A Letter from Jonah
by parishioner Emilie Øyen
The story of Jonah resonates with all of us in so many different ways -- not least our simple fascination with whales, their size, their silent power, their enigmatic natures. But Christians for centuries have been struck by Jonah's uncanny connections to the story of Jesus' death and resurrection: Jonah, three days in the belly of the whale, Jesus, three days in the tomb; Jonah, literally rising from the sea, his death, in the spitting out of the whale, Jesus, rising from actual death in his resurrection and ascension; Jonah, embarking on a new life with God after his near-death, Jesus, embarking on a new life with God/as God after his actual death as a human being. In her striking response to Jonah's tale, Emilie has focused on a different parallel, that of darkness and light (whale belly/tomb, return to land/resurrection appearances) as images of our lack of awareness and coming to awareness of the presence of God in not just their lives but our own. The Band's performance of the Bob Dylan song, “I Shall Be Released,” from their final concert as recorded in the Martin Scorsese film “The Last Waltz”(wonderfully, Dylan and many others join them for the performance -- recorded in 1976, the film was released in 1978), is a fitting accompaniment -- as is Emilie's son Haakon's fabulous drawing of "a Norwegian fishing for a whale."
- The Rev. Craig Townsend, Vicar
The sadness had come early that year, as beautiful and common as a bird, as distracted and lovely as sweeping crumbs off a counter. It arrived, like it always does, with a thought: "Perhaps I shouldn't have allowed T. to come. Perhaps I need some time alone." Then, with that tiny disturbance planted in my mind, I swept the crumbs into my hand and dropped them into the trash. That was how the sadness began, and that was how autumn began, in late August. Autumn was early that year too.
I remember how I died. I couldn't sleep for many days, and I couldn't be awake. The word of the Lord came crying and the sound of the voice was excruciating. I wanted to die. One morning I forced myself out of the apartment and bought a cup of coffee at a diner. The light was relentless. I put one foot in front of the other and that got me down the sidewalk. I decided to return home and sort some papers, but when I got back, the weight in my arms was too great to lift paper. I sat down. An hour passed, then two. I dreamed I had a river, as I sat there by the window and the days passed, and soon the black snake of water carried me down through myself, carried me down to Joppa where I found a ship going to Tarshish. Sometimes movement helps to abate the pain. Sometimes movement away from the presence of the Lord. I paid the fare and went on board. Inside it was darker. It was not without light, but it was a respite from the light.
The night the boat left Joppa, the sea's surface was ink black and warm. It stirred and churned. I gazed at its beautiful surface. How I longed for it! The waves grew up to me, caressing my thighs, my neck. Everyone knew me. I was so loved. At first I turned from the water's reach, but it offered such relief, such compassion, I soon succumbed. I was pulled and twisted into what was now a roaring sea. I lost control of everything. The above world receded and faded as the waters closed in over me, as floods of darkness surrounded me. I was drowning in waves and billows. And then it was silent. Blackness encased me, weeds wrapped around my head. There was no God now, there were no demands. I felt the bars clamp down forever, and my soul fainted within me. There was nothing. I was free.
But then you see, a force passed by me. I can't really explain its power. It was love so profound it was infinite, and it pulled me closer. Something was happening. Lips -- how horrifying! -- enclosed me with a gentle suck. Then the baleen of a great fish pulled me through its sieve, the pressure bled my skin, almost flaying me until I was naked, scrubbed clean, my skin bleached and peeling… but it did not hurt. My body held its shape. I slid along the spine, caressing the grooves of the marching-angels vertebrae. A string of kidneys hung in a line like sapphire balloons. I walked into the heart. Brackish water entered and left my mouth like oxygen. I don't mind gray. The pain was no longer great, I could bear this new pain better. Soft walls closed in around me. I yearned for peace in the shelter of the great fish's darkness. Will I finally escape? Pomegranate guts cushioned the edges of my new world. Silence caressed my face. I am no longer a tempest. The peace was sublime. Or will I arise for God?
God is in the darkness with you, in the belly of the fish. Call out to him, without expecting an answer beyond hoping to feel His presence. My friend, I felt Him then as I slipped effortlessly into the first stomach chamber. All night, I slept in peace.
The second day I was birthed through into the second stomach chamber. Six hours of labor left me curled as tightly as a fetus in the womb, enclosed in a darkness as dark as the streets on the edge of an African city where there is no light no moon no shadows, and whispery voices say ahem ma'am dana kale kale kubwa -- and people moving home and moving out are shapes pulling through the darkness. Inside shacks made of debris, candles flicker and quiet men sell moonshine, cigarettes, chew -- whatever a coin can buy to take the edge off the hunger of the darkness. Faces pull toward the candle talking hushed, whispering to me. Dusty kids swim underfoot. No one is seen, only felt, sensed. When danger comes the candle is extinguished and the shapes melt back into darkness, no longer there.
I strained to see even the faintest pillar of light, but there was no light. Not yet. Even so, I thanked God for deliverance.
On the third day, in the last chamber of the stomach, my body was pickled and translucent. I was my own white nest. My heart beat in accord with the slow deep resonate drum of the great fish. Every. five. seconds, we collaborated. Three days passed on the fringes of this soft continent, but what was time? There was darkness, and life suspended, and when the waking arrived, I could see the light come shining through and I knew I would be released. But the light was not God bringing us together. I was resurrected but I was not suddenly complete. The light cast horrible shapes into my life. It entered the room and revealed what had been previously left unseen. That is how madness arrives, you know -- with the light illuminating everything. That is also how God arrives.