Head First – Faith

VertigoI 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!



  1. Bruce says

    Father Bless!!!

    I love your post and the reality of the both the terror and amazing adventure of ‘abandoning’ our old selves as we cooperate in becoming new in Christ. Recognizing and seeing this as an ongoing reality not a once and done process.

    Two of the most significant sections of the AA Big Book also use this term to describe this process of moving from seeing ourselves as powerless and alone to awakened to a relationship where we see ‘God as everything’ (page 53 of Big Book)

    The final page of the Big Book , page 164, and ‘How it works’ which typically is the opening to most AA meetings both use ‘abandon’ and ezpress a sentiment quite like your first dive.

    Page 59 introduces the steps of recovery with this paragraph:

    ‘Half measures availed us nothing. We stood at the
    turning point. We asked His protection and care with complete abandon.’

    Then the final full paragraph of the Big Book says:

    ‘Abandon yourself to God as you understand God. Admit your faults to Him and to your fellows. Clear away the wreckage of your past. Give freely of what you find and join us. We shall be with you in the Fellowship of the Spirit, and you will surely meet some of us as you trudge the Road of Happy Destiny.’

    Thank you for the reminder that we are unlikely to be progressing in His Likeness if we are not regularly experiencing this radical letting go of who we’ve created ourselves and God to be to in the darkness of our isolation and imaginations…and that His Light will both illumine and terrify us as we see more clearly the reality of who we are and who He is…and this process of abandonment is absolutely foundational to losing our hardness and becoming the clay He wishes to mold.

    God bless you!