BY JOHN RYAN
New experiences beyond the age of 70 that impact significantly on one’s life are rare.
I often think about experiences that might provide me with a deeper understanding of my faith. Flying in a glider was one such experience but until a few years ago I had never done so. Then fortuitously I found myself in Victoria at the Benalla airfield preparing to fulfill a long delayed ambition.
Before I was securely strapped in, having signed the necessary papers agreeing to take the obvious risks, the pilot once more reminded me of those risks with the rather solemn question ‘are you sure that this is what you want to do?’ I dared not think again as I answered quite automatically and watched the tow plane take up its position in front of me. [I was in the front seat from where the vision was unbelievable.]
The towrope was connected and we were underway, being pulled up to about five hundred meters or fifteen hundred feet. At that point the pilot whose name was also John taped me on the shoulder and instructed me to pull the yellow lever which disengaged the rope and suddenly we were all alone drifting in space.
The feeling of being up there and all alone was powerful, no engines, no ropes, no nothing, relying solely on unseen elements to keep us aloft. Surrending to those elements was a real act of faith especially knowing that if they were to stop acting the fall would be a great one!
Clearly I was feeling more alone and vulnerable than normal and more alone than ever before in an aeroplane.
This awareness led me to recall and appreciate how we are launched into life and set into orbit by first being pulled alone by others.
Of course, there is the umbilical cord but over and beyond that there are numerous ties that we rely on for our education and nurture; but there always comes the moment when we are challenged to cut free and take responsibility for our own journey.
The experience of being launched into invisible air, relying in hop on the promise that it could sustain us, was a clear reminder for me of faith. In our early years we are sustained and indeed exist within the faith of our parents and the communities to which we belong.
But then, for most of us, there comes the day when mature faith brings a call to launch ourselves into the unknown where we see nothing but confidently trust in the promise that there is something there to support us and lead us to a richer life.
I was fascinated to know how John knew when it was time for us to disengage the rope that connected us to the towing airplane. When I quizzed him, he reminded me of a couple of instruments he had explained to me during the brief introduction to the glider before take off.
These instruments are called Vario Meters and they register upward thrusts and sink movements in the surrounding air. He said that once we were at a reasonable height and he had registered good lift it was appropriate for us to cut free and fly on our own.
Those Vario Meters became significant for me during the light and they have taken on a highly symbolic spiritual meaning for me subsequently. Let me explain.
Within that vast invisible space that we were immersed in there were both up drafts and down drafts.
The up drafts would not only hold us up, they would also give us height to move forward and explore further.
The down drafts, significantly called “sink” would pull us down with energy over and above the force of gravity. To be able to identify and distinguish the up movements from the down ones was critical and while the Vario instrument was useful, surely this was a special skill that any glider pilot would need to have.
All of this easily became another powerful parable for me of the spiritual life.
There we are being constantly challenged to move into realms where we are subject to both upward and downward forces that are often described as good and bad spirits. Such spirits, like the drafts of air surrounding glider, can look very much the same to the untrained eye.
While we too have our equivalent to the Vario instrument in terms of teaching and guidelines there is the need to develop those personal skills of consciencethatallow us to sort the good impulses from the bad ones.
Whenit came time to land it was important that when we came down to a critical height we were near enough to the airfield to make it home. Surely another parable for the spiritual life.
In other words, don’t wander into dangerous territory without being virtuous enough to deal with the inherent challenges.
Years ago I read a very good book on the spiritual life titled Riding the Wind; it was all about living in the Holy Spirit.
My experience in the glider took what I had learned from that book to a whole new level. I think that one of my firm resolutions is to try to do more gliding, perhaps not with the Victorian Gliding Club, but in my life in general, trying to move more freely in and with the Spirit who bears us up on the breath of dawn and holds us in the palm of his hand.
Fr John Ryan, a Sandhurst Diocese priest who lives in Canberra, has spent much of his 49 years of ministry working in renewal projects, especially with priests.
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