Back in the 1990s when Mark and I were living on the North Shore of Boston, his parents came to visit us, and we took them up to Gloucester for a whale watch. It was a stormy day, though, and we didn’t see any whales. In fact, not only didn’t we see any whales, but the whole boat got seasick. And I mean truly seasick. People were collapsed all over the place, groaning.
When we started pitching around, somebody announced: go up top, stand out on the deck, and focus on the horizon. Most people paid no attention, but I staggered up the stairs, and that’s what I did, for the next half hour as they turned around and took the boat back into the harbor. I stood in the drizzle and the wind and stared with all my might at the furthest thing I could see. One other person came up too, and I didn’t even glance at her once. We exchanged one grim sentence of conversation, and then we both stared at that horizon as hard as we could. And it worked. Worst boat ride of my life, but I got through it by keeping my focus in the distance rather than on the immediate surroundings.
I looked up later why that works. And the deal is that motion sickness is caused when your brain receives conflicting messages about whether you're moving or not. If you’re reading a book or looking at something right next to you, your eyes are telling your brain that you’re still. But because your body can feel movement going on, it sends the opposite message. And the result is that your brain gets disoriented. So if you look at an object in the distance, that helps your eyes realize that yes, you are moving after all, and it resolves some of the confusion and you feel better.
So this is a physical phenomenon. But it is just as true in the mental world and the spiritual world. Focusing on more than just what’s right next to you helps you stay oriented. It’s true in business, it’s true in relationships, and it’s true in our life with God.
In business: I read an interview recently with Horst Schulze who founded the Ritz Carlton hotel chain. He grew up in a small German village and had never even seen a hotel as a kid, but he talked about how the success that brand achieved was because they focused not on daily tasks, but on the horizon, the ideal of service, which as a Christian he sees as rooted in love of neighbor. Schulze said, “Service always implies caring. If we settle for lesser goals — meeting the budget, for example, or safeguarding jobs in a tough economy — we will miss the most important work.”
In relationships: Talk to anybody who has maintained lifelong friendships, ask them how they did it, and they will tell you that at least part of it was learning not to sweat the small stuff. You keep your focus on your overall love for the person, on your shared values and goals, and not on the ordinary ways that they might fall short or fail you.
And in our life with God. There’s no better example of that than today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Let’s look at it. Paul starts by listing lots of his concrete qualifications, and then says, Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings.
That temporary stuff, good or bad, even if somebody else would consider it a gain, says Paul, all that stuff is rubbish compared to the goal I can see on the horizon. Paul loves strong language, and in fact if we translated the word he uses for rubbish literally, you couldn’t say it from the pulpit. That’s how high a value he puts on Jesus as his horizon.
And Paul continues: Not that I have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own…. This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. A well known civil rights slogan came from this passage: Keep your eyes on the prize. Instead of interpreting your life by its current inconveniences or its current successes, interpret it by your main goal. Focus not on the deck chair next to you, but on the horizon. Keep your eyes on the prize.
For many people, the focus point we have is too close for us not to get a kind of spiritual motion sickness. Rather than looking up to the horizon, the surpassing value of knowing Christ, we look at what’s right around us -- the paycheck, say, or spending time with family. What we’re keeping our eyes on is better health, the next set of deadlines, the favorite leisure pursuits, the screen of our phone.
Nothing wrong with those things. Helps to have a paycheck, helps to be in good health. But if we focus on them as our ultimate goals, doing that is just like what happens with motion sickness. Your mind and your body may be trying to convince you you’re fulfilled, but the spiritual part of you is telling you you’re empty. And the result is that you get disoriented, you get out of whack. Until you know where the horizon is and can focus on it, you will have spiritual motion sickness.
Spiritual motion sickness is not cured by non-spiritual methods, though many people are trying. Some people try making something else into their horizon, usually something that has a sort of cosmic, beyond feel to it – like great art, or sex, or passionate political causes, or getting intoxicated. Some try keeping so busy and distracted that the disorienting input telling them they’re spiritually empty is temporarily drowned out. Some try dumbing down the spiritual life into another close-at-hand consumer product they can buy and control without having to look beyond themselves to the real horizon. All of those things will work for awhile, but none of them work forever, because they get the whole structure of the thing wrong.
See, in the Christian understanding of the universe – and you may not share that understanding, I’m just telling you what it is – in the Christian understanding of the universe, spirituality will not function as advertised until you put it in its proper place. If knowing Jesus Christ is not the ultimate value for you, as it was for Paul, the Christian life won’t work right. You will always have that inner disorientation, that spiritual motion sickness, until you deal honestly with Jesus.
In the Christian vision, there is no greater horizon for a human being than the one who is both human and divine, Jesus Christ. In him we see who we are, and through him we are welcomed into infinite love and purpose. Compared to that, as Paul says, everything else is a poor, shortsighted second. I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord…. I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him. This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
You can try to avoid the horizon and keep rearranging the deck chairs, as the boat of life pitches around you and you pass from calm to storm and back again. You can try and hang on to a table that isn’t nailed down. You can surround yourself with people who tell you there is no storm and you aren’t actually seasick. But doesn’t it make more sense to raise your eyes to the horizon and see Jesus Christ there, who has made you his own and is waiting for you? To give him his proper place as the ultimate goal, as the prize you always have your eyes on?
And as Lent comes to a close this week, I have to advise you that there is no better way to experience what that means than to block out next week so you can be sure to experience the major services of Holy Week and walk through death and resurrection with Jesus. Entering fully into the Triduum will reorient you to the horizon God has given us. Holy Week is the strongest medicine the Church has, but you have to take it as directed. You can’t just drop in a couple times and then show up on Easter morning and expect to be cured of your spiritual seasickness. You have to give yourself over to the orienting power of the full process. Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. That is the horizon of the universe. Navigate by it, and you’ll find home.