Selfish Sainthood

Last week I almost died.

Well, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but there was definitely a scary moment where I thought things might go poorly. We were still in Aruba, and the kids had decided that they wanted to go ‘tubing’. We had tried this the week before, and it was nothing like the let’s-go-drift-down-a-lazy-river-with-a-cooler-of-beer tubing I was used to. Instead, this was an adrenalin-pumping XTREME experience where a large raft was tied on a long rope to the back of a powerful motor boat which then zoomed at top speed over large waves while the riders held on for dear life and screamed their heads off. Oh yeah, and because we are a family of five, and a raft can only hold four, we  had two rafts tied to the back of the boat (one adult in each, with kids divided between them). This enabled the rafts to occasionally slam into each other when the boat driver did a funky wheely thing in the water.  Really not my thing.

After the first tubing adventure I had come home and read a horrifying article about how all of these beach activities are completely unregulated and how there have been several parasailing deaths in Florida recently. Sharing this information with my eternally optimistic husband, he assured me that if these activities weren’t safe, they wouldn’t still be in business.  I squelched my anxiety, and wanting to participate in a golden moment in our precious family vacation, agreed to go tubing one more time.

For our second outing, the winds were particularly strong, and the boat driver, recognizing us from the previous week, knew we (or rather the rest of the family except me) loved a thrill, so he set off at such high speeds that the wind kept literally lifting the front of my raft several feet in the air so that my son Andrew and I were at a 45 degree angle with our feet sticking up.  At one point our rafts slammed into each other so hard that Andrew slid over and we hit heads. I was completely terrified, but was trying to remain calm since I realize I tend to be overly nervous.

Then all of a sudden on a sharp turn, as our rafts came towards each other again, the wind picked up my raft at such an angle that the entire thing tilted on its side, then flipped over on top of the other raft. Staring down at the water rushing by, I had a scary moment where I expected to get squeezed between or stuck under the rafts or tangled in the ropes. But then I simply let myself go, the rafts passed me by/over me and the next thing I knew I was bobbing in the open water in my life jacket (yes we did at least have those on), watching the boat and the rafts zoom away from me.

Without even thinking I called out in panic for Andrew. He had been on the far side of the raft as it flipped and I had no idea what had happened to him.  I didn’t care about myself – just about my son. Where was he? Was he alright?

Fortunately, in a cartoon-like fashion Andrew had been flipped into the other raft and had landed, rump down between my husband and my daughter. Not only was he fine, the rest of my family thought this was one of the coolest things that had ever happened to them. Except they were worried about me. Soon we had confirmed that everyone was unhurt, the other raft was flipped back over, and the boat driver slowly made his way back to shore.

As soon as we reached the beach, I started to fully process what had happened.  After shaking all over and swearing that I’d never go tubing again, we rode back to our rental house in silence.

Back at the house, I pulled out my Kindle to unwind, and just happened to be on the chapter on ‘Saintliness’ in William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, where James is quoting from the narrative of a near-death experience of a deeply religious person:

The sail slipped through my fingers, and I fell backwards, hanging head downwards over the seething tumult of shining foam under the ship’s bows, suspended by one foot. But I felt only high exultation in my certainty of eternal life. Although death was divided from me by a hair’s breadth, and I was acutely conscious of the fact, it gave me no sensation but joy. I could have hung there no longer than five seconds, but in that time I lived a whole age of delight. But my body asserted itself, and with a desperate gymnastic effort I regained the boom. How I furled the sail I don’t know, but I sang at the utmost itch of my voice praises to God…..

It struck me how different my response had been in a somewhat similar situation. Rather than experiencing a sense of calm at submitting to God’s will and welcoming the prospect of eternal life, I was terrified of losing my or my child’s life. God?  If I’m honest, God didn’t enter my thoughts at the time.

If I’m even more honest, I’ll admit that I found many of the ‘saints’ described by William James to be either annoying, disturbing, or both.  James cataloged people who deprived themselves of all of life’s joys, abandoned all material goods, and cut themselves off from their loved ones  to whom they had an obligation. As James puts it:

The lives of saints are a history of successive renunciations of complication, one form of contact with the outer life being dropped after another, to save the purity of inner tone.

While in theory these saints ought to represent the apex of what a life of faith should be, I found their fixation on abandoning everything to be with God to be, well, selfish. It’s all about their spiritual life, their connection to God, their eternal life. But what about the people who love them, who depend on them. Isn’t the happiness of those people important too?

It seems to me that cultivating a spiritual life is important – but not as an end in itself. It is only important in they way it gives us the strength and focus to be present for those who love us, and to go out into the world and make a positive impact.

So I don’t feel that my response to my tubing accident shows that I’m any less saintly than the ‘saints’ portrayed by William James. I am a parent saint – someone who worships God by bringing more love into the world – by loving God and showing loving compassion to those around me.  As James himself concludes after providing his own critique of and support for, saintliness:

Let us be saints, then, if we can, whether or not we succeed visibly and temporally. But in our Father’s house are many mansions, and each of us must discover for himself the kind of religion and amount of saintship which best comports with what he believes to be his powers and feels to be his truest mission and vocation.

And to that I say Amen, and let’s go head off to the parenthood mansion. That’ll be the one where extreme tubing isn’t allowed.

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5 Responses to Selfish Sainthood

  1. Anna D. says:

    Glad you are all safe! I went whitewater rafting once, and it was awesome, but we did go round a rapid the wrong way once, and we all got completely swamped and thrown into the boat, and I swallowed a bunch of water and it freaked. me. out.

    Devil’s advocate about the individual saints: My students always had a really hard time with, e.g., monasticism, because monks secluded themselves from the world rather than going out and helping others, and that was “selfish.” Historically, though, I think there was (at least in some times/places) a sense that individual sacrifice/spirituality was valuable to more than just the individual. First, it provided a model for others to emulate, to inspire and strengthen their spiritual practice. Also, individual saints (and monastic communities) frequently offered prayers for others, so were understood to bring benefit to their entire Christian community. (Very different time/place, and not to say that this is or should be the only way to express sanctity. Just thought I’d throw it out there!)

    • seeingfaith says:

      Hi Anna – sorry for the delayed reply (start of the school year is crazy!). You are making a great point about saintliness in history (I feel lucky to have a medieval history scholar reading my posts!). William James actually makes a similar point to yours. In some sense I guess this kind of a saint was a form of teacher – showing others the spiritual path so they can have greater peace of mind and function more effectively out in the world. That does make sense. What I have a problem with though (and James gives examples of these too) are those whose ‘saintly’ practices basically rendered them incapable of doing anything – writing, teaching, or even really surviving (he shares the story of some ascetics who punished themselves so harshly they almost killed themselves). This seems to me to be pretty useless. Also interestingly, there seems to be a strain in our contemporary culture that continues a form of very self-absorbed spirituality. So I’m responding to that tendency today as well as the historical examples. Glad you were OK white water rafting. I have a friend who did that at Vic Falls in Zimbabwe and almost died – there’s a fine line between thrilling and deadly…

  2. Joan Michie says:

    We all live differently and work out our humanity and relationship with God and the universe in a unique way…that is the beauty of it. Glad you are all well!

  3. news feed says:

    You can certainly see your enthusiasm in the work you write. The sector hopes for more passionate writers like you who aren’t afraid to mention how they believe. At all times follow your heart.

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