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Center for Action and Contemplation
The Sign of Jonah
The Sign of Jonah

A Merciful God

Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Richard Rohr and CAC teacher James Finley discuss why the Jonah story has been transformational for them:  

Richard: I’m just haunted by this story. It’s true on fifty-five levels. Running from God in spite of yourself, being thrown in the belly of the beast and discovering God. It’s all of us, it’s every person. Here again is the theme of coming to God by doing it wrong, not by doing it right. For years, I collected every image of Jonah in the belly of the whale that I could. It’s amazing how many there are. How about you, Jim?  

Jim: Something that strikes me about [the Jonah story] is at the very end. He’s this reluctant prophet, and he bears witness, and all of Nineveh follows his message. And he goes up on a mountain because he went through all this trouble being swallowed by a whale and so on, and he’s sitting there waiting for God to rain fire from heaven, and God doesn’t do it. A bush comes up and grows over Jonah to shelter him from the sun and a worm comes and kills the bush. And Jonah complains to God that the sun’s so hot, that the bush died. God says, “Jonah, you’re angry because the worm ate the bush and yet you want me to kill all these people who are my children.” One translation of Jonah says, “Don’t you know me, Jonah, that I’m mercy within mercy within mercy?” I love that ending: God the all-merciful. [1] 

Dominican priest and poet Paul Murray considers how Jonah’s journey of transformation is one that all of us must undergo:  

Our own minds and hearts are more like Jonah’s than we care to admit. And that is why like Jonah we need, in the spiritual life, to be shocked and shaken out of certain fixed ways of thinking and feeling. We need to begin to recognise God in places where we would never, perhaps, have suspected [God’s] presence before, and not only in the big city or in the places of our enemies, but also in the many seemingly banal and bizarre circumstances of our lives.  

But to learn this lesson, really to learn it, we need, like Jonah, to undergo the grace and mystery of bewilderment. Of course, we need many other graces as well—for example, the grace to sit still, the grace to meditate, and the grace and the energy to work for peace and to fight for justice. But, sometimes, it is only in the midst of the “tempest,” in the heart of a storm of circumstances which we can’t control, that we come finally to realise something of the wonderful mystery of God, and realise also how far beyond anything we can imagine or hope for are [God’s] plans both for ourselves and for the entire world. [2]  


[1] Adapted from Richard Rohr and James Finley, conversation for CAC Living School, November 2022. Unpublished material.  

[2] Paul Murray, A Journey with Jonah: The Spirituality of Bewilderment (Dublin, Ireland: Columba Press, 2002), 60–61.  

Image Credit: A path from one week to the next—Jenna Keiper, North Cascades Sunrise. Jenna Keiper, Photo of a beloved artpiece belonging to Richard Rohr (Artist Unknown.) McEl Chevrier, Untitled. Used with permission. Click here to enlarge image

One of Richard Rohr’s favorite art pieces about the prophet Jonah and the whale. 

Story from Our Community:

I’m facing a transitional time in my life. I’m beginning wonder if it is time to retire after many years of leading a congregation. I find myself asking many questions: Am I becoming the “bitter old pastor” that I never wanted to become? What happens next for my small community of faith if I let go of this present call? What happens next for me? Why am I struggling so much with all this? I’m addressing these questions by practicing centering prayer and Lectio Divina with others and in solitude. These practices have become my saving grace over the past 6 months. I have not yet found the answers to my questions—but I am making peace with living with them. —Dennis M. 

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