(Photo: Stift Heiligenkreuz)
by Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist.
In the garden of my monastery there is a pond, which is meant to serve as a reservoir for the volunteer fire brigade should the monastery ever burn down, and which actually serves as a swimming pond for the monks. This summer (I don’t know why) I have been swimming there more regularly than in the past, and I even got a pair of goggles. They are the first goggles that I have had since I was a child. And boy have goggles improved in the meantime! When I was a child, goggles were small and pressed a painful circle around the eyes. I was on a swim team, and the fashion in the team was to wear what were called “Swedish goggles.” They were the most uncomfortable things imaginable, they had no padded seal at all; the hard plastic pressed directly against the skin. And goggles would inevitably mist up or leak. But these new goggles have none of these defects. They are much larger, with big flatish rubber seals that are amazingly comfortable. And they don’t leak! And they don’t mist! I am very impressed.
I am often critical of technological progress, because of the mentality that it fosters, and because the gains that it brings are almost always connected to losses that outweigh them. In his early work, Letters from Lake Como, Romano Guardini notes how there is a delicate balance in the relation of culture and nature. While all culture involves a certain taming of nature, a certain distancing from its wild power, there are forms of culture which really cultivate and humanize nature without destroying it, forms that work “with the grain” of nature, so to speak. But then there are forms of culture (technology) which don’t. The system of industrial capitalism that the development of such excellent goggles presupposes certainly belongs to the latter form of culture. But the goggles considered just in themselves are a triumphant example of the former. Putting them on, I suddenly remembered why I spent so much time swimming as a child. What a world opens up! Looking down: the still forest of water plants, the rays of the sun lighting up the particles of algae. Looking up: the strange silver shield of the surface with the blazing sun above it. And the freedom of movement of swimming! The rigid postures of life on land yield to the wonderful abandon of the water. (What sense of freedom is that, I wonder).
Goggles give some inkling of communion with the lives of water creatures. There is a wonderful passage in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, when the young Arthur has been turned into a fish. White describes the great circular horizon of the surface above Arthur and the objects above water “fringed with all the colours of the spectrum.”
And, “he could do what men have always wanted to do, that is, fly.” I have long held that there is a natural desire to fly, a desire that is not satisfied by airplanes. “There is practically no difference between flying in the water and flying in the air…he did not have to fly in a machine, by pulling levers and sitting still, but could do it with his own body. It was like the dreams people have.” No wonder I spent so much time swimming as a child. For (on those occasions when they didn’t leak or mist too much) goggles realized that dream.
Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist. is a monk of Stift Heiligenkreuz.
Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist.,
Pictured in his goggles