I don’t remember who said it, but one of my faculty in the Academy for Spiritual Formation said we are better off choosing one religion (or even one denomination) and going deep with it rather than experimenting or dabbling in many faith forms and practices if we want to grow.
I set down my knitting needles and breathed a sigh of relief when I heard that. I found Methodism right out of the shower––where God became real to me for the first time––and I haven’t been anywhere else since I toweled dry and got dressed. Well, that’s not completely true. I’ve been to Catholic weddings and a Bat Mitzvah. A rabbi and a few Catholic nuns spent a week with us at Academy. I’ve read Natalie Goldberg, listened to Holy Cow on audio and watched Bollywood’s Bride and Prejudice, my appetite for Buddhism and Hinduism piqued. Devouring those morsels, I was tempted to load up on the whole smorgasbord, piling my plate high, gorging on the many manifestations of God.
I haven’t though, and it’s not out of self-restraint, or even laziness, it’s because I dove headfirst into my mainstream branch of Christianity and I’ve always been a better diver than swimmer.
I took swimming lessons all summer, every summer starting the summer before Kindergarten with Introduction to Water. By the summer after fifth grade, when I turned eleven, I had finally completed the entire Red Cross program–– Beginner, Advanced Beginner, Intermediate, and, at long last after a test that included sixteen grueling laps of freestyle, Swimmer.
I could do the Dead man’s float until the seagulls roosted, I could tread water decently, and I had good form on the strokes—freestyle, back, breast, side, but I never had endurance or speed, anything over four laps was torture. After passing the Swimmer class, I was free to pursue my dream. Springboard diving with the heartthrob of all lifeguards––Jeff, tan in his red trunks. His white teeth, zinc-oxided nose and mirrored sunglasses gleamed and made us preteens woozy.
Jeff taught us one approach for forward dives––front, reverse and twist, and a takeoff for the back and inward dives. We began every practice with hurdler stretches on the scratchy pool deck, and then drilled our approaches on the cement while we waited our turn to use the board. On practice approaches, we counted steps, marking our place against the marks on the board’s edge. Four steps, a hurdle, a bounce, a push of the feet, a rising of the arms and then we flew, or felt like it at least, and executed our dives.
You might have watched platform or springboard diving on the Olympics and you might have noticed how, once they are completely underwater, the divers often roll into a somersault and cut their descent short by pulling back toward the surface. That is completely the opposite of what Jeff taught us. He taught us to stretch for the bottom, a way to help us novice divers enter at a ninety-degree angle.
The school’s pool was twelve feet deep. If I stood on the deck and dove in, I had to swim down, kicking and straining, and still couldn’t hit bottom. But, when I pierced the water from the one-meter board on a good front dive pike or inward, I could slice through down, rocket to the bottom, feel the stucco on my palms, plant my feet, push off, and pull my way through the water in two or three long strokes, break the surface and gasp heartily for air.
It was this submersion, this going deep, this rush that I loved best about diving. In my mind, I’m still capable of throwing front one and a half somersaults with perfect bottom touching entries. In real life, I broke blood vessels in my eye several years ago when I threw one for fun on a hot August day in a public pool and face planted.
No matter. I dive in my dreams. My subconscious has adopted diving as some sort of symbol, and periodically I am flipping off platforms (which I never did) and three-meter boards (which I hated), overcoming obstacles like nets, faulty fulcrums and other divers spinning through my airspace. Sometimes I’m executing brilliant dives and retrieving pearls from the bottom of the pool.
So there we have it, a metaphor for the spiritual journey that I can relate to on a physical, mental and emotional level. I know what it feels like to skim the surface, trying to swim distances I’m not cut out for. I remember the bargaining, just one more lap, one more lap, two more strokes, one more breath and the way I wanted to give up at a wall instead of push off and keep going. But, oh the joy of diving. The soaring, the spinning, the opportunity to go deep, the utter satisfaction of reaching the fabled bottom, of holding my breath beyond my limits, of experiencing more than I thought I was capable of. That is what I loved.
Diving. I’ll never touch the bottom of all that is God. I won’t even reach twelve-feet down in my understanding of Jesus. I might crack the surface of United Methodism if I study my Book of Discipline. But it doesn’t matter. I love the sport. I relish the approaches, the flips, the twists, reverses, inwards, the many ways to enter the water of life. I want to dive under, again and again. It is something I can practice the rest of my life.