The sea, the sea! That was my miraculous view for at least four Galilean days staying in a hotel on the outskirts of the ancient city of Tiberias, Israel. That was the Sea of Galilee or Lake Tiberias or Buhayrat Tabriya in Arabic or Yam Kinneret in Hebrew. This is the sea of abounding stories; biblical, archaeological, economic, political and of personal testimonies.
I was awakened by a dream. I was swimming in the sea’s deep silence and terror. I was all struggling, in that dark bottomless blackness where not even a small reflection of light on the surface floated. I kept on calling names for help. I kept struggling and telling myself to be calm and focus on my breathing as a promise of a rescue boat will come. Or a helping hand. Above, there was only an incisor-shaped moon outlined by the swallowing clouds, menacing and wretchedly cantankerous. I shouted, my big voice vanished and drowned in that cold ground that I suddenly realized was a big pool of fresh cold blood. The silhouette of the nearby hills was trapped in their hypnotizing sleep and old man’s furious shadows. There were none of the distant lights that speak of living souls. I was slowly losing grip of life’s revelatory thread. I was slowly drifting towards the darkest presence of the abyss. There was no more power in my hands, in my feet, in my thighs and muscles. I suddenly woke up, saved from the terror of my sea-salt nightmare, sweating and gasping for breath. I embraced my wife, stood up and from the window stared the Sea of Galilee in its calmest and ever patient moonlit sagacity.
I asked, what is your terror Sea of Galilee? What fear lurked in the hearts of the disciples of Jesus that bared in blatant nakedness their lack of faith? What is your terror Sea of Galilee when you received that waters of the Jordan bringing with it impurities, minerals, bleeding memories, whole tribes, and tragic relationships? What is your fear, old man, standing behind the glass window that protected you from the bites and aggressiveness of spring flies and mosquitoes of the long night? What is your fear? And I saw myself in that glass, humbled, vulnerable, an old man, losing hair and memory.
I remembered Santiago, the protagonist in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. “He no longer dreamed of storms, nor of women, nor of great occurrences, nor of great fish, nor fights, nor contests of strength, nor of his wife. He only dreamed of places now and of the lions on the beach.”
I heard my wife softly whisper from behind, “sleep now, we still have a long day tomorrow.” I touched her hair, and that soft, reassuring companionship lulled me to sleep again.
My wife and I spent quite a lazy and ample amount of time just looking silently from our bed this near dusk-softened body of water. I always uttered a preamble for myself being blessed to unobtrusively witness before me an entity who has a long tale of pre-history and chronicled existence. I learned how in pre-history, a site nearby was once a permanent settlement in the Neolithic Age. In antiquity, I learned from our expert guide that this area that surrounds the lake was a vital nexus of the trade route called Via Maris linking the northern empires to Egypt. The famed historian Flavius Josephus of the first century called this place, “the ambition of Nature” because of its thriving fishing industry. This area too was an essential body of water during the Byzantine period, the Umayyad dynasty and succeeding Islamic empires and the Ottomans. Yes, these waters rose and ebbed with the royal roulette of mighty powers that spilled blood on its marshy shores. In the modern age, this is the waters that lay contentious for neighboring states aiming to have access to fresh water.
Paradoxically, this sea became personal to me. This sea is childhood. At its edge grow a tangle of tall weeds, a big catfish circling its detailed district of muddy labyrinth greenish shrouds and fishlings aplenty. This sea is the habitat of St. Peter’s fish. There is so much life and pulse here. There is so much playground and fun that characterize its commercialized wharves. True enough, there are sprouting resorts here and there. Tourism reigns and the tingling sound of shekels is firmly audible. Afternoon jet skis are crisscrossing here, and some beach parties of people from the southern parts of the country take place in the boisterous inns. This sea is memory of family, of children, of celebration and festivities. I had them, and my memories of my family were with the seas. I had sailed with them going to big cities of my childhood. I had played with them on beaches of white and black sands. I remembered I considered myself a creature of the sea, though the most amateur of swimmers. I looked at the Sea of Galilee, still I knew I won’t still be able to swim a yard!
