As the latest swimmer to join the Master’s Swim sessions held Monday through Thursday, I’ve come a long way in eight weeks of early morning freestyle. My stroke is stronger and my kick a bit better. Yet I’ve still got a long ways to go.
Getting better at a sport is a little like spending time in purgatory. I’m not Catholic, but the pool where I swim is owned by a Catholic military school called Marmion Academy. So one has to figure there’s a little purgatory going on at a place like that. Don’t know what purgatory actually is? You’ve heard the word, but still kind of wonder what it’s all about?
Purgatory: a state after death according to Roman Catholic belief in which the souls of people who die are made pure through suffering before going to heaven.
It’s that not a uniquely Catholic invention of theology, nothing is.
And while swimming this morning, I got to thinking about what a place like purgatory must be like.
It’s not quite hell, so there would be no hell-fire to burn you up. But what would God perhaps introduce as a place to suffer instead? And it dawned on me: water.
See, God has a vicious sense of humor about all such things. He once reputedly made a bet with the Devil to see how much suffering a poor soul like Job could take. Job’s friends watched him lose all his wealth and then wallow around in sackcloth in the dust with sores festering his body.
Meanwhile, God and Satan sat back playing an early version of Fantasy Football to see what kind of statistics old Job would kick out by the end of the game, or the end game, whichever came first.
And sure enough, Job turned out to be the longest-suffering soul of all. He remained devoted to God despite the fact that God let like kick Job right in the ass.
So God restored Job to all his former glory. He got the house back. He got the job back. He got his animals back. It was like playing a country music song in reverse, for God’s sake.
That Book of Job is likely where the Catholics got the idea for the concept of purgatory. Either that, or they just made the whole thing up from whole cloth because that’s kind of what Catholics do. If there’s not enough layers of religion to go around, the Pope waves his hand and the Bishops install another bunch of rules or confessions to accomplish, and people are happy.
It’s a well-known fact that Catholics are not happy unless they’re unhappy. Which makes them the happiest unhappy people of all. Because once a week or so they walk through the doors of the church for absolution and things are made right again with the world. You might call it Job Lite.
So let’s be honest, Catholics never figured that getting to heaven was going to be as easy as saying they love God and leaving it at that. No way. So purgatory was invented for those underachievers who know they screwed up in life and can’t imagine God would take them the way they are. Of course, Lutherans like me figure they can wave their hand and say I CLAIM GRACE! really loud, like we’re calling the Shotgun in a pickup truck, and that will get us into heaven.
But there’s a little Catholic in every Christian, they say. So that’s a little how I feel when showing up at swim each week. I’m like a creature in purgatory. My body is starting to show signs that I could be a swimming athlete. And at least the coaches no longer have to retreat to the supply room and snigger into their collars from watching me flail up and down the pool like a drugged up carp. I caught them doing that several times. “Okay, Chris Colburn…I see you in there. Come out now and stop wetting your pants on my account!”
I’m just kidding. Chris Colburn would never actually do anything like that. The guy gets up at 4:00 in the morning every day along with his faithful cohort Tim to coach the Academy Bullets. The two of them make up workouts and write them on the whiteboards at both ends of the pools so that we only have to squint a little bit to read them.
Tim event digs up all the birthdays of famous people in the world, and facts about what happened in this day in history. That way, if you arrive at the pool without a thought in your head, which is common, you can at least dwell on some arcane tidbit such as “On this day in 1836, Mark Twain farted in a public pool.”
Or something of that order.
I just find my lane and slowly creeeep into the water while the big guy who also spends time in purgatory pounds his way up and down the pool using every swimming implement known to the human race. He’s a nice guy however, so I don’t mind spending time in purgatory with him.
My hope is that some day, when I’m fit and faster, I’ll be able to keep up with all the people in Swimmer’s Heaven. Those are the middle lanes, where they really know how to suffer.
So you see, spending time in purgatory isn’t all that bad. Because as you’ll soon enough learn when you get to heaven, God doesn’t go easy on the angels either.