In the Belly of the Whale

The marvelous book of Jonah, read in its entirety on Holy Saturday, includes a very rich prayer which is obviously intended to be spoken from within the depths of Hades itself – thus its inclusion on Holy Saturday, the day on which Christ is proclaiming liberty to those “in prison.”

Like the phrase from Psalm 139, “Lo if I descend into Hell there art there,” this prayer in Jonah is a poignant reminded both of our ultimate liberation, but, I believe, a constant reassurance of Christ’s abiding presence with us here and now – and not just present to us – but present to the very nature and character of our life and our situation.

I do not have a terribly jaundiced view of the world – but I think that much of human existence is marked by a “hellish” character. Suffering and disease alone give our existence much of this character. In the wealth of our culture we live a strangely bifurcated existence. People tend to stay away from the scenes of actual suffering. Nursing homes are not visited by many people outside of family (and even family may find it difficult). Other areas of poverty and disease are shut away from our view. Strangely enough, most people in our culture have never seen anyone be born or anyone die. The new birthing techniques are at least increasing the number of people who have an idea of what birthing a child is like. But we still die, largely alone.

I say we live a bifurcated (split) existence, because at the very time we avoid real contact with suffering, we make movies about suffering. Thus there are many movies about the holocaust, though our nation did not accept many Jewish refugees at the time. It seems to me that we prefer our experiences to be virtual. Even in sex (of all places) – the porn industry is mushrooming, though most of it does not involve direct contact with another person. (Not to minimize the hideous dangers for children that are coming to light).

With all that in mind, I do not think I exaggerate when I think of the place in which we dwell as somewhat hellish. Perhaps our very avoidance of the hellish character of reality is, in fact, the most hellish aspect of our modern world. Mother Teresa dwelt in one of centers of human suffering, and yet seemed to be in paradise. It’s probably we who live virtually free of such reality who are truly in a hellish existence. For in the end, hell’s true character is not its existence, but its drive towards non-existence.

Thus it is from the belly of non-existence that we must pray. Prayer is a movement towards an authentic life. God is real and from Him alone reality comes. The God who is beyond all things has come down to us and become one of us. He is here, taking the hand of every Adam and Eve and leading them from the grave of their virtual worlds. Our prayer, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” is a petition for God’s Kingdom to come now, and to reign here, in me.

We must not become too comfortable in the belly of the whale. We were not meant to live here. At least the prophet Jonah knew that. We must not seek to make God a part of our hellish reality – reducing Him to mere virtuality. (I think here of the Church in Kentucky that implemented “drive through communion” a few years back).

Neither should we seek to make Church “easier” or more conformed to the age. We’re in the belly of a whale. What we need is to be spewed up onto the land, and not a program for the improvement of whale bellies.

But the Church’s great prayer from the belly of the whale is obvious: “Lord, have mercy.” We cannot say it enough and we cannot say it too often. Have mercy. The belly is dark. Have mercy. The belly wants to digest me and make me its own. Have mercy. This belly stinks. Have mercy. This belly seems endless and all I can hear is the sound of my own voice echoing back at me, mocking my prayers. Have mercy.

Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish: saying, “I called to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and thou didst hear my voice. For thou didst cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood was round about me; all thy waves and thy billows passed over me.  Then I said, `I am cast out from thy presence; how shall I again look upon thy holy temple?’  The waters closed in over me, the deep was round about me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me for ever; yet thou didst bring up my life from the Pit, O LORD my God. When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the LORD; and my prayer came to thee, into thy holy temple. Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their true loyalty. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to thee; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the LORD!” And the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.

Lord, have mercy.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





18 responses to “In the Belly of the Whale”

  1. HeatherS Avatar

    Thank you, father, for a thought provoking post. I read your blog rather regularly and it has often given me things mull-over and pray about.

    A question though.

    I understand your point about this modern existence being one in which we must always cry for mercy. But when you say, “We must not become too comfortable in the belly of the whale. We were not meant to live here. At least the prophet Jonah knew that”, it confused me. Are we not praying, “Thy Kingdom come” not just “in me” but also for this to physically happen? In his vision St. John sees the New Jerusalem coming down to us, the Church. This language seems purposeful. So we aren’t to be comfortable with the world yet. But we should recognize it as the Home it will be, post-resurrection.

