As I prayed today’s Gospel earlier this morning, this particular line lit up my imagination:
When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. — Matt. 14:13
There is so much in this text! Did Jesus withdraw to be alone because of His grief over John’s decapitation, after having heard from the disciples the salacious details of Herodias’ dance that purchased his martyrdom? Maybe He saw this as a presage of His own execution and wanted to be with the Father alone in prayer? So many reasons could be adduced!
But what caught my heart most was that Jesus went out in the boat on the sea of Galilee alone. I imagine, practically speaking, it was the only way he could find solitude, find erēmon as the Greek text has it — from which we get the word eremite, hermit.
But I thought, wow, Jesus piloted the boat “by himself.” I had never imagined this before.
I imagined the scene, the quiet, the sloshing of the water against the boat as the buzzing sound of the crowds calling out to Him gradually hushed. I imagined the tilapia jumping out of the water around Him — maybe the same ones He caught and prepared for the seven disciples in John 21:9. I imagined Jesus gauging the wind, adjusting the sails or rowing, steering the rudder, looking back at the shore where the people stood, while deciding where we wanted to land the boat. I imagined Him taking a swig of water as He dripped sweat under the sun’s heat. I imagined the prayer He raised up as He sailed along, alone toward the Father.
What were His thoughts? What were His feelings? What were the words He spoke aloud in that solitude?
I myself fell in love with life on a boat as a child, joining my father and his friends in setting sail in Rhode Island’s Narraganset Bay, and out into the wider Atlantic, over countless summer weekends. But best of all for me, they had a dinghy they christened “Tommy” and I would set out alone and paddle for hours at a time far from the boat, into the blessed solitude of a jagged shoreline teeming with bird and sea life. Lost in this world with my net and rod, it became my childhood cathedral.
I must imagine Jesus loved setting out alone for similar reasons.