Swimming in God
Yep, it sounds a little weird. When I was a postulant (the first year of religious life with the Franciscans) I lived in the Bronx. We had a pretty tight schedule that began with morning prayer and mass followed by an hour-long commute to Manhattan where each of us Franciscan newbies would work in a ministry setting somewhere in the city. We’d all trek back to the Bronx in the evening and meet up again the Friary (like “rectory,” it’s a house for Friars) for prayer and then dinner.
Being that I’m generally a “morning person,” I was usually up before 6 am. I found, rather quickly, that this was also really the only time I had to do any sort of exercise. If I wanted to be sure to get some activity in during the day, it would have to be at the very beginning.
So I got a membership at the YMCA branch nearest to where I lived in the Parkchester section of the South Bronx. And, most mornings (there were those times I slept in or overslept), I got up between 5:00 and 5:15 and headed off to the gym. It was quiet. Very quiet. When the New York winter set in, it was super quiet.
I would usually run a few miles on the treadmill or bike, but I would almost always end with several laps in the pool. I don’t know if you’re used to working out at the Bronx YMCA at 5:30 in the morning (that’s when they first opened), but there aren’t lines of people waiting to get in. Although – here’s an aside – there was always this one man, very faithful to his workout, who would speed walk on a treadmill while drinking a large cup of coffee. That is something I never was able to figure out. Coffee? Treadmill? Really?
One thing I noticed was that I was usually the only one in the pool at that hour. I would swim my laps back and forth in a very steady rhythm and I soon realized that the entire experience was something like a prayer. Like praying the rosary or some mantra of centering prayer, I found my strokes and the motion of gliding through the water incredibly prayerful. The water was smooth and calming. And I began to imagine the water as like God in the world, suspending me and everything in it. When you work with the water, with God, you float on by well and supported. But when you panic or work against the water, you drown.
I recall telling my spiritual director at the time that my most prayerful moments of that year were in the pool at the Bronx YMCA at 5:30 in the morning. I felt as though I was “swimming in God” with few distractions and nothing but the experience of prayer to occupy me.
Today I’m by the lake and, although it’s a sunny day, the wind is strong and the water is choppy. It got me thinking about the contrasts in the spiritual life. At times we have the calm and peaceful experience of the YMCA pools, at other times we have the choppy seas of life. I sometimes swim laps here at the lake. I go out to this buoy several hundred yards away and come back to the dock. On days like today, I still go out – sometimes – but it’s very hard to swim and I can only do it a little before I get too tired from fighting the waves.
Sometimes it’s very hard to pray and I can only do a little before I get too tired from fighting the waves of my own life. But, as the Trappist Monk Thomas Merton famously prayed, I hope that my desire to pray is itself a prayer and something pleasing to God. And with prayer, a little goes a long way.
So may you enjoy the calm YMCA pools of prayer and glide through the spirit of God that sustains us all. When the waters get rough, may you continue to desire to swim in God and allow God to support you in the difficult times.