Rock Bottom – Ro Atilano, SJ

Matthew 14:22-36, Monday of Week 18 in Ordinary Time

Rock bottom

As of today, there are  around 18 million confirmed Covid-19 cases worldwide and almost 700,000 of them have lost their lives. In the Philippines, there are around 98,000 cases and nearly 2,000 have died. This pandemic has affected the world like nobody could have ever imagined. Economies have collapsed in a way never seen before. According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, there are over 7.3 million Filipinos who have lost their jobs as the country’s unemployment rate hits a record high of 17.7% due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In these last few days, our medical and health workers have been desperately crying out for help with our health system is on the brink of collapse.

For some of us, this experience can be overwhelming and we mayfeel like we are drowning. But some may have already sunk into an abyss and hit rock bottom. More and more people have been experiencing extreme loneliness and depression.

And we all know that this pandemic is far from over.

Where is God in all this?

After I got ordained, I was sent to the Bureau of Corrections to work as an assistant chaplain to the inmates of Bilibid Prisons. At that time, there were around 26,000 of them, distributed in four major prison camps. I got to celebrate mass for them everyday and listened to their confessions as well. I also taught them some special classes on accounting, Christian Ethics, and even guitar-playing. But what was most moving and unforgettable for me were their collective stories of redemption – from being convicted to being forgiven, from being incarcerated to being liberated, from reaching rock bottom to finding God.

Many of them told me this, “Father, kung kelan pa ako nakulong, saka ko pa nakilala ang Diyos.” (Father, if I had not been incarcerated, I would not have met God in my life.)

For the inmates, losing one’s freedom, the affection and trust of their families, and the basic comforts was like losing everything they have to live for. It is like falling into their abyss without anything to hold onto  and hitting rock bottom where there is nothing left and nothing lower to sink into – only to discover that God is also there at rock bottom!

During the retreat right before my ordination, I remember praying and contemplating on the Gospel passage today. In my prayer, I imagined myself being invited by Jesus to step out of the boat and walk on water with Him, just like in the story of Peter. I, too, was scared as if I knew that what happened to Peter in the Gospel would happen to me as well.

With Jesus’s calm voice and reassuring presence in the storm, I stepped onto the water. And then I sank and slowly descended into the deep. I waited for Jesus’s arm to me pull up. But there was nothing. Unlike Peter, I sank deep down till I hit rock bottom. There I was – in the vast emptiness of nothingness. In my loneliness and solitude, I closed my eyes. I envied Peter. How come my story turned out differently? Where was Jesus? I slowly opened my eyes only to see the loving face of Jesus right before me. I heard him telling me, “Do not be afraid, I am here. When you are ready, let us go up; but only when you are ready. For now, I will stay here with you.”

He was there at the rock bottom with me. He accompanied me until I was ready to swim back up to the surface. He was there all the time. He never left me.

My dear friends, just like those inmates I met in Bilibid Prisons, some of us may have also experienced sinking into our own abysses and hitting rock bottom but only to discover that God is also there at the rock bottom waiting for us until we are ready to go back up. God never abandons as He has promised. That was why Jesus walked on water so he could rescue his terrified apostles and assure them that there was no need to be afraid.

This pandemic may turn out to be the biggest storm in our lives right now. Many of us are scared and anxious. We really do not when or how this storm will end. Some of us might have learned how to swim in this stormy sea. There are those who are sinking while others are hitting rock bottom. There are also some who are walking on water. No matter what and no matter where we are, God is with us.

In the past months, I have counseled several people who are becoming desperate and depressed. And most of them ask me the same question: where is God in all this?

To tell you honestly, there were times when I was lost for words. But I told them that God is there begging for food in the streets. God is there at the hospitals, working without rest, desperately trying to save lives. God is there at the relief operations, repacking goods for the poor. God is there, driving his motorcycle in the rain to deliver food for those who ordered online. God is here, listening to someone who is giving up and searching for God.

My dear friends, what are your rock bottom experiences? How did you find God there? Or rather how did God find you?

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