This is the scene we have been treasuring for almost three years, the poolside of the American Can apartments in Mid-city New Orleans where we moved just after my wife’s cancer treatments began. We spent a month going through all the trashed out apartments we could find near our jobs, and finally decided we needed some beauty around us for the prolonged purgatory called cancer treatment. With those days behind us we still find pleasure in sitting in this beauty and looking down on it from our fourth story apartment windows.
Lately I have begun to take up morning swims for exercise, since my yoga practice isn’t exactly exercise. Three times a week I spend about 45 minutes gently moving through relaxing poses from hatha yoga. It’s good for relaxation, cultivating a sense of sacredness, and staying a little more limber. But it really isn’t exercise.
Gliding through ten laps in the pool, which means thrusting an almost 59 year-old body through the water, is actual exercise. I pause after every two laps to breathe heavily for a minute before starting again, so it isn’t quite like running a marathon. But for this old guy it gets the heart pumping.
In the last few weeks I have begun to notice my own hands slipping through the water, and to watch the beautiful summer blue skies reflected on the water’s surface, as I stroke from end to end. Sometimes this is helping me be mindful, aware I am in that moment, and sometimes I taste gratitude that right then I have the exceptional gift to be in cool blue water for a few minutes. My gratefulness points toward God. I am grateful that we have been able to afford such luxury for a few years now, and even grateful for the very moment of being present. This is so much more enriching than just getting some exercise. So does it sound silly that seeing one’s own hands gliding through blue water could become holy?
Contemplative swimming is becoming a new way for me to practice the presence of God, even if that might seem weird to others. There are so many ways! And contemplatives are always on the lookout for the next moment in which we can sense a bit of presence. This is a part of the mystic’s path I love: finding a simple presence in a life-giving way.
No, I don’t like the challenge of setting aside time to practice stillness each day. And no I don’t like a lot of the things which come bubbling up from my psyche during prolonged periods of stillness. But walking a contemplative path is worth those trials. This path is really a call to take the hard stuff with the easy stuff and let God handle all of it. In fact, even going into my own dark side and seeing the worst of me is worth it. For as my spiritual director, Sister Jane, reminds me, it is all in God’s hands anyway. My job is just to remember to turn it over again and again.
So, dear God, today I give you my tendency to numb my own feelings with too many hours of Netflix shows, and my secret wish to just feel peaceful all the time, and my hope that everyone I meet will think I am the greatest guy ever, and my inadequate attempts to love my wife well. I also give you my heart, and my gratitude for the many ways I get to experience your presence in a day, including contemplative swimming.
For more stories like this see Monks in the World: Seeking God in a Frantic Culture, available on Kindle books, and watch for the book I hope to publish next, The Gate of Heaven Is Everywhere.