We woke up early each morning in crumpled white sheets of clean linen. Invigorated, always we told ourselves, this is our temporary home. Though away from the familiar, hope and the fiercely radiant feeling of allegiance to the miracle of spreading light caressed all our longings and anxieties. We always felt exuberant. The calm waters stared at us with unflinching presence. There was no boat asea yet it seemed that there were fishing vessels that are about to dock and deliver its catch in our minds. I am the living sea, it says. I live and exist since time immemorial. I am the sea of fishers of men. I am the sea of the old life, of new beginnings, towns visited by multitudes. I am the sea glorified and convicted by faith, by cast nets and storms calmed and healing words. I am the sea of perfect love, agape and no fear. I am the sea of passion and agony and resurrection. Reflect on me. Touch me as you have never touched water before because I am life.
We felt full and in communion with ourselves and the God that allowed this beauty to prevail. What awesome view of the Arbel cliffs that open up to the Valley of the Doves where Jesus would have walked from Galilee to Nazareth.
Later in the morning as I watched this sea from a vantage point from the Mount of Beatitudes, a thought of a watchman came like a waft of fresh inspiration. Who is that watchman in the middle of the lighthouse? There, the watchman stands, who not only took stock of the mysterious knowledge that lies beneath the depths, the blackness and murkiness down there. There, the watchman stands, not counting the boats, the wooden archeological discovered wooden boats and precious coins that have fallen to mossy oblivion and decay. He does not count millennia nor hidden civilizations and prophecies of ancient prophets and kings. And I knew in my heart the watchman in that middle of the sea in that imaginary lighthouse as we rode the boat listening to a talk of how Jesus calmed the sea in the middle of a storm. I felt the presence of the watchman whose eyes of compassion and joy enveloped us as we danced some Hebrew dances taught us by the boat operators who sold Galilean stones for necklaces.
The Last Moments
Before leaving for Mount Carmel in the Mediterranean side of Israel, I bade a long morning goodbye. In my heart, the sea allowed me to experience both the fullness of my faith and the continuing growth of that small seed of faith to perfection by grace. It seemed like a contradiction as I reflected on it ascending up the hills away from Galilee with its lush agriculture. I contended with it, for in my heart I know contradictions have their innate wisdom and purpose.
True, I did not only gained a little understanding of the Jewish celebration of the Feast of the Passover which happened during our stay in Tiberias, the city named after Roman Emperor Tiberius. I gained a deep appreciation of the roots and genealogy of my faith.
True, I did not just have an awe-inspiring experience of how the Jews observed Sabbath as the hotel we stayed was a Jewish one. I was filled with immense gratitude. When my co-pilgrims celebrated the opening of the Lord’s Day on a Saturday dusk with worship and prayers, I can only utter a deep sense of fraternal love for my co-believers of other faith.
The Sea of Galilee beckoned and smiled at me with ferocious joy as I had a last glance of it bathed with April’s equally fierce sun. The sea allowed me to experience what it means to sail on the waters of life. You experience miracles. You experience beauty and darkness. You experience growth and almost unending waiting. You experience love and compassion like the words of Jesus to Peter asking at least three times, “do you love me.” From afar the snow-capped Mt. Hermon and the barren Golan Heights gave a sigh of relief seeing a pilgrim moved forward with lessons in his heart.
Indeed, peace reigned in my heart. Jesus’ Beatitudes delivered near the shores of the Sea of Galilee spoke to me powerfully about the reward of Christ’s central teaching of love. All the eight beatitudes promised the reward of heaven “for those who are poor in spirit, for those who mourn, for those who are meek, for those who thirst for righteousness, for the merciful, for the clean of heart, for the peacemakers and for those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness”.