The Deep End
When I was growing up in the 1950s, my father’s idea of a family vacation was to load the family up in his big black chrome-laden Oldsmobile and drive hundreds of miles a day, every day, covering as much territory as he could. The kids were largely indifferent to the historic sites and scenic overlooks that we whizzed past. We just wanted to hang out at the motel pool, assuming there was one. When the time came for me to take my own young family on vacation, we would pick a destination not too far from home and stay there for the duration. Often it was Cape Cod, where we would spend the day at the beach and play mini-golf in the evenings.
Since I had grown up in the Midwest, far from any large body of water, I was not prepared for the Arctic currents that would turn my feet blue as I played with my small children in the surf on Cape Cod. I was used to municipal swimming pools that got to be warm as bath water as the summer wore on. You could at least see your feet in the pool, and they didn‘t turn blue. You didn’t find yourself standing on sharp pebbles, nor were there any rip tides. Plus, the pool was chlorinated.
For reasons I cannot fathom, my parents neglected to sign me up for swimming lessons when I was little. So until I went away to summer camp at age 12, I never learned how. For the longest time I was stuck in the shallow end of the pool, where my feet could touch bottom. I longed to jump off the diving board in the deep end like the big kids. Eventually, I figured out on my own how to tread water and to propel myself forward. Then it was just a matter of gathering the courage to take the plunge, which I finally did. I still remember the wonderful feeling of buoyancy after jumping in and bobbing back up to the surface, which I experienced only because I no longer needed to touch bottom.
In spiritual matters, we often spend our lives stuck in the shallow end. I am not even speaking here of those who splash around in the kiddie pool, entertaining themselves with angels, auras, astrology and the like. I am speaking here of serious spiritual traditions that might well take us to the deep end if only we weren’t afraid to get in over our heads. The God we encounter in the shallow end is invariably thought of in the third person,* using the pronoun he. This is a God that can be held at arm’s length: the God of religious tradition, of pious prayers and practices and dogmas, the God of the theologians. This was the God the militant Pharisee, Saul of Tarsus, thought he was defending when he set out to find more Christians to persecute. Then he had his blinding encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and discovered God in the second person. This is the God with whom we have an intimate relationship, whom we address with the familiar form of you. Blinded by light from another world, Saul heard a voice demanding, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” And Saul, whom we now know as St. Paul, found himself replying, “Who are you, Lord?”
The God whom Paul had once kept comfortably at arm’s length was suddenly in his face. Clearly, Paul was no longer wallowing in the spiritual shallows, but neither was he in over his head – at least not yet. There is nothing in the biblical narrative to indicate exactly when the final plunge occurred. Was it when, as he later wrote, he was “caught up to the third heaven--whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows?” Was it when he “heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter?” We know only that Paul was later able to say, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” This was God in the first person.
Eventually we may discover that the God we seek is not outside ourselves but at the center of our own being. As the theologian Paul Tillich expressed it, “The name of infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of our being is God.” There is no longer a “Thou” in the sense of Martin Buber’s “I and Thou,” only God in the first person: the I AM who first revealed himself to Moses on Mt. Sinai. “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man,” Paul advised the citizens of Athens. He went on, “Yet he is not far from each one of us,·for 'In him we live and move and have our being,’” quoting the Greek poet Aratus.
Just as there is not longer a “Thou” in the sense of a God who exists apart from ourselves, neither is there an “I” – at least not an “I” that exists apart from God. Spiritual adepts sometimes refer to this as the “annihilation” of the self, the final stage of spiritual progression. However, I think the term is a bit overstated. True, our sense of a separate self disappears, along with the otherness of God, but there is still a sentient being to answer when our name is called. Rather than “annihilation,” I prefer the term “immersion” – as when Sigmund Freud’s friend Romain Rollard told him he was never without “a sensation of 'eternity,' a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded—as it were, 'oceanic.'” Freud never knew quite what to make of Rollard’s “oceanic feeling,” but no matter. Suffice it to say that when we have undergone ego dissolution, we are no longer paddling about in the shallow end. We are definitely in over our heads, but we don’t drown; instead, there is the most wonderful feeling of buoyancy.
*I am speaking here of persons in the grammatical sense, not in the Three Persons of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.
2 Corinthians 12:2-4