By Bishop Robert O’Neill
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting…” — Acts 2:1–2
Every summer of my childhood was spent in the northern reaches of Lake Huron on a spectacular body of water known as Georgian Bay. No radio, no TV, no internet — just the islands and the water and the weather. That was where I learned how to sail.
Sailing is a curious enterprise — learning how to catch the wind while never actually containing it — just capturing it and moving with it. It is all about positioning, about being oriented to, and being balanced with, natural forces.
My cousin Jim was a master. He would pull the boat close into the wind just to make it exciting — tightening the main sail, standing the boat on edge, leaning back over the high side and holding it there in a delicate balance with the water racing below along the gunwale just screaming along.
Learning to sail requires both knowledge and practice. It’s easy to let out the sails and run with the wind, but turn upwind too quickly and you will have the experience of capsizing in a spectacular fashion. Tacking into the wind allows you to move against it, but pull too close and the sails will flap helplessly as all movement ceases. Fall off the wind too quickly, and once again you will likely take a cold bath.
Sailing is all about relationship and angles and the balancing of the tension between the keel, the mast, the stays, the sails, and the wind.
The wind, of course, is the wild card. As Jesus says, it just “blows where it chooses” and does what it wills. A gentle breeze can be like a consoling friend, just caressing the sails and making for a leisurely cruise. Or the wind can disappear without so much as a word of explanation, and there you are with the sun beating down and the water as glassy as a mirror and you going nowhere. Or the wind can become an overwhelming force, stirring up waves and water, an overpowering threat, a stark reminder of human insignificance and mortality.
That’s just how it works.
It does require study and practice, but over time sailing becomes increasingly instinctive and natural. And when all the forces do work together — when the sails and the mast and the stays and the keel and you come together in alignment with the wind — there is that near mystical experience of moving through the water as one.
One thing is certain: If you don’t get off the land and into the boat, if you don’t set off from shore, if you’re not willing to take the risk of getting wet and dunked in the water, you will never be able to move.
And so it is with the spiritual journey.
It is all about orienting our hearts (the core of our being) and positioning ourselves (our minds, our bodies, our souls, our consciousness) in such a way that we learn to move with the living spirit of the living God. Spiritual practice is about learning increasingly to move with that divine love that is always breathing within us and around us and through us, breathing life into all of us, breathing healing into a suffering world, breathing hope into a world that needs desperately to learn also how to move as one with that same breath of divine love.
The good news is that this way of love can be learned, and it is our life’s work to do so. Nothing is more worthy of our time, our care, our thought, and our best effort. It will set us free.
Just look at the words of the Baptismal Covenant on page 304 of The Book of Common Prayer. These commitments have everything to do with how we can choose to become fully alive and fully human by orienting our hearts and minds and bodies in a particular way — not just toward God but toward ourselves and all others and even all of creation.
We say in these commitments that we will invest ourselves in and be grounded in the Source of all life in an intimate, dynamic, and living relationship with the living God — that divine dance of unbounded love, as Richard Rohr might say, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
We say that we will take time to be people of prayer — that we will make time to be still, to be quiet, and to listen deeply for the voice of love speaking into our hearts. We say too that we will be intentional about drawing upon the wisdom of those who have gone before — that we will actually take time to learn from, and be inspired by, the mystics and scholars and monks and nuns and artists and activists whose work from across the centuries can illuminate our own path and give vision to our own lives.
We say that we will draw upon, and remain connected to, the grace that is made manifest and visible in the sacramental life of this extended community that we call the Church, the living Body of the living Christ here and now.
We say that we will proclaim love, in word and deed, that we will make love manifest concretely in our lives and actions in this world that longs to know what true love made human actually looks like.
We say that we will seek and serve the love that is the risen Christ not just in a select few individuals but in all people — and yes, that means all people, regardless of race, culture, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, tribe, religion, or political affiliation — even those we fear; even our enemies.
We say that we will actively and proactively give our time and our treasure to work for that which is right and true and just in this world — that we will choose courageously to be peacemakers in this world that knows no peace.
We say finally that we will dare to open the eyes of our hearts wide and that we will look for, recognize, respect, and cherish the divine dignity that is implanted from birth in every human being on the face of the earth.
It’s a tall order, this spiritual journey — this living into the commitments of our faith — and none of us can really do this on our own.
But then again, there is this: the wind — the breathing, moving, liberating, empowering, challenging living spirit of the living God — always blowing through us and around us and in us and among us all, just waiting to be captured, to fill our sails and carry us into the heart of Life itself.
This wind, this divine breath of divine love, this learning how to orient ourselves to it, how to catch it and move with it, constitutes, it would seem, the most promising challenge of our lives.