Father Richard describes the pattern of transformation Jesus offers through “the sign of Jonah,” which is the mystery of death and resurrection:
Jesus’ primary metaphor for the mystery of transformation is the sign of Jonah (Matthew 12:39, 16:4; Luke 11:29). Jesus tells the growing crowds, “It is an evil and adulterous generation that wants a sign” (Luke 11:29), and then says the only sign he will give is the sign of Jonah. As a Jew, Jesus knew well the graphic story of Jonah the prophet who ran from God and was used by God almost in spite of himself. Jonah was swallowed by a whale and taken where he would rather not go. This was Jesus’ metaphor for death and rebirth.
Rather than look for impressive apparitions or miracles, Jesus said we must go inside the whale’s belly for a while. Then and only then will we be spit out on a new shore and understand our call, our place, and our purpose. Paul wrote about “reproducing the pattern” of Jesus’ death and thus understanding resurrection (Philippians 3:10–11). Unless we have gone down, we do not know what up is! Unless we descend, we won’t long for and make inner space for ascent.
This is the only pattern Jesus promises us, and we see it mirrored in other traditions as well. Native religions speak of winter and summer; mystical authors speak of darkness and light; Eastern religions speak of yin and yang or the Tao. Christians call it the paschal mystery; all point to the same necessity of both descent and ascent, usually in that order.
The paschal mystery is the pattern of transformation, and it indeed is a mystery—that is, it is not logical or rational at all. We are transformed through death and rising, probably many times in our lifetime. For some cosmic reason, there seems to be no better crucible of growth and transformation.
We seldom go freely into the belly of the beast. Unless we face a major disaster such as the death of a friend, child, or spouse or the loss of a marriage or career, we usually will not go there. As a culture, we have to be taught the language of descent because we are by training capitalists and accumulators. Mature religion shows us how to enter willingly and trustingly into difficult periods of life. These hard passages are good teachers.
We would prefer clear and easy answers, but questions offer the greatest potential for opening us to transformation. We try to change events in order to avoid changing ourselves. We must learn to stay with the pain of life, without answers, without conclusions, and some days without meaning. That is the perilous hidden path of contemplative prayer. Grace leads us to the state of emptiness—to a momentary sense of meaninglessness—in which we ask, “What is it all for?” The spaciousness within the question allows Love to fill and enliven us.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer, rev. ed. (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1999, 2003), 44–46.
Explore Further. . .
Listen to James Finley on Turning to the Mystics speak about the dark night, depression, and suffering.
Learn more about this year’s theme Nothing Stands Alone.
Meet the team behind the Daily Meditations.
Image credit: Carrie Grace Littauer, Untitled 2, Untitled 3, Untitled 9 (details), 2022, photographs, Colorado, used with permission. Jenna Keiper & Leslye Colvin, 2022, triptych art, United States. Click here to enlarge image.
This week’s images appear in a form inspired by early Christian/Catholic triptych art: a threefold form that tells a unified story.
Image inspiration: The hollow feeling when loved ones are no longer present, like holes in a log. The pain of a thorn piercing skin. This tree has suffered and witnessed suffering. We too have suffered and witness suffering.
Story from Our Community:
When my daughter was addicted and living on the streets, the only thing that allowed me to get through the agony of possibly losing her was the knowledge that my suffering was in union with Christ, his blessed mother, and all the suffering people of the world. —Annie R.
Prayer for our community:
God, Lord of all creation, lover of life and of everything, please help us to love in our very small way what You love infinitely and everywhere. We thank You that we can offer just this one prayer and that will be more than enough, because in reality every thing and every one is connected, and nothing stands alone. To pray for one part is really to pray for the whole, and so we do. Help us each day to stand for love, for healing, for the good, for the diverse unity of the Body of Christ and all creation, because we know this is what You desire: as Jesus prayed, that all may be one. We offer our prayer together with all the holy names of God, we offer our prayer together with Christ, our Lord, Amen.