Watching the grace and skill of the surfers against the setting sun not only brings great joy but also provides a opportunity for reflection on the spiritual life.
Earlier this month, His Excellency the Most Reverend Clarence "Larry" J. Silva, Bishop of Honolulu, issued a Pastoral Letter to Surfers for this Year of Faith in which he invited surfers to enter more fully into a life of faith.
The text of his pastoral letter follows, with my emphases and comments:
“Mightier than the thunders of many waters, mightier than the waves of the sea, the LORD on high is mighty!” Psalm 93:4 (RSV)
Surfing is a sport of kings that captivates the hearts of the dedicated participant and the spectator alike.
Surfers are unique. Perhaps part of your attraction is your marvel of the sea, so you spend much time in the ocean at beautiful locations.
Captain James Cook captured this attraction in 1777 when he observed a surfer and wrote: “I could not help concluding that this man felt the most supreme pleasure while he was driven on so fast and smoothly by the sea” [that's my thought every time I see them].
Surfers are always trying to get their friends into the waves. The exhilarating feeling they experience cannot be put into words but needs to be experienced. Some see surfing as ‘mystical’ and an experience of the presence of God. The spiritual parallel is eloquently captured by St Thomas Aquinas: “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.”
Just as you search for waves, do not be afraid to search for truth. Do not let the many competing voices cause you to give up on the possibility of discovery. Jesus said “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” [John 14:6] As Pope Benedict XVI encourages: “[T]he happiness you are seeking, the happiness you have a right to enjoy has a name and a face: it is Jesus of Nazareth.” (World Youth Day, Madrid, 2011)
Surfers know the meaning of risk but still have the courage to set out into the mighty waters. For some there is the concern that following Jesus is a big risk. Yet as the Pope goes on to say: "If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation."
A relatively unknown but truly remarkable connection to Christianity is that twenty of the last thirty surfing World Champions have had a secret Christian symbol, the fish, on their boards. In Greek the word for fish is icthos, and this is an acronym for: Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior. Not many other sports can make such a claim and be so connected to the sea.
There is a tendency in surf culture to see surfing as a religion: to settle for creation rather than Creator. Yet the ocean is an “icon of God”. The beauty, awe, and joy you experience should lead on to the Author of the universe: our loving God (Rom 1:19-20). The search for the “sweet spot” on perfect wave is really a search for ultimate happiness, which leads us to God, because nothing else totally satisfies that desire. As St. Augustine put it: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
In what can sometimes be a self-absorbed sport, one of the greatest icons of surfing is Eddie Aikau. He heroically sacrificed his own life in an attempt to save those on the capsized Hokulea by paddling for help to the island of Lanai. As his plaque reads at Waimea Bay: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" [John 15:13]. Eddie, who grew up as an altar boy, is a timely reminder of the noblest of human actions.
Eddie’s heroism happened south of Molokai Island, where St. Damien, affectionately known as the Leper Priest, ministered to those with Hansen’s Disease. We can learn much from this great Saint of Hawaii, a missionary priest who spent 16 years caring for the poorest of the poor before contracting the disease himself. St. Damien is a witness to “authentic love,” modeled by Jesus himself, which is the purpose of human life, the key to lasting marriages, and the path to joy and inner peace that each heart desires.
While there are many redeeming aspects of surf culture, it would be naive to pretend that it did not have a darker side. The polluted waters of drugs, partying, hedonism, and immodesty come readily to mind. As Christian surfers you are called to be the “light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). As unofficial ambassadors of Aloha, I implore you to stand up for truth, for the right to life, and to be the hands and feet of Christ in a world that needs to hear the Good News. Powerful currents want to drown the truth, but you, with the help of God, are called to help us all rise above the waves and move according to God’s plan.
If you have drifted away from living the Catholic faith, remember that our Heavenly Father is waiting with outstretched arms, seeking to heal and transform you through the Sacrament of Penance (John 20:23) and the Eucharist (John 6). A short drive to your local parish is all that it takes to reconcile with God through a sincere confession. Just like surfing, progression in the spiritual life involves commitment and escaping our comfort zone.
To our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who are separated from the Catholic Church: You may be surprised to find that early Christian writings (such as Ignatius, Clement, Irenaeus and the Didache) contain what Catholics believe today. Unity with the Church, which Sacred Scripture describes as the ‘pillar and foundation of the truth’ [1 Timothy 3:15 NAB] is vital in building the Kingdom of God and a culture of life.
May Mary, Star of the Sea and our spiritual mother (John 19:27), be a shining example of faithfulness to God and a sure guide through the stormy waters of our earthly pilgrimage.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Most Reverend Larry Silva
Bishop of Honolulu