I can recall the scene as though it were moments ago. I was eight-years old, standing on the end of a 10-foot-high diving board. My swim class was standing around, along with my teacher. It was the last day of the summer class and diving off the “high dive,” was the last event of the day. Everyone was watching. I had a long conversation with the teacher (she was coaxing me into doing something that every inner instinct said was foolish). I shouted, “Geronimo!” She shouted, “Goodbye, cruel world!” And I dove headfirst into the pool.
C.S. Lewis wrote that he became a Christian “the summer he learned to dive.” I can relate. His diving did not come until he was a Fellow at Oxford University. Mine was at age eight. But the connection between believing and jumping head-first into the air still seems right.
I cannot parse the moment. Did I trust my teacher’s assurances that everything would be fine? Did I care more about not being seen as a coward by my friends? What exactly took place in that small act of faith and in what order? I don’t know and I don’t think I can know.
The same, it seems to me, applies to faith in God. It is said that we cannot come to faith except through an act of grace, God’s own free gift. That sounds true. It is dogmatically true. But dogma and experience, at least in this instance, are not the same thing. We do not receive a gift of grace and then have the leisure to sit around considering it. “Now that I have the gift of grace, will I respond with an act of faith?” Like the boy on the diving board, the whole thing seems more tortuous.
I can remember my diving experience (as Lewis clearly remembered his) because it lasted such an interminable length of time. Though only minutes (very few) passed while I agonized so high in the air, aeons passed in my soul. It seems that I have returned to that position, poised between heaven and earth, more times than I would ever have guessed (or desired). Faith (especially of the leaping variety) always seems to put you in mid-air.
I have had mid-air collisions with the existence of God, His goodness, His kindness, His caring presence, the Church, Tradition, Scripture, forgiveness, and faith itself (to mention only a few). And with every encounter, though preceded by grace, there is some moment of the leap. The leap itself is, for me, sheer terror. I dread the existence of God at least as much as I dreaded the surface of the water itself. It may sound strange to dread the existence of God, except when you consider that His existence means the possible return to the diving board on a regular basis. Practice has never made it any easier.
I have pondered the role of the “will” in all of this. I know that it is in there somewhere – but questions about it seem to conjure up thoughts of reason and deliberation. The whole thing seems more existential, more desperate. I can easily see the role of the will in deciding not to jump. I have not jumped any number of times, and I can cite chapter and verse for the reasons I hesitated and chose to do otherwise. But for the jump itself? It has always seemed that I jumped in spite of my reason (not deliberately so – but just so).
The love of God is described by St. Nicholas Cabasilas as “manic” (crazy). This seems a more apt description as well of the jump. There is a point to the jump and to faith. There is a will hidden somewhere in its depths. But my experience is of a sort of mania – an abandonment to God.
I think all of this has something to do with love. It’s not surprising, for the Scripture says that “faith works by love.”
May the God who so loves us, give us the grace to love in return – and not by measure – but wildly, manically with abandon!
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