Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and in front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God; and in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal. Rev. 4:5-6
I have never given much thought to the meaning of this passage from Revelation, but the other day as I was finishing my daily walk-run along the levee and returning by way of the pump station, I looked down at the water and was taken by its calm sheen. It reflected the sky like glass. Suddenly I thought: that passage in Revelation [4:5-6]! I quickly spoke a stream of consciousness voice-to-text into my phone to catch my thoughts. I edited it later and added some Bible references in brackets. Here it is:
Of course! This makes so much sense of that “sea of glass” image. A glassy sea is a pacific sea, wholly still and untroubled. The storms of history have passed and the water is now able to generously reflect the beauty and majesty of the heavens with such exact precision. And as I recall from Revelation, the image of the glassy sea is juxtaposed to the Sinai-like storm that erupts from God’s celestial throne. Somewhere in Job God speaks out of the storm [38:1]. But then to Elijah He speaks through the stillness [1 Kings 19:12]. What a paradox! God is a tempest who is at once a zephyr who gives peace.
It reminds me of St. Teresa’s description of the “prayer of quiet” in which God, enthroned in the center of the soul, performs cardiac surgery as He “suspends” the faculties of the soul, disabling our white-knuckle grip on life. It’s the prayer that leaves us defenseless before God, unable to impress Him with our wonderful aspirations or genius insights — raw, unimpressive, not in control, ready to let God be God. Letting “Thy will be done” be done. It’s the prayer that allows us really know that God is in love with us, not because of our high performance; and not in spite of our low performance; but simply because we exist. God was madly in love with each of us even before we existed [Jer. 1:5]! Such “quiet” prayer, Teresa says, is our surrender to God, our accepted consent which allows Him a free hand in our deepest core. No human is worthy of that inner place. Only God. There He says: “See, I make all things new” [Rev. 21:5]. Such omnipotent tenderness, beating His omnipotent Wings to shelter us from the storm [Psalm 91:4]. Create in me a Sea of Glass, O God!
I think here of an interview I heard with a NASA scientist who studied the Shroud of Turin [the alleged burial cloth of Christ]. After spending an entire night alone with the Shroud, he remarked to reporters: “Though I’m not a religious man, I have to say that what struck me most as I looked at the Shroud through the night was the disconnect between the body of this brutally savaged man, and his face. They don’t fit. The body is lacerated, beaten and bloodied, while the face is serene. It’s like the face doesn’t belong with the body. It’s really striking.” The Christian economy of trust in God’s providential care is inscribed with and into the cross. The Carthusian motto captures this perfectly: Stat crux dum volvitur orbis, “The Cross is steady while the world whirls” — steady because the re-creating “Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change,” is presiding over every catastrophe in paschal mystery [James 1:17; Psalm 29:10].
In the Catholic spiritual tradition, there’s a marvelous effect of grace in the soul that all should covet: stabilitas, “stability.” Those who possess this graced state become aware of a “disconnect” between a deep inner stability and the normal turmoil that characterizes life. It is not the same as emotional tranquility, which comes and goes. It’s far deeper. It’s a grace, but it requires on our part a strenuous effort to live a good life. It’s given to those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” It comes when you allow the anchor of your heart to set itself firmly in the immovable Rock of Christ, so that even when all around you is shaken, within you are as calm as the sea of glass — made glassy beneath Jesus’ beautiful feet [Mark 4:39]. Dying in agony on the cross, Jesus evidenced this stability: “Into your hands I commend my spirit” [Luke 23:46].
I remember back in late 2006 I was struggling with despair over balancing my graduate studies with work and family. There was one day I really remember, right after my 100+ long dissertation draft was rejected. “Piece of shit” was the exact phrase that was used by this particular professor. I was in near-despair, ready, after 6 years of work, to quit. I told Patti [my wife] that I just couldn’t go on. I was done. I’ll never forget what happened next. She took firm hold of my necktie and looked me straight in the eye, saying with stern love: “You are not quitting. We haven’t sacrificed for all these years so you can just quit now. You know you were made for this. God asked you to do this. We need you to do this.” At that very instant I felt an infusion of inner strength that was so clearly beyond me. I knew it immediately. It never left. Inner stability infused into my quivering soul through the Sacrament of Tough Love.
It’s not the first time God has shot mystical graces into me through my wife’s fiery love and blue eyes [Rev. 15:2!]. In a moment when I was sinking into the tumultuous sea, which had stolen all my attention [Matt. 14:30], God led me to still waters through her. All would be well [Rom. 8:28].
Years ago, I was flying from Atlanta to D.C.. I was in the very last seat in the back of the plane on the starboard side. After we had reached cruising altitude, the hatch across the aisle from me suddenly unsealed and a roaring rush of air began to pass through it. I was terrified! The pilot immediately descended what seemed like 10,000 feet in a minute. As this was happening, I noticed a man sitting just down the aisle to my left reading a book without any sense of concern. It was really astonishing. And he looked just like Ernest Hemmingway. So I fixed my eyes of him and soon felt interior calm. I knew all would be well because he clearly knew something I did not — or maybe he’d had imbibed some potent spirits!.
After we landed, as I was waiting for my ride, I could not help but think of that NASA scientist’s words. Or my wife’s words. That Face on the Shroud, so untroubled. The Face I must fix my eyes on reveals an inner heart captivated by the immovable Father’s Face. How lovely that Face must be!
“God is for us a refuge and strength,
a helper close at hand, in time of distress,
so we shall not fear though the earth should rock,
though the mountains fall into the depths of the sea;
even though its waters rage and foam,
even though the mountains be shaken by its waves.” [Psalm 46:2-4]
Jesus, help me fix my eyes on you so others who rely on me can fix their eyes on me. O Spirit, Guarder of the Glassy Sea, steady my heart in His Heart…