Monday, September 3, 2018

Marianist Monday

Image result for Nazaré, Portugal surfer
September, 2018

My dear graduates of Chaminade, Kellenberg Memorial, and St. Martin de Porres Marianist School,

I have some thoughts about surfing to share with you today. That’s right, surfing. Now, you are probably thinking to yourself, “Gee, I know Bro. Steve, and he just never struck me as a surfer! I mean, he’s a nice guy and all, but I can’t imagine him catching and riding a wave. He’s kind of clumsy on his feet and waddles when he walks. It’s hard to picture him gracefully hanging ten.”

And you would be right. I have never gone surfing in my life. So, in a spirit of full disclosure, let me tell you right from the start that these thoughts about surfing are borrowed directly from Bishop Richard Henning CHS ’82 and the remarks that he made at the end of his ordination to the episcopacy this past July.

“What is a surfer without a wave?” Bishop Henning asked the congregation at the outset of his remarks. What is a surfer without a wave? The answer, of course, is “not much at all.” He may drive the latest sports car, he probably sports a healthy tan, and he (or she) is most assuredly a strong swimmer. But, if it’s surfing he has in mind, a surfer is nothing without a wave. He is a hopeless dreamer, a guy whose big plans are going nowhere fast. Without the waves, a surfer’s day at the beach amounts to some sunbathing, some swimming in a calm ocean, and perhaps a little Frisbee or beach volleyball. To paraphrase Psalm 146, “His plans that day come to nothing.”

But with a wave, a surfer is transformed. He rides atop the wave, resplendent, a thing of transcendent beauty. A wall of water rises behind him as he masters the forces of nature. The surfer becomes a study in perfect balance, in complete harmony with the wave and with himself. In a race against the raging water that would spell certain doom for most of us, he reaches the shore, just seconds before the crashing surf. The ecstasy of the moment is palpable.

In my research for this reflection, I learned that Nazaré, Portugal, holds the record for the tallest swells ever surfed. In November of 2017, Brazilian surfer Rodrigo Koxa rode a whopping 80-foot-tall wave. He won the World Surf League’s 2018 Big Wave Award, edging out the previous record-holder, Garrett McNamara, who surfed a 78-foot tall wave in 2011 at the same venue. If you will excuse the colloquialism, that’s really “gnarly.

All of us are a bit like the surfer, aren’t we? Like the surfer, we all have desires, and sometimes aspirations to do something big. Without our own “waves,” however, our desires and dreams come to nothing. We remain hopeless, frustrated, stuck.

Luckily, we can all count on a number of waves in our lives: the education we have received and the opportunities we have been given, inspiring teachers and caring mentors, family and friends, the people who believe in us and motivate us to strive for something more in our lives.

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Of course, the biggest wave in all of our lives is God Himself. Without God, we are hopeless dreamers. We have nothing to support us, nothing beneath us, no wave to lift us up and take us home. With God, we are like the world’s best surfers. We are a thing of transcendent beauty, resplendent in the reflected light of God’s glory. We are transformed, transfigured. And lest you think that I am slipping into the starry-eyed idealist here, consider this: We are all called to be saints. Which means we are all called to be transformed. This will never happen unless we are riding the wave that is God. (Our universal destiny to be saints, by the way, has emerged as one of the major themes of Pope Francis’ daily preaching.)

Nor is riding the wave that is God a simple task. No, I am not that naïve to think so, nor should you be. Riding the “wave” that is God requires perseverance and discipline. It will inevitably mean that we have to navigate some rough surf and harness some primal energies that, at first, seem downright terrifying. As Fyodor Dostoyevsky writes in The Brothers Karamazov, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” An 80-foot-tall wave is a harsh and dreadful thing. Without a wave (Although, admittedly, not all of them have to loom 80 feet tall.), however, the surfer is nothing. The love of neighbor; the love of parents, and siblings, and spouse, and children; and, a fortiori, the love of God – all these make “harsh and dreadful” demands of us. Without them, however, we are nothing.

One more thought, if you will permit me: Too often, we underestimate surfers. Among some, at least, “surfer dudes” are mischaracterized as a bit lazy, a tad lackadaisical, idlers who have sand on the brain and not much fire in the belly.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Surfers have plenty of passion, and an extraordinary expertise in their field. They have to be observant. They know the waves as if they were one with them. Surfers must know and “feel” exactly the right moment to catch the perfect wave. They need to be resourceful and resilient to keep on top of their boards. Sometimes, surfers slip and stumble and fall off their boards. If they are going to advance, they have to get right back up again. And, I would submit, a surfer needs a lot of courage and passion to ride an 80-foot wave – or even a 10-footer. Just to attempt such a feat requires daring and determination.

The parallels to the spiritual life, I hope, are quite clear. Those who seek the perfect wave need passion and perseverance, courage and determination. So too do those who seek God!

Does all of this sound a little bit daunting? Take heart, because there is one enormous difference between seeking the perfect wave and seeking God. If a surfer loses his footing – even the most experienced surfer – he might very well “wipe out,” meeting certain disaster and doom. When the God-seeker loses his footing, he falls into the ocean of God’s mercy. Because of God’s boundless compassion, no stumble or fall need bring disaster and doom.

Surf’s up! September, I am told, ranks as one of the best times on Long Island to ride the waves. So, dive in! Without the wave, the surfer is nothing. Without God’s love, we are nothing. The ocean of God’s unfathomable love and mercy is calling us now, today!

On behalf of all my Marianist Brothers,

Bro. Stephen