It can be messy in the Belly of a Whale

Biblical story of Jonah and the Whale: Jonah being cast from the belly of the whale. Circa 1650. Oil on canvas, unknown artist. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

This is my first blog post in several weeks. With my involvement in several nations since early in the year, time and more importantly energy to write has been lacking. But this post you are presently reading has been in the crafting for some time, at least in my brain and emotions. It concerns a state that many of us are all too familiar with: being in transition, in-between, out of sorts somehow. Some have called it being in a liminal place, where you are neither here nor there, not having arrived at a new place but not really in the old one anymore. It is a threshold, a doorway, but that is the problem: we don’t yet know what the door is opening into. There is a unique pain to being in-between, and often those around us will not understand. (though if they are honest they know well what it is like).

But this place of transition holds potential for being one of the greatest places of spiritual formation in our lives. Recently as I was reading the book of Jonah in the Old Testament, what stood out to me was not so much the call and message of Prophet Jonah, but his formation. Called by God to bring a message of repentance and possible judgment to the ruler of one of the most brutal empires in history, the Assyrians, Jonah runs away. Most likely this was not his first assignment, and there would have been a series of ‘successful’ prophetic results as part of his track record. There were certainly ways Jonah had already been formed even in preparation for this monumental task. He would not have been a ‘newbie’.

There is much material in these three short chapters for understanding more about being shaped by God and our responses to that shaping and call. But I want to focus on a few things from this story that specifically speak to this idea of living in a place of transition, and its unique ability to form us as we respond. Each of these calls for awareness, and in that awareness the need to be ready to let go of what has gone before.

  1. The primary place for Jonah’s formation in this story is the belly of a whale. This squishy, blubbery mess becomes the way-station of his calling, a strange but perfect metaphor for the messiness of transition and liminality. Being in the belly of a whale (and obviously I have never been in a literal one) means much darkness, no firm place to stand. Kind of like trying to sleep on the ultimate water bed but as smelly and awful as you could imagine. In Jonah chapter 2, verses 2-9, the prophet cries out to God from inside the belly of the whale, quoting several passages previously written by David and others in the Psalms. One of those is Psalm 88, one of the ‘Psalms of darkness’, where the writer ends in verse 18 with the words in one translation, ‘darkness is my closest friend’. Unlike many other of the Psalms, there is no resolution here, no nice ending of praise or God bringing victory. Only darkness. For Jonah, the darkness of the belly, of a liminal state that meant an awareness that running away had led to a new reality.
  2. And that new reality was combined with the question, ‘how long?’ Will the time in the belly of the whale last until Jonah’s death? When we are in an in-between time in our lives, however big or small, the question we may often ask is ‘how long will this last?’ Much of the pain of these seasons of transition is not knowing how long they will go on. And waiting and waiting beyond the grace we feel we have. As Father Richard Rohr has written, being in the belly of a whale can become a time of formation and even transformation. It can teach us how to ‘stay there without needing to fix, to control, or even to fully understand it…the belly of the whale is the great teaching space.’ Being in an experience of the in-between can help us to let go of our own ability to control, to sort things out. It is a new place of deeper dependence on God and other people. For Jonah, there was no way out of that messy and confining space. Would it ever end?
  3. There was an indeed an ending to this experience, but Jonah was not in control of where he would be ‘spit out’. Our own experiences of liminality, of being in the doorway of transition, will end and we will go through that door into a new chapter or season. But where we end up, where we are ‘spit up’ in our own journey, is a shore we may not choose. For Jonah, in chapter 2 verse 10, was vomited out of the whale upon ‘dry land’. We are not told exactly where, only that in the beginning of chapter 3 the call to preach to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, comes to the prophet a second time. And this time he goes. And there are great and unexpectedly successful results. When we are spit up on our own new shore, there are new calls or old calls we may still need to obey.
  4. Being in experiences of liminality and darkness will change us. Somehow it seems that after these kinds of experiences, and we can go through them at any age or season of life, we are not the same again. Our relationship to God and people, our awareness of what waiting means, seems to undergo an enlarging. But being aware is quite key. When we begin to look at our lives, we actually realize that times of waiting and being in-between and transition are not that rare. They happen now and then and can be the doorway to new seasons or chapters of life. Part of the grace for these seasons is being aware of what is happening. Not that we know when they will end or what shore we will end up on, but we simply know that being in the middle of something means we are still moving, still breathing. There is still hope, still life ahead. Life in the belly of a whale is not the final experience. Even as awfully messy as it is.

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