Saved By George Merrill

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In 1939, I went with my family to see a baseball game at Yankee Stadium. The stadium was huge, expansive and bigger than any public place I’d ever been in. Everything was new to me and seemed so immense and spacious. I wasn’t really thinking much about the game, but more about the expanse of the stadium and also that it was a holiday weekend. That meant no school for three whole days, a thrilling thought for me. Here I was in the Bronx as if I’d been set free from the usual constraints of my daily life on Staten Island.

I felt a rush of liberation, of joy. I can’t remember having the same feeling ever again quite as intensely. The feeling and the moment were indelibly implanted in memory at a time in my life when I can remember little else. In my child’s whimsical mind, had I been translated into another universe where time was not a factor any more in my life? Was this moment of joy to be forever and ever? I wondered if I’d somehow tripped and fallen into a moment of eternal bliss. Yankee Stadium was an unlikely place for such a transcendent moment. I didn’t like baseball that much.

The memory of the incident persisted my whole life although it made no sense to me. I guessed that I’d had a glimpse of something bigger than baseball or being off from school for a few days. But what?

Ideas get sown randomly. We process thousands in a day. Like seeds, some die. Many remain latent; some germinate much later and in unexpected places.

So more than half a century after the Yankee Stadium event, a professional colleague and I happened on the topic of salvation. We were discussing how in Christian circles salvation is popularly understood as the assurance of an afterlife in heaven. Although some hold that it’s a free gift, I suspect more believe that salvation is earned by a life of moral rectitude. I’ve never been wholly easy with that. If it were so, heaven would be as sparsely populated as the Sahara Desert. I’ve suspected that the fundamentals of salvation are more of a living dynamic, something happening in the moment, rather than the site of a future residence.

My colleague, more biblically informed than I am, mentioned one of the earliest historical understandings of the word salvation. The word describes an experience. The experience is almost wholly universal and can be put like this: I’m in a tight place. I’m hemmed in, but am being released into a wide-open and spacious place. To say this in another way, experiences of salvation are common to the religious and irreligious alike because they are one of the spiritual dynamics inherent in our daily lives. It’s a process experienced in the now and not a place we go in the future. Who among us hasn’t been jammed up and hemmed in, one way or another, and then sought to break out into the open? When it happens, it’s a powerful moment. Some call it ‘moments of grace.’

The nature of salvation is not only a preoccupation of theologians or philosophers. It’s a living drama that plays out daily in our personal and social lives.

Addictions are one example. Individuals recovering from addictions are in a process of going from a tight and constricting place to free and open spaces. It’s a spiritual process. For the addicted, this is a daily – if not an hourly – issue. It happens one step at a time. It’s all about ‘now.’ For such persons, awareness must be constantly cultivated in order not to be trapped again in those dead-ends to which addiction invariably leads. There is a profound sense of gratitude a recovering person feels in knowing from personal experience how precious those wide open spaces are and being able to freely live in them. It brings happiness to everyone.

I recently watched a TV clip on the aftermath of an earthquake. A large crowd watched as one man worked to free a child who’d been trapped. As the man lifted the child into the hands of the crowd everyone cheered, clapped and threw hands into the air in jubilation. It was as if the rescued child were one of their own. It’s a joyful occasion witnessing those who are trapped become freed and led into the wide open.

Salvation has social implications as well. The ramifications are playing themselves out dramatically in today’s immigration crisis. It’s painful to see.

Governments grow increasingly hesitant to grant space for immigrants fleeing the tight and constricting places in which they find themselves imprisoned. For wealthy countries that have both the resources and the spaces to create possibilities, the fear of the stranger inhibits action. We in the Western World, who have the resources to “save” scores of immigrants, lack the will and the vision to do it. It raises a question – if one subscribes to salvation’s old “saved or damned” typology – of who then is damned in this immigration tragedy? Is it those who inhabit the open and spacious environs or those confined to tight constricting places?

Admittedly these reflections are a long way from a day at Yankee Stadium in 1939, when, for a moment, I sensed there was a world right here filled with joy and endless possibilities. To find what we’re looking for – the wide-open spaces where the heart yearns to dwell – we first have to know they exist. A ball game may seem like a strange place to become spiritually aware. But then, even in baseball, finding your way home safely is the name of the game.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

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Letters to Editor

  1. James Scott says:

    Very interesting. However, when the article began I thought he was there when Lou Gerhig was “the luckiest man on the face of the earth”.

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