In the middle of July, 1979, after Skylab had burned up in its descent from orbit, showering charred remains across Western Australia, I committed the most foolish act of my life. Actually, I hope it’s the most foolish. I’m not dead yet, so there may be more opportunity.
I tried to swim across Lake McDonald at Glacier National Park in Montana (above). For the record, I am not a swimmer. I don’t even like water. I’d rather be dry, which is why I don’t guzzle water like a lot of people. But at the time I was young, brash, and invincible. I was a runner and would run six or more miles a day. So, naturally, I was in perfect shape for swimming. Anyway, it couldn’t have been more than a half-mile across the lake. What could possibly go wrong?
The water was freezing, even in July. I suppose “glacier” could have been a clue, but back then I didn’t catch on. About halfway across I cramped up. Not having much fat on me didn’t help. Muscle doesn’t float. It sinks. So, I sank. Then I came up. This happened two, maybe three times. The last time I was spent, completely drained. I cried out feebly and managed to raise a few fingers above the surface of the water to Peter, my friend who stood on the shore, but he could do nothing but wave his arms back at me.
Stranded halfway meant that it was just as far in either direction, and I had nothing left in me. As I struggled to keep my face above water, I thought of my mother, then St. Michael the Archangel, even though I had rebelled against my childhood religion. I either saw or imagined I saw a large, black bird overhead. Then I sank for the last time.
I always assumed that if I ever had to fight for my life, I would be able to summon uncommon strength. The reality, though, is much different. I had neither the strength nor the will to fight for my life, which surprised me. Another surprise was how good it felt to surrender. I had the sensation of strands of grass wrapping around my feet and legs, pulling me down.
In the Genesis account of Jacob sacrificing his son, Isaac, it reads, “Then he [Jacob] reached out and took the knife to slaughter his son” (Gn 22:10). It is a declarative statement; the action completed. We await the bloody sacrifice in the next verse. Then, unexpectedly, an angel stops Jacob: “But the Lord’s messenger called to him…” (Gn 22:11). The pause between the two verses fascinates me. Who knows how long that moment lasted between Jacob’s raised knife and the angel’s call?
Something unexpected happened on the lake, too. What came next was not a voice but a hand. A hand reached down and pulled me up by the top of my head with such force that I broke the surface of the water like a geyser. It was big enough to cover my head. I could feel its fingers, smooth but powerful. I choked and gasped for air. I looked around but saw no one. Then, somehow, I knew how to get back. I floated on my back and drifted with the current until it carried me to shore.
As I lay collapsed, Peter, both older and wiser, said something about the fragility of life and not taking it for granted. I nodded but didn’t say a word about what had just happened. How could I? I wasn’t sure myself.
One morning eight years later, I came across these verses in Psalm 18: “He reached down from on high and seized me; He drew me out of the deep waters. He rescued me from my mighty enemy, from foes too powerful for me. They attacked me on the day of my distress, but the Lord came to my support. He set me free in the open; he rescued me because he loves me” (vv. 17-20). The psalm was written in gratitude for King David being delivered “from the clutches of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul.”
I tried to share my experience with others, but it sounded like babble. A Jesuit friend chafed at hearing it. Eventually, I kept it to myself. That the “hand of God” is not a metaphor or poetic image has grave theological implications, let alone that God intervened to save my life. Think of the current bombing of Aleppo and the children dying there. Do they not deserve to be saved? Why would God save me but not them?
I don’t have answers to these questions, although it’s not a matter of deserving salvation. Neither is it about faith, because today I should have enough faith to move mountains, but I don’t. I still forget that God exists, still stray, still act out of fear.
It might be pointless to insist that God loves us. Such a reminder and the people who make it are often ridiculed, but it is an abiding truth of God’s grace. It is true not in spite of our imperfections but because of them. After all, is not God’s strength made perfect through our weakness (2 Cor 12:9)? I will boast, then, of my weakness.
I’ll just do it on dry land.