From the point of view of human skin, a fifteen mile-per-hour headwind, when combined with bicycling speeds as high as twenty-five miles per hour, has the effect of turning an Iowa rain into something like face-pricking pieces of fine gravel. Normally, bike riding in a straight, tight line of riders has the benefit of reducing the exhausting effects of a headwind. Like geese flying in formation, taking turns leading the drafting train, can save a great deal of energy over the course of an eighty-mile bike ride. On a day of driving wind and rain, the benefits of a biking train must be weighed against the costs of repeatedly being blinded by the muddy rooster tail of water flying off of a colleague’s back wheel into your face and eyes.
“Quadriceps-busting wind, or blinding, muddy water?” This was my ongoing internal debate. While weaving indecisively in and out of formation, I couldn’t help but contemplate the warmth and dryness of the quaint country inn from whence we had launched this cold, wet adventure. I kept imagining the feel of a warm mug of hot tea in my hands, an afghan wrapped around my shoulders, and a good book keeping me company while occasionally staring out of a country window streaked with rain. I imagined what my rocking chair reaction would be if I spied six bedraggled riders willing themselves up and down rain drenched Iowa hills on the wet side of my window. I imagined how I would whisper a quiet prayer for them, and then pull the blanket more snug around my shoulders.
Thoughts such as these would tease and distract until the wind, or the rain, or a stout hill would grab my imagination, and shake it like a child clearing an unwanted image off of the screen of an Etch-a-Sketch. Washed clean of mirages, I would consciously fix my eyes and my mind to the five feet of pavement before me (rather than the dispiriting panorama of a looming, lofty hill). While on my five-day ride, I learned that what you do with your eyes and your imagination when facing a headwind or a hill is the crucial difference between a successful journey, and despair.
This Sunday’s Gospel selection (Matthew 14: 22-33) was all about what to do with your eyes when facing one of life’s major hills or headwinds. In this famous story, a storm-tossed sea was pushing against the disciples’ 3:00 AM efforts to finally reach the other side of the Sea of Galilee. When Peter saw Jesus walking across the water towards him, he asked him to command him to leave the boat and walk. A seasoned Christian I once knew found in this story the primary principle by which she lived her life, “So long as Peter kept his gaze on the Lord, he could walk on water,” she always pointed out. “The minute he turned his gaze on himself, he began to sink into a pool of his own fears and self-doubt.”
About a dozen verses earlier, the reader learned that Jesus was staring into a pretty stout headwind of his own. His first cousin, John the Baptist, had been imprisoned and brutally murdered for doing nothing more than what Jesus had been doing all along: speaking truth to power. Besides mourning the death of his family member and childhood playmate, Jesus was grappling with the outlines of his own destiny presaged by John’s death. What did Jesus do with this tempest of feelings and thoughts? He dismissed the crowds. He sent his disciples on ahead. He found an isolated place to pray. In short, he intentionally fixed his gaze on his Father. There he found the strength to keep making steady progress on his journey.
Of the group of six riders, I was the rookie. The prospect of pedaling 375 miles gave me some idea of what Peter must have felt like as he kicked that first trembling leg out of the boat. I was certain, that in addition to training, I would require a source of power beyond myself. And so, each morning, before eating breakfast, and a handful of Advil, I would wake up before my colleagues and pray with the liturgical readings of the day.
A short phrase from my morning prayer would accompany me all day long serving to keep the inner-eyes of my mind focused on God’s power rather than my fears. On my rain-drenched second day, my mantra, was “Blessed are your eyes that see what they see, and your ears that hear what they hear” (my paraphrase of Mt 13:16). Smack in the middle of being cold, tired, and annoyed, these words would remind me to pay attention to the bouquets of black-eyed Susans, buttercups, corn flowers, and Queen Anne’s lace that God had placed along this rural route for my enjoyment. While feeding off of these words for my journey, it occurred to me that scores of people I know would love to have an able body, to see what I was seeing, to hear what I was hearing, even if it was cold, wet, or tired. Focused by this word, one-hill-at-a-time, one mile at-a-time, I arrived eighty miles later at my dry destination ceremoniously kissing Iowa’s ground as if I were Pope John Paul II in the 1980’s.
This Sunday’s readings ask you and me to take custody of our eyes. What keeps your focus squarely on the Source of peace and confidence as you make your way into the headwinds and driving rains of life? Do you take time to set your compass by sacred words? Do you carve time out for meditative prayer? Throughout the course of your day, is there a scrap of prayer that you breathe in and out to stay focused?