By Will Deatherage, Executive Director
“Only those who have experienced the shock of transitoriness, the anxiety in which they are aware of their finitude, the threat of nonbeing, can understand what the notion of God means.”Paul Tillich, Lutheran Theologian
The following reflection is dedicated to friends of mine who struggle with their faith.
You are stuck on a slowly sinking ship. Rust and scuff marks obscure its once gold-colored hull. Minor punctures that speckled its inner-walls have stretched into gaping holes. Each floorboard seems to rot quicker than the last. Your frustration with your craft is matched by your desire for adventure, since you never saw the majestic lands your parents set sail for. Still, you love your ship, your home. It cradled you as an infant and gave you everything you wanted as a child: comfort, stability, and the senses of responsibility and pride. But now you gaze at the sky and cannot help but think that your spirit has outgrown its vessel. Your home seems more like a prison each day, which has made you question which will sink quicker: your ship or your soul?
On the horizon, you spot the island your parents departed from when they sought their own adventures. They plundered its riches to build this ship, your birthplace, and the natives, upon discovering the pilferage, surrounded the island with jagged rocks that no boat could survive. While you never set foot on the island, or any land at all, every sunset, when that tropical terrain meets the sun’s horizon, you feel as if you have lived on it your whole life. Your father, on his death bed, urged you to visit his homeland. While the certain comfort your ship offers you always convinced you otherwise, today, on the anniversary of his death, you feel a different kind of certainty. The island is within a hundred yards. You know you can swim there. The sinking feeling that plagued you for years hits the bottom of your stomach and gives rise to a confidence you never knew you had. You take one last look at your old life and say goodbye. You are ready to be Baptized.
You dive in. Regret hits you faster than the freezing water does. Its saltiness stings your eyes. The blue sky whose color you adored goes blurry. The waves that rocked you to sleep as a child batter your head into a concussion. Upon recovering from your dizziness, you frantically search for your home, but it has already crashed into the rocks. Debris float by, and you scramble to grab hold of them before they disintegrate like memories. The island is East, but the current goes West. You try to fight it with no success. You try navigating it, but as soon as you swim West, it turns South. When you swim South, it turns North. Every time you gain the slightest bit of confidence, a gust blows it away. After hours of battling nature, you feel like your self-esteem is in a competition with your body to see which will fail first. You cease thinking about your shattered home. You would never return there, anyways. How could you? You know too much, now. You have felt the ice-cold hand of reality that is called death, which drags your feet slowly into the ocean as it whispers, “Yes, you are mine.”
Your eyes close.
You stop swimming.
You start to sink.
You let go.
“I love you.” Another voice.
Your eyes snap open. Your muscles thaw. Your heart beats at lightning speeds that are only matched by your sprint towards the island.
“I love you,” you mentally repeat to yourself. One hundred yards.
“I love you…” you mutter. You aren’t moving your arms or legs anymore.
“I love you, I love you…” Something has possessed you! Ninety yards.
“I love you, I love you, I love you…” you cannot stop repeating. Eighty yards.
You are fighting as if you have something to live for, even though every physical and logical bone in your body tries to convince you otherwise. You cross seventy yards and scream like you have never screamed before, “I love you!”
You can see the island’s inhabitants. You catch a whiff of something delicious and hear the laughter of children.
“How dare you!” A massive wave tosses you into something sharp!
“Why did you leave me?” The rocks!
“I promised you nourishment!” Your arms and legs are broken…
“I promised you exotic lands!” …yet they continue to move…
“Do you not know that I am your master?”
The wind taunts you, the waves spit at you, yet you keep swimming towards the island.
“You wasted your time.” six…
“You have failed your Father!” The sun is setting…
“Hail Mary…” now you are ready to be crucified.
There are many, many ways to die.
We can live in comfort all our lives,
Ignoring holes, and cracks, and lies,
All of which spell our demise.
The island’s beauty, always there,
Can make us weep in great despair,
Diverting us away from care
Until we become self-aware.
But once we dive and start to live,
We taste what certainty can’t give.
We curse, we doubt, we cry, we sin,
And there is just one way to win.
Our parents lost their paradise
And their adventure cost our lives.
Now we adventure to reprise
What once was lost and so despised.
If death makes sinners, who’s to say
That how we die won’t make us saints?
It’s not ‘til on that cross we lay
That Baptism will truly save.
As someone who has struggled in their faith, I don’t get it. I’ve read it a couple times, and this article just seems to be a horror story of someone doomed to die at sea. I’m not sure where Baptism fits in all this.
This piece reminds me of my own, very personal, “dark night of the soul.” When I discovered that I experienced this spiritual crisis in the early morning hours of Pentecost I was astounded at that. The saving grace was the Holy Spirit. I was in the presence of the comforter, the guide, the source of life and that’s what saved me from suicide. Nothing of the world could have done that at that point.
If the writer’s experience of Baptism was what he wrote, then I can see why it’s a good idea to baptize a person when they are infants. What infant could survive that kind of struggle? Good thing for the God-parents as stand-ins for the infant. I was fortunate to have been an infant. But I turned my back on God and the Church for many decades. But I wasn’t spiritually idle all that time, I was a seeker. I tried many Western religious practices and groups and finally settled in with Tibetan Buddhism because it appealed to me on many levels of thought, experience, feeling, etc. But it led me to a brink beyond which it could not carry me.
The same brinksmanship occurred after a life time working, studying, in the areas of the natural and humanistic sciences as well as philosophy of science. It led to the same brink, the same despair. Only one presence deep in my soul saved me: The presence of the Holy Spirit. My reconciliation with the Church followed. I have been reclaimed by, and have myself reclaimed for myself, the Church and the sacraments. I give thanks for that every day.