In the summer after my freshman year in college, I took a boat with a friend to a barrier island off the coast of Long Island, and we went swimming in the Atlantic. There was a riptide that quickly drew me several hundred yards out to sea. My friend, who had been able to get back to shore, knelt down on the beach to pray for me. He was an “Evangelical Christian,” and I was (then) an atheist. Out of fear that I would go to hell if I died, he prayed for God to save me.
And that is what happened. It was a deserted beach, miles from roads and structures. We had taken a boat to get there. People familiar with the area from fishing boats said things like: in twenty years they had never seen anyone on that beach. But immediately after my friend prayed, three men in black bathing suits came walking along the beach. My friend frantically pointed me out, a spot against the sea in the distance. One of them calmly got in the water, swam out to me, and, placing his elbow under my chin (against the riptide!), towed me lifeguard-style back to shore.
When I was out there exhausted, starting to fail, I had the thought, I am going to die; I ought to pray. But I rejected that idea out of an atheist’s feeling of hypocrisy – praying just then and only then. That resolution was foolish, to be sure. But it had this good upshot: in retrospect, there could be no gainsaying that I did absolutely nothing that led to my rescue. My sole contribution was, once the rescue was underway, to cease struggling, remain peaceful, and allow myself to be towed.
The fellow who saved me dropped me at first in two feet of water. I was still going to drown there, because I had no strength to drag myself out of the water or even prop myself up. He stood over me for what seemed a long time, looking down (as I thought, with contempt). And, finally, he dragged me up onto the dry sand. He and his mates then simply walked away, without so much as exchanging a greeting.
What I am telling you is true: I witnessed it. That is why I can say, “my eyes have seen God’s salvation” – whether or not my rescuer with apparently superhuman strength was an angel, as many who have heard this story believe.
That day I was saved simply from drowning in the sea, by a man or an angel. But as we know that sort of salvation is meant to be a picture of true salvation, from sin and death, by the Son of God. “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men,” Jesus said.
We should remember that men don’t belong in the sea. As Pope Benedict commented in the homily at his installation Mass:
for a fish, created for water, it is fatal to be taken out of the sea, to be removed from its vital element to serve as human food. But in the mission of a fisher of men, the reverse is true. We are living in alienation, in the salt waters of suffering and death; in a sea of darkness without light. The net of the Gospel pulls us out of the waters of death and brings us into the splendor of God’s light, into true life.
The early Christians felt keenly that they had been, as it were, fished out of the sea by the Lord. To proclaim this fact, but also to cloak it from the Romans, they used an acrostic of the Greek word for fish, icthys (ΙΧΘΥΣ), which stood for the profession, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” Much like that fellow who swam out into the deep to draw me out of the sea, so, as Tertullian said, Jesus made himself as if a great fish to save us little fishes.
It’s easy to fail to see some big truths about the concept of salvation. Salvation is something done by one person to another; the savior “rescues,” which involves a translation from one “place” to another.
Thus, salvation, correctly viewed, is entirely different from self-improvement, cultivation, growth, self-actualization, fulfillment, or even healing. All of these involve some remediation of a deficiency in a person. To educate is to combat ignorance. To heal is to cure disease. But salvation is an act upon a person – it is not a matter of removing the evil from him, but of removing him from the evil.
Last year the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a letter to the bishops of the Church on salvation, Placuit Deo, which raised concerns about how the meaning of salvation gets distorted in the contemporary world. We fall prey to a “neo-Pelagianism”, which holds that we save ourselves by our own efforts, and a “neo-Gnosticism,” which holds that salvation is a purely internal feeling of change. The letter seems to take for granted that we all have a concept of salvation and then corrects distortions in that concept.
But I wonder if the more fundamental problem is that we Catholics do not think of our religion as involving salvation in the strict sense at all. Our evangelization, it seems, does not take as its starting point that humankind generally, but for Our Savior, is captured by sin, ignorance, and death. Even Placuit Deo presents Christian salvation as an answer to the quest for happiness (“Every person, in his or her own way, searches for happiness and attempts to obtain it by making recourse to the resources one has available”), rather than rescue from dire evils.
Here’s a sign that we don’t sufficiently grasp our religion as salvation: someone who has been rescued never ceases to give thanks. But we do not flock to the Eucharist (lit. “thanksgiving”) to express our gratitude, unceasingly.
*Image: Christ Rescuing Peter from Drowning by Lorenzo Veneziano, 1370 [Staatliche Museen, Berlin]