    So I guess my real question is, what must we do? How do we live recognizing the awfulness that is still present but without abandoning it in a Gnostic throwing-up of hands?

  2. Jeremiah Avatar

    Thank You Father.
    This thought of living in a hellish existence that we try to avoid, coupled with the fact that we have become deaf to the Scriptures, reminds me of the letter to the Church of Laodicea. Blind, poor and wretched, but thinking they are rich. We in this modern age have truly fallen from grace. Indeed, Lord have mercy.
    At the same time, I am reminded of the Psalm of Asaph, who, when he was in distress over the prosperity of the wicked, came into the House of the Lord, and saw clearly. What a wonderful thing it has been for me to discover the Orthodox Church. As you said in your last post, it is truly a place where you can hear the wonder that the Church has toward our God. One of the things that struck me about Orthodoxy is how the Church lives out the “child-like faith”, Jesus told His disciples a person should have.
    And it’s precisely that child-like faith that allows us to have compassion on those who suffer. I am a fireman/paramedic, and come into contact with suffering every day I go to work. As a Protestant, I am sad to say, I was not very compassionate. Not that Protestantism lacks compassion, but my particular tradition was no known for their compassion. In the months I have spent immersed in Orthodoxy, I have seen that lack of compassion for what it is. I am praying for true repentence, and showing compassion, though I have light years to go still. Thank God for the gift of the Church, in showing me the truth.

  3. Ioannis Freeman Avatar

    Long before I first learned how to bring a human baby through one of his/her more treacherous journeys called birth, I bought a dozen duck eggs at a local Farmer’s Market. I wanted to witness birth. Taking the eggs home, I constructed a kind of incubator in my spare room. The incubator was simple enough to build out of materials at hand: a Styrofoam carton, a towel, an incandescent light and a transparent Plexiglas lid.

    Then, I waited. After about 5 to 7 days, I started to listen to each of twelve eggs with the bell side of a stethoscope. Two eggs were active. After several days more had passed, still only two of 12 eggs had audible signs of life.

    Around 18 days, I awoke early as usual to check on the ducklings inside the eggs. One egg shell was broken already, and a tiny beak popped through its small hole. I quickly looked at the second egg. No sign of having broken the surface, I placed my stethoscope on it. I heard nothing. Suddenly, from the first shell, there appeared a small head.

    I gave the duckling a little assistance by cracking the egg along the lines of the hole that he had made already. Within 10-15 minutes, the duckling was separated from the egg.

    My attention then returned to the second egg. Still no evidence of a crack in the shell or audible sounds. I left the egg to rest among the ten others for a couple days longer.

    I had never tested what my Aunt Maida had taught me on the farm about what to do with a duckling. Now it was my chance to care for new life. I provided the duckling with water and moistened tiny bits of soft vegetables and bird seed. After a week, I could see that the duckling needed space to run and more food to eat. That meant constructing safe space for him. I named him Tischen.

    Tischen grew into a majestic all-white duck. I slowly introduced him to fellow white ducks in a city park’s lake of Kansas City, Missouri, where I lived at the time in 1980. Tischen befriended every human hand that came to visit. When I arrived to visit, Tischen answered to his name even if someone else came before me to feed him.

    Call it naivete or beginner’s luck on my part [or, as the Germans say, “Die Dummen haben immer Glueck”] that all turned out well for Tischen. Certainly there are plenty of chicks, ducklings, and the like who fare worse when traded as gifts at Pascha every year. However, that year confirmed my aspiration to help people enter and exit the world in a career choice of Christian love, and I can thank the mercy of God who gave me Tischen to love, protect, and eventually set free.


  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    In saying “we are not meant to live in this hellish existence” I certainly do not mean “not meant to live on earth.” Our hellish existence is an existential state of separation from God. We were meant for paradise. And that, too, can begin here, and often does.

