As a child, I spent every summer on a lake in Massachusetts with my mother and father and my five siblings. It was important that we knew how to swim and we had plenty of opportunity and motivation to learn. Knowing how to swim gave us the confidence and the freedom to explore the mysteries of the lake. And, it gave my parents peace of mind, knowing that their five young children would be safe in and around the lake. We spent almost every waking moment in the lake. We bathed in the lake. We encouraged each other to swim across the entire breadth of the lake. The water was stream fed and crystal clear. We loved the nips and tickles of blue gills on our toes. The feeling of floating on my back in the middle of the lake, looking up at a clear blue sky, or, even better, a black sky dotted with stars, was awesome.
It’s a wonder that I, a natural born skeptic, ever had that awesome experience. I have a vague recollection of swimming lessons when I was a child. I did not see how my clumsy, heavy body would ever navigate the waters and arrive at the other side without drowning. I was the last to volunteer to demonstrate and I spent much of my time being consoled by my frustrated instructor. I don’t recall how I made the leap from flailing failure to a sanguine swimmer, but, I have some ideas. And, I will share them with you.
Recently, I sat poolside and watched my three-year-old participate in swimming lessons. And, I saw in her experience, a reflection of my own experience, not only with swimming, but also with faith.
Lesson One: Water Exploration
Gigi is fearless and makes me nervous much of the time. She loves to explore the world boldly and climbing is often involved. But, when it comes to the water, she has demonstrated a respect for the water that has made her appropriately cautious. On her first day of swimming lessons, she sat on the edge of the pool and paid close attention to her instructor. She did not move unless he instructed her to move. When it was her turn to enter the water, she was stiff and fearful, but, his reassuring words, words I could not hear, seemed to calm her. I don’t know what he said, but her body relaxed and she smiled while keeping her head high, so as not to submerge her face as her instructor carried her through the water. She was clearly enjoying the sensation of moving through the water.
In a similar way, my inborn skepticism makes me anxious and interferes with my ability to freely explore my faith. So much of our story of creation, whether you subscribe to the big bang theory, theories of evolution, literal or allegorical Bible translation, etc., is beyond my human comprehension. The biggest brains in the world cannot agree on the first event. It confounds me that it takes a designer with intent to create a swimming pool with well marked lanes and depths, and, yet, I am supposed to believe that the oceans and lakes and all their infinite inhabitors either appeared out of nowhere or that THE hand of God designed them with intent. In order to enjoy the exploration of the world, I need comforting words and guidance. I find this comfort in the Word of God. I begin my day reading excerpts from Scripture and commentary written by various doctors of the Church. The words comfort and lift my spirit. They free me from the anxiety that blocks my joy and confidence.
Lesson Two: Floating and Moving with Assistance
Gigi’s instructor continued to soothe her with words of comfort as the lessons progressed, but she still needed his hands-on assistance. She neither had the skill nor the knowledge to float or move through the water independently. But, this guided practice built up her skills, knowledge, and confidence so that she could progress in her swimming lessons.
Similarly, I need help from my brothers and sisters in faith when I encounter areas in my life that are beyond my experience or capacity. When I had my first miscarriage, it was essential for me to have friends and family who share my faith to help me stay afloat. I know that they will be there for me for all that life throws at me. I have seen friends and family members face unbelievable calamity and, yet, remain faithful. I am very blessed with a mother and father who have remained steadfast in their faith through all of life’s twists and turns. My siblings, too, have clung to their faith when, it seemed at times, all hope was gone. And, my friends are there at the click of a mouse to hold me up in prayer. Having this web of support buoys my spirit and allows me to be there for others.
Lesson Three: Submerge Underwater
A few days into her lesson, Gigi was urged to blow bubbles in the water. Let me tell you, I had to look the other way. My inner skeptic was telling me that she was going to inhale a huge amount of water and her air flow would be blocked and she would drown. Later, in the afternoon, my husband was helping her practice and, again, I had to look the other way. I was just sure he was going to become distracted and she was going to drown. She’s a wild card. Just like her Daddy. The blind leading the blind, I tell ya. I had to leave the area of the pool because I knew that my fear and doubt was going to render Gigi a basket case for life and, quite possibly, end my marriage. I knew that in order for her to learn to swim she was going to have to learn to submerge underwater, as I have had to submerge in my faith.
When I submerge in my faith, I act on my faith. I put the words and into action. I take leaps of faith. And, by doing so, I get a glimpse of the unseen and I tap into the wellspring of true joy. I see this face of joy on Gigi, who has mastered the skill of submerging. Each time her face bobs out of the water, she grins from ear to ear with a sense of awe, as though she has unlocked a secret box.
Lesson Four: Letting Go
Gigi has not become a full fledged independent swimmer…yet. She is very close. But, right now, she is afraid to let go of the edge of the pool. She won’t let me take my hands off of her. I know it is a big step and I tell her she has plenty of time. I hide my own fears and doubts and tell her, she can do it. For now, she is content to explore shallow water, where she feels confident. But, she also knows that in order to have access to all the glory that swimming promises, she must let go.
For those of us who live by faith, letting go of fear and doubt is a daily struggle. It is much easier if we read the Word of God daily, spend time in prayer, take daily leaps of faith, and surround ourselves with a cheering squad. But, sometimes we cling to sinful habits, harmful friendships, and grudges. All of this weighs us down and there is no way we can freely move about in faith until we learn to let go. For me, frequent examination of conscience and confession help me to identify sinful habits and let go of grudges. But, the most difficult part is letting go of relationships that lead us into doubt or occasions of sin, such as gossip, infidelity, or wrath. We need to be a light to others, but we also need to be in the light. If we are around people that want us to hide our light under a bushel, then we need to let go. We should seek fellowship with people who are going to cheer us on, whether or not they share our faith, not hold us back by constantly planting seeds of doubt in our heads or encouraging us to betray our faith. When we let go, we can love these people from afar and pray that they return to us and bask in the light of our faith.
Gigi will be swimming by summer’s end and I will be there to cheer her on, leaving my own fears and doubts aside, because, I want to give her not only the gift of swimming lessons, but also the gift of faith.
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Shiela is a widow and mother of five children from elementary to High school. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor and art therapist but her primary vocation is to be a mom. She discovered apologetics while cruising around social networks and finding her faith under attack. She approaches apologetics with humor and everyday stories and hopes to ignite a fire of joyful catholic culture that will spread throughout the world. In the wake of her husband's death, she will be sharing her grief journey.