ocean is that terrifies me. What might be lurking down there? It’s a deep, evolutionary fear – of chaos, of falling, of losing any foothold. Of being consumed, of being lost, of losing breath and hope and the ability to get yourself out. The waves, roiling, make me want to look away but they also catch me up in them. I can’t stop staring at them.
Is it the wind Rembrandt painted? How everything in the picture is affected by the wind? How the wind bends and pushes the boat over, under its invisible power? See the wind unloosing the ties that keep the ship together, blowing strong wood to the point of break. The sails are straining, the boat shifting, unstable underfoot. Notice how the wind whips everything towards those disciples – they can’t keep their eyes open, they have to look away. They can’t see where or what or how they can possibly keep afloat. Its hard to catch their breath.
Or is it the light that catches you? The light and the dark that Rembrandt painted so deliberately. Is it how the light creates such a beauty in the sky, a beauty completely apart from the trauma of the storm but also because of it. Is it that kind of beauty that invites you; the kind of beauty that gives a hint to the mystery on the other side of what you are seeing?
Look at how the light hits the front of the boat – where those disciples are working so hard. So hard. All their effort, everything they know to do is being done, in the light while at the back of the boat, the disciples in the dark are looking at Jesus. Why is Jesus in the dark?
Is it the disciples themselves? Some trying everything they know, some working harder than they ever have before. Some looking beseechingly at Jesus and some looking downcast, forlorn, not knowing what to hope for. Some are gazing into the distance, maybe trying to see beyond the storm, trying to see the land. And some are searching the water, the deep dark water. How are these disciples striking you? Is it in how they reflect you? Where would you be in this boat? What would you be doing?
Is it the way Rembrandt painted Jesus, his face lit up in the dark aft-ship? Do you notice him looking at the faces of those around him. He sees them. He grasps, he must grasp, what is happening but there is something in his posture that does not say panic. He is almost in repose, as he would be at the dinner table. His posture says rest. For indeed that is what he is all about in this picture. Christ in the storm – resting. Sleepy Jesus. As if the storm, for him, was no different than the calm. As if darkness and lightness were the same for Him. For He himself in no way changes, and his presence in no way changes within the two places, between the two. He is the same in that storm as he is at the Passover table. Present and there.
What does this picture hold for you?
For me, as I’ve sat with this picture, meditating on all it could say, and as I sat with mom with this story and this picture over these last few months, I keep staring at the disciple straining to keep ahold of the mast, trying to maintain their hope of getting to shore upright, and I keep staring the disciple staring into the water. I am both of them. Trying so hard to hold together that every muscle aches. But also consumed with what is underneath the waves, what might be right around the corner, with the darkness I can’t see a way around.
And then I can’t stop hearing sleepy Jesus’ voice:
“Why don’t you come to where I am?”
To where you are sleeping? Not doing anything? Watching your loved friends struggle?
“Yes, to where I am. I rest in this time, I do not struggle in this storm, like I do not struggle when I sit back at a table. Because this storm is no different than the calm to me. The darkness is as light to me. I do not change within them – I am here, with you, in all of it, I am. That does not change. So you come over here, and sit with me. And I will show you that I can calm a storm, This storm. The storm. And I will also show you that I am not afraid of it. And I will show you that your fear is not the end of this story. “
What this picture revealed to me in a way that no “you of little faith” sermon ever could, was the invitation. The deeply personal and known kind of invitation to me to join Him where He was, at rest in his world, at rest in the storm, at rest in the dark, his still presence lit like a firefly.
This painting has then sent me back to the text. And as I read it yesterday I, along with the disciples, heard Jesus say, “Let’s go to the other side.” He does that doesn’t he. Invites us to go with him. But this story, like my story, and like so many of our stories’, goes to a completely unexpected place. What they thought they were embarking on with Jesus, with all the faith they had, and all the idealism and vision and hope and intention, took a turn they were not expecting. In all of our lives this happens. We start, we think we hear God calling us to do something, to start something, to be faithful and trustful and then all of a sudden a squall rises up from the depths and we are suddenly fighting and struggling like we’ve never done before. We get confused–did God mean for this to happen? Did He do this? Did I hear wrong? What is happening? Our ways of making sense of this are completely stripped away. And where is Jesus in this? Sleeping. Not even in a “so it seems”kind of way but actually sleeping, at rest, completely unconcerned.
And so then I ask, along with Mark, “Who is this?” Who is this, that we followed out into the middle of the lake, who is at home, at rest, in a storm such as this? What kind of messiah do we follow who is not terrified of the world and its storms. What kind of God is right at home in his creation, even lets go into sleep within it and does not, could not, change in the darkness and in the light?
The one that is with us, drawing our attention to where he always is, to where the light can never be taken out, even in the dark shadow of the storm. The one in whom there is no question of his ability to effect his will, good and restoring, in this world. The one who does not change, even in the awfulness of our lives, but thoroughly changes us in the process of being with us in the bottom of the boat. The one who invites me to sit with him and watch how he does it, with all the repose of one who offers me some of his food while staring at the sunset.
This is he. Thank you sleepy Jesus.