  5. Lucian Avatar

    There, alone on that train, Jesus Christ appeared to me in a vision. His face reminded me of one of the Russian icons that I would later see—heavily scarred and tragic— not suffering but bearing the marks of having suffered. […] My wife, who is a Protestant, asks me how I could become a believer in Christ without having read the Gospels. My answer is that that is how the first disciples became believers.

    From here.

  6. Marsha Avatar

    “But the Church’s great prayer from the belly of the whale is obvious: “Lord, have mercy.” We cannot say it enough and we cannot say it too often. Have mercy. The belly is dark. Have mercy. The belly wants to digest me and make me its own. Have mercy. This belly stinks. Have mercy. This belly seems endless and all I can hear is the sound of my own voice echoing back at me, mocking my prayers. Have mercy.”

    An amazingly accurate and poetic portrayal of our lives. Have mercy on us indeed.

    Thank you very much for this post, Father!

  7. Max Avatar

    Father, but I think coming of Christ cleansed this place. He has lived here all his life, even short life in response to Writings, but still very human life, from birth to crucifixion. And of course, this is a very strange place, but still a place of souls birth.
    Otherwise, I always think that the Orthodox attain perfection in finding own guilt.
    Blessed be our Lord, henceforth and forevermore.

  8. Steve Avatar

    Thank you for the post. I echo the cry, Lord have Mercy!

  9. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Several thoughts come to mind:

    It is the reality of the Incarnation itself that destroys Gnosticism. He is fully God and fully man. He still shares all of our sorrows and it is why we can be assured of mercy when we call our for mercy.

    “To be in the world, but not of it”; “To give glory to God in all things”; and a speck of understanding of St. Silouan’s: “keep your mind in hell and despair not”

    The overarching theme is that while recognizing the fallen reality we never loose sight of the wonder, glory and joy of our Lord’s mercy and grace and salvation.

    “….restore unto me the joy of thy salvation and steady me with a guiding spirit…” in Psalm 50 follows the acknowledgement of sin and falleness that is unvarnished and for which no excuses or accomodation is made.

    “I behold the bridal chamber richly adorned for my savior, but I have no wedding garment to worthily enter. Make radiant the garment of my soul, oh giver of light and save me”

  10. Micah Avatar

    Amen. The Incarnation is the River of Fire that both consumes and changes everything. Glory to God!

  11. yeamlak fitur Avatar
    yeamlak fitur

    Thank you Lucian for sharing that story.

  12. joel in ga Avatar
    joel in ga

    Jonah spoke of the bars of the pit closing upon him “forever”, but eventually he was released. Any thoughts on how Jonah’s experience should guide our understanding of other Scriptural passages concerning hell?

  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    They should be read from the point of view of Christ harrowing of hell and breaking down its bars. What we may think is forever, is made less than that in Christ. Read everything through Pascha.

  14. John M. Avatar
    John M.

    Fr. thank you for sharing this it truly a great help to me as I struggle to find a path to Orthodox belief.

  15. RiverC Avatar

    Father bless,

    I can only be reminded of those near-end chapters in Perelandra where Ransom is cast into the sea and ends up where “the deep was round about me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains.” the feeling of meaninglessness, of endless darkness, of dead-ends and deep-dwelling horrors, and then of at last casting the Un-man into the fiery lake (an underground volcano in his case) and riding the waters to be spewed up in the sacred mountains.

    Matins to me feels like this every time; long, very long – judging my inattentiveness and everything else, and at last – Liturgy!

  16. luciasclay Avatar

    ….called from the belly of sheol……

    A while back reading this story, and thinking of the symbolism to the resurrection of Christ I pondered whether or not Jonah may well have been dead, and indeed praying from sheol, and was then deposited on the beach alive.

    Not sure if that has ever been expressed in the church or if its just my imagination.

  17. Anna Avatar

    Our baby boy, Jonnic Elias, was born stillborn yesterday. Please pray for mercy on us and on him. It is difficult to experience both birth and death in the same moment.

  18. fatherstephen Avatar

    I will remember you son in my liturgies. It is indeed a very difficult thing to experience. May his memory be eternal!

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