Fr Donald Calloway on why wave-riders call the beach their ‘church’

Who consistently wakes up at 4.30am every morning and does the same thing year after year, decade after decade? The answer: monks and surfers. Surfing isn’t a religion, but for many surfers I know it comes pretty close. I’ve been surfing most of my life, and as a Catholic priest I see major similarities between surfing and Christianity.

In a certain sense, surfing has a spiritual dimension to it. Surfing takes a person into another element (water), and into a realm that requires trust. It actually does feel supernatural to walk on water. For both surfing and Christianity, water is a symbol of re-birth and new life. In their respective holy waters, surfers and Christians experience moments of joy, also called “stoke”, as well as moments of suffering (the Cross and the wipeout). These moments are not defeats, but passages to resurrection. Needless to say, the analogies between surfing and Christianity are almost without limit.

With the recent announcement from the Archdiocese of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil that Guido Schäffer, a seminarian who was an avid surfer, is being considered for beatification, it seems a fitting time to reflect upon the similarities between surfing and our faith. After all, no surfer today who surfs in cold water would be able to ride the waves were it not for the fact that synthetic rubber and neoprene, which all modern wetsuits are made of, were invented by a Catholic priest, Fr Julius Nieuwland. In the early 20th century, working in his chemistry laboratory at the University of Notre Dame, I’m sure Fr Julius never once thought about surfing, but almost all surfers today are indebted to him. And, in a certain sense, all surfers, whatever they believe in, are indebted to the Creator of the waves.

Obviously, the founder of Christianity, Jesus Christ, was not a surfer. But that matters little because, as God, He is the Creator of the oceans and their waves. He is the ultimate surfer because He doesn’t require a board to walk on water. In this sense, every follower of Christ is a potential surfer because it is the Christian’s God who made the ocean to serve as an analogy for the eternal stoke and joy we will experience in paradise where there truly are no bad days. On the other hand, every surfer is a potential Christian because every surfer seeks something more: the next wave, the ultimate ride. Many of the surfers I know are not Christians or, if they are, they are mediocre. Yet, ironically, all surfers, from beginners to pros, refer to the beach and their local break as their “church”. Trust me, some of these individuals are extremely devout in the practice of their daily ritual. They all want the experience of being in the barrel, the “green cathedral,” as it is commonly called.

Surfers live for stoke and can never get enough of it. They would stay at the beach and in the water all day if they could. As one of them, I know firsthand that there is nothing like riding glassy, long waves with barrel sections, feeling the freedom that comes from being away from the responsibilities that are on land. Hardcore surfers structure their whole lives around surfing. They intentionally seek careers that allow them to be offshore every morning until 9 am. They plan their annual holiday around swell charts and storms, saving up for epic surf trips to Indonesia, Hawaii and Costa Rica. Christians could learn a lot from the zeal of surfers. And surfers can learn a lot from Christians, too.

In 2013, the bishop of Honolulu, in Hawaii, wrote a very personal, heartfelt pastoral letter to surfers. He said: “There is a tendency in surf culture to see surfing as a religion, to settle for creation rather than Creator. Yet the ocean is an ‘icon of God’. The beauty, awe, and joy you experience should lead on to the Author of the universe: our loving God (Rom 1:19-20). The search for the ‘sweet spot’ on the perfect wave is really a search for ultimate happiness, which leads us to God, because nothing else totally satisfies that desire. As St Augustine put it: ‘You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.’”

The bishop’s words are wise and correct. As a Catholic priest who surfs, it would be my greatest desire to “surf in God” for all eternity. I love waves and could ride them forever, but to be able to experience the ultimate stoke of “surfing in God” for all eternity would be the most epic ride of all!

So, with the potential that the Church might have a future patron saint of surfing in the servant of God Guido Schäffer, don’t be afraid to cast out into the deep with God. The next time you’re at the beach, grab a board and become a little child again. And the next time you pass a Catholic church, stop in and thank the Maker of the waves. The ocean of God’s love and the shores of paradise await us.

Fr Donald Calloway mic lives in Steubenville, Ohio. To read about his surfing adventures around the world, visit his website and pick up his books No Turning Back: A Witness to Mercy and Under the Mantle: Marian Thoughts from a 21st-Century Priest (both published by Marian Press)