You're the Queen of the slipstream with eyes that shine
You have crossed many waters to be here
Van Morrison

A friend arranged for my whole crew to spend some time in her family’s cottage at Lake Michigan – what a treat! Almost like an overnight at the ocean, but without the cross-country drive.

After arriving and unpacking the van, it was high noon and a bit risky for my fair skinned brood to hit the beach. Still, Katharine (my nine-year-old) and I couldn’t wait, and so we decided to put on caps and sunscreen to go explore.

We walked down the hill from the cottage toward the lake and spied a wooden staircase. The sandy steps were the first clue that we’d located the beach, but there was also a more somber indication: a big warning sign about a deadly phenomenon all too often in the news around here. “Rip Currents!” the sign said. “Break the Grip of the Rip! If caught in a rip current: Don’t fight. Swim out of the current, then to shore.”

Rip currents are dangerous, deceptive, and complicated, involving interactions between waves, water levels, underwater contours, and other factors. The sign on those beach steps included a diagram showing a swimmer being pulled away from the beach by the rip, and then arrows designating where he’d have to swim in order to be free from the current: parallel to the shore, never directly against the current – which is what our intuition would tell us. You feel yourself being tugged away from shore? Adrenalin and panic prompt you to start desperately swimming against the tug. Unfortunately, this almost never works – the current is too strong. The frantic swimmer simply loses strength and succumbs to the water.

It occurred to me that temptation is deceptive in that way. We go to Confession, make a good Act of Contrition, and “firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more and avoid the near occasion of sin.” Then we return to our day-to-day routine – now extra vigilant! Watching for those behavioral near misses and moral potholes that normally trip us up, we assure ourselves that we’re on high alert. Maybe we get a bit cocky – “I got this,” we smugly purr – and when a temptation nudges up against our weak spot, we might be inclined to escape it by our own strength.

Yet, too often, we get pulled under. The undertow of our fallen nature engulfs our human efforts to be good. “Some try to run away from all temptations,” writes Fr. Anthony Paone, “and still they go on falling into sin. Flight alone will not conquer all temptations.” Instead, Fr. Paone advises indirect resistance – like breaking free from the deadly currents of sin through lateral interior movement. “When you cannot avoid them, meet them with patience rather than anxiety or thoughtless severity,” Paone recommends. When pulled by temptation, I should stay calm, honestly accept my weakness, and abandon myself to grace – and a clearheaded resolve will emerge. “Then with a definite plan in mind, I can proceed against my faults and conquer my temptations.”

Of course, it’s better to bypass the rip currents of temptation as much as possible, and that’s facilitated by a different kind of fluid force that we encounter in the spiritual life: the Communion of the Saints, which acts like a supernatural slipstream of faith. It’s a great “cloud of witnesses” comprising countless men and women, Mary chief among them, and they pull us along in their holy wake toward heaven, expediting our own sanctification through their patterns, prayers, and friendship. "It is not merely by the title of example that we cherish the memory of those in heaven,” reads the Catechism, quoting Lumen Gentium. “We seek, rather, that by this devotion to the exercise of fraternal charity the union of the whole Church in the Spirit may be strengthened.” In other words, we hobnob with Mary and the saints because doing so “joins us to Christ” (CCC 957).

I can think of no better example of this phenomenon than Hermannus Contractus – “Herman the Lame” in English – the medieval monk and polymath. From his earliest years, he suffered severe deformities and physical ailments, although his mind was fully functional – strikingly similar to what we now call Lou Gehrig’s disease. Herman was incapable of independent movement – a special chair had to be constructed for him which allowed others to carry him about. What’s more, Herman’s speech was very limited, and later in life he lost his eyesight. At the age of seven, Herman became a ward of the island Abbey of Reichenau in Germany’s Lake Constance, and it’s there that he spent the rest of his life.

Now, if that had been me, I imagine I would’ve rebelled against my fate. The rip currents of pride and bitter resentment would’ve probably drawn me in, and whatever composure I might’ve assembled with regards to accepting my lot in life would’ve been swamped by a human anguish as destructive as it would’ve been understandable.

This was not the case with Herman. Somehow, he triumphed over his infirmities and refused to give in to self-pity. Intellectually, for example, Herman couldn’t be matched. After taking vows in 1043, the disabled monk threw himself into every field of study available at the time – theology, history, mathematics, astronomy, computistics, not to mention poetry and multiple languages – and his contributions in all these areas are still referenced to this day. “Hermann was one of the most important scholars of the 11th century,” notes Jürgen Hamel. His “fame reached well beyond the monastery’s walls” and “his students often came from far away to learn from his wisdom.” These accomplishments would’ve been remarkable for any human being, but they’re all the more so given Herman’s numerous physical handicaps.

How’d he do it?

We get a clue from one more area of endeavor in which Herman excelled: music. He created instruments and wrote about music theory, and he is probably most acclaimed for being associated with the Sequence and any number of hymns, including the Salve Regina and the Alma Redemptoris Mater. Both of these exquisite Marian antiphons give us potent insight into Herman’s secret of success: Instead of scrabbling against the pull of discouragement, he recognized our Lady’s sublime updraft and surrendered himself to it. “Loving mother of the Redeemer, gate of heaven, star of the sea,” we pray in Herman’s Alma, and in his Salve, “Our life, our sweetness, and our hope.” Both hymns speak to our sinking down – “poor banished children of Eve,” the Salve has it, who “send up our sighs” from a “valley of tears.” Then, in the Alma, we ask Mary to “assist your people who have fallen yet strive to rise again.”

And how does Mary assist us? Simply through her gaze“Turn, then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us” – and as we gaze back, she deflects our gaze to Jesus. The Queen of Angels gets our attention off ourselves, and then turns our attention to him who can save us – the one who indeed saved her.

It’s an indirect action – like a swim parallel to shore, or better yet a release to a heavenly current – and it must’ve panned out for Herman: The monk who gave us those great Marian prayers developed a local following after his death in 1054, and his reputation for holiness was ratified by Pope Pius IX in 1863.

“O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary,” the humble Herman intoned. Let’s join him in making that our trajectory as well.