In the belly of the fish

Jonah spent three days in the belly of the fish. I’ve been there for three years.

The fish saved Jonah from drowning in a ferocious storm. Those three days and three nights were torment, but they saved his life.

How can I make that metaphor work for me?

Gustave Doré, "Jonah Is Spewed Forth by the Whale."
Gustave Doré, “Jonah Is Spewed Forth by the Whale.”

Jonah tried to run away from what life had in store for him. When God sent him on a mission, Jonah boarded a ship going the opposite direction. He even tried to hide in the belly of the ship. But God sought him out; there was no place to hide.

So then Jonah tried suicide: “Throw me overboard,” he told the sailors who recognized that Jonah was the target of the storm threatening everyone aboard. Reluctantly, they did—and that’s when God sent the fish to save Jonah’s life.

After three days and three nights in darkness, misery, fear, and despair, Jonah accepted his fate. He cried out to God, asking for help, while also recognizing that God had already sent help:

In my trouble I called to the Lord,
And God answered me. …
You cast me into the depths. …
I thought I was driven away
Out of your sight;
Would I ever gaze again
Upon your holy temple? …
The deep engulfed me. …
Yet you brought my life up from the pit.

As I think about it now, this seems crucial: the fish, the captivity, the darkness and despair, were nonetheless a form of salvation. Only when Jonah recognized this was he able to receive more help and move on to the next step.

How can I recognize my past three years in the belly of the fish as the help I need? How can I make myself ready for the next step, whatever that is?

Jonah did not live happily ever after. The fish spat him out onto dry land, and God was ready to pick up where they left off. Initially Jonah seemed ready as well, setting out on the assignment God gave him. But he still rejected God’s plan—specifically, God’s mercy toward a sinful people who decided to change their way of life. Jonah thought he knew better. And that belief, that he knew better how the world should unfold, made Jonah so miserable that, once again, he wanted to die.

The story ends with a question and a note of deep ambiguity. Will Jonah reconcile himself to the world as it is, not as he wishes it to be? Will he find his way back to the holy temple, the house of the Lord, where Jonah feels at home and secure? How do I find my way back, or forward, or both?

What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked! You can read about it here.

3 thoughts on “In the belly of the fish

  1. Jonah gets angry at God at the end because he can’t tolerate God’s forgiveness. He just wants there to be strict justice with no compassion. God responds, “How can I not be compassionate?”

    That seems possibly applicable to your struggle to be compassionate towards yourself. I can’t quite weave it into a nice dvar, but it’s a thought.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly. Whatever Jonah learns during his sojourn inside the fish, it’s not compassion. He’s angry that God doesn’t punish people who have gone far astray and are trying to do better—so angry that Jonah himself would prefer the death to a life sentence in a world where God forgives. People who are hard on others are usually hardest on themselves. (The people I’ve been hard on will verify that.)


  2. This post inspired me to re-read the original post, not Jonah (yet). I am struck by Jonah being stuck not on loving what he loves, but reacting to what he does not. I wonder what his grief is, that underlies his anger? I have been finding of late that the challenge of finding and naming my gratitude at the being of each day helps me recognize what I love. For what’s its worth. It helps me also recognize the impossibility of being enough in any way, within my person- my very being seems sometimes to be woven of the fabric of other incomplete and imperfect beings, and only that I am a meeting place for a unique mix in time and space, of those others, and my choice to attend to that, makes me unique. I practice forgiving myself for my insufficiency, and I am not very good at that either.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s