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God goes swimming in winter

by Michael McGirr

You can't call yourself a Catholic until you've rugged up to go for a walk on a beach in winter. In summer, the beach is a place for public rituals. In winter, you are more likely to find people on their own, or perhaps in pairs, wrapped into themselves with coats, scarves and beanies. The beach in cold weather is a private place.

There are still a few exhibitionists left in winter. These are the people who wait for the worst day of the year to get the media to come and watch them cut the ice or brave the hostile surf. Nothing, they seem to want the lazy ones at home to know, will ever stop them having their dip. It beats me why, during a heatwave, nobody ever runs a story about the old man who lights his fire when it is forty degrees outside because that it what he does and no force of nature can stop him. Yet we always get stories about those who uphold the strange tradition of swimming out of season. Mostly they wear ornate swimming caps.

There are stories about lonely beaches. One of the best known is 'footsteps', the one about the person who looks back on life as a walk along a beach. Most of the time there have been two sets of footprints, yours and God's. But during the hard periods of life, there appear to have been only one set of prints. Did God leave you alone at that time? No, comes the answer, that was when God was carrying you. The prints belong to God.

I must say, when I look back over my life, it looks a bit more like a muddy football field at the end of a game. It's hard enough to tell which prints are mine, let alone God's.

But I do admire the story 'footprints'. There are several occasions in my life on which it has helped me enormously. These have been especially difficult times, times of crisis, ones when I have been stuck for an idea of what present to give a venerable friend or relative who can't each chocolates and is allergic to flowers. At such times, it is nice to know that you can get them a plaque with the story of 'footsteps' on it. The author of the fable is to be congratulated for addressing an issue which philospophers and theologians have avoided. This is the issue of what to give dear Aunt Beth. The author of The Desiderata is to be similarly commended.

On one occasion, I presented one particular Aunt Beth with a 'footsteps' plague. She went to her sideboard and put it alongside the one I had given her a few years before but had forgotten about. Before I could begin apologising, Beth came back and presented me with the original plague.

'So good of you to get me a new one,' she said. 'This one was just about ready for cleaning. It was getting hard to read under the dust. You're a thoughtful boy. You've saved me all that trouble.'

By this stage, Aunt Beth had been swimming in the ocean of human folly, summer and winter, for eighty years. There was very little which could put her off her stroke.

Another story about a lonely beach concerns St Augustine. Presumably this story belongs to the warm shores of the Mediterranean, but I have always imagined it taking place in winter. Augustine was musing over the nature of the Trinity. He found that a beach was a good place to lose himself in thought. As he was wandering along, he came across a boy who asked what he was doing. When Augustine explained, the boy said that it would be far easier to count the grains of sand on the shore than to explain the Trinity.

Only then , the story goes, did Augustine recognise the boy as Jesus. In other words, I like to think, once Augustine accepted he could not figure God out as an intellectual puzzle, a personal relationship with God became possible. Once he looked up from his own intellectual effort, he stumbled across Jesus. God can't be solved. There are times when you just have to accept that God goes swimming in winter.

Previous Columns:

  • Issue 1: The Catholic Fold
  • Issue 3: The Fridge Door
  • Issue 5: A Call to the Faithful
  • Issue 7: Liturgy of the Story

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