In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, and on the seventeenth day of the month, that very day all the springs of the great deep burst through, and the sluices of heaven opened. And heavy rain fell on earth for forty days and forty nights. – Genesis 7:11-12
It hadn’t been raining when I left early for Mass, but as I rehearsed the psalm, I realized the sanctuary was growing ominously darker. Soon rain was pounding a tattoo on the slate roof of the church. The front doors opened to reveal sheets of water rippling in the wind – and an utterly drenched Chris, who had ridden his bike over only to have the heavens open on him as he arrived.
“Does anyone know the conversion between cubits and centimeters?” joked my friend Lisa. It truly seemed as if the sluices of heaven were open wide and we should all be building arks.
When Mass ended, I piled the sopping bicyclist into my car and headed home through the rising waters. My thoughts were on dry clothes, a cup of tea and the remaining loads of laundry from camping – I was not seriously entertaining thoughts of floods or ark construction.
I wonder what those on the earth were thinking when the great flood came; when did they realize this was not just another storm but a catastrophe in the making? My moment of truth came when, laundry basket in hand, I flipped on the basement light to find water lapping at the bottom step and inexorably soaking the boxes we had foolishly left on the floor until we could get around to sorting them.
Muttering imprecations, alas, not under my breath, I mustered my sons to help me deal with the sodden mess that our basement had become. For the next eight hours we mucked out the mud and water and hauled up what could be salvaged and out what could not. There was a lot of time to talk, to listen and to think – about arks and floods, about pasts and futures, about what to keep and what to toss.
It had been a while since I’d delved into the story of Noah from start to finish. It appears but twice in the three-year lectionary cycle, in Lent and over a few days in Ordinary Time. Away on a retreat, I decided to spend some time soaking in those three chapters of Genesis.
Rather like my basement, which I will admit is a jumble of outgrown toys and boxes, the narrative of the great flood is a tangle of two perspectives. The vivid voice of the Yahwist source woven through the precise and prosaic tones of the priestly authority brings unexpected life to a story often reduced to a recitation of the animals boarding two by two to amuse small children. There were depths in it I had forgotten.
God asks Noah to save everything that “has the breath of life” and to bring along what might be needed to provide for their needs and the needs of Noah’s family. Sifting through what was in my basement brought me to reflect on what I thought I needed to keep safe. As I put away things on higher shelves I began to ask myself, is this something I would have taken on the ark? Do my family or I need it? Does it breathe life into our lives? Or should I let the floodwaters take it?
In the end my basement was a cleaner and less cluttered space, but the clearing out had gone further than the physical bits and pieces. With so much space, I had always given into the temptation to hang on to things, to keep or get things “just in case.” Then God sent a flood and a chance to begin anew.
“Do I need this?” I now wonder before packing something away in my ark of a basement. Maybe not.
Father, guide us, as You guide creation according to Your law of love. May we love one another and come to perfection in the eternal life prepared for us. Grant this through our Lord, Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. – Concluding prayer from Morning Prayer, 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.