On my first flight to Italy as a fully fledged adult—I am not sure as to what age I was precisely, but it had been over a decade since I had traveled to Italy since my college days—I was seated near the back of the plane, in one of those seats nearest the bathroom. I thus couldn’t cause my seat to recline, and, as I was in a window seat, it was hard to access the bathroom, even when it was so close by.
But as it turned out, I didn’t need to cause the seat to recline, for there was an abundance of that fairly standard event in airplane travel, turbulence—so much I couldn’t have slept even if I had wanted to. Now I fly all the time to gather information for my work, as I am a writer who painstakingly researches my novels, which is why I don’t produce them at a rabbit’s pace. And as a literal frequent flyer, I can say that while turbulence is not rare, severe turbulence—the kind where you think this flight might just be your last—is very rare indeed. In fact, I have had only two frightening moments when flying, one involving turbulence, the other when the hydraulic system of the aircraft failed. My non-reclining seat was on the first of these, the turbulent ride.
There isn’t much, as a passenger you can do to counteract turbulence. You can drink the rest of your coffee quickly before it spills. You can tighten your seatbelt. You can hold the hand of the person next to you. You can pray. That’s about it. And, of course, I did some of these—I didn’t hold the hand of the dude next to me; seemed inappropriate. But had he been a little old lady, I might well have. I especially did the last of them, that is pray. Why?
Well, because an old verse of Scripture explains what faith is, and faith is what you do when you pray. I know that may sound weird, but when you pray, you participate in the invisible. And that’s where turbulence pertains to this discussion. It’s about invisibility, invisibility connected to prayer. How? Well, an old verse says that faith is being certain of what you hope for and certain of what you cannot see. And prayer obviously involves faith.
Now how can you be sure of what you cannot see? That’s where the turbulence I encountered on that long flight from JFK to Rome comes in. The plane would not once or twice, but quite frequently suddenly drop. I mean a long, long way. Sometimes it felt that we were in a free fall of sorts, and I could see from my unique position of the back of the plane the nose of the plane twist to the left or the right during one of these long—spanning several seconds—free falls. At one point the plane pitched forward. People were screaming. And then, bang—and I mean BANG!—the plane would hit another air pocket, and slowdown. You see, when the plane is in a vacuum, it falls like a dead weight. In my case, it dropped and dropped until it hit another unseen, unseen but entirely real thing—air—could catch it.
When the plane was in the vacuum it was all by itself, seeking something to fill the vacuum, something unseen but real. I can tell you that air is definitely real, not simply from having studied physics and other sciences, but actually from dropping several thousand feet until something entirely unseen, but nonetheless very welcome at that moment—filled up the very real void in my life: in that case air. But in the rest of my life, I think my air is something called faith—not religion, but faith. I hate it when someone says I’m religious, for I am not. I know full well how truly irreligious I am. But when someone says I’m faithful—to my friends, to my employer, to my wife and children—well, even though I know I come up short to all of them in true faithfulness, I am glad that at least some glimmer of the faith God gave me as a free gift comes through. It wasn’t religion or religious fervor or religiosity that caught my plane when it was in a free fall. It was, rather, air, and air is like faith. It fills the emptiness, the loneliness that not even the perfect boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse, even the perfect looking person—a Cary Grant, a Hugh Grant, Richard E. Grant or Amy Grant—can fill, though granted they’re all fine looking, and probably rather fine people! But the real filling of the real void—well, that takes air. And without it, your plane can go into a swift and scary fall.
Left: Hugh Grant
Right: H.J. Jakes, imitating a bobcat; in those days (well over a decade ago now) someone told him he looked a bit like Hugh Grant)
So what is faith? It may not be a perfect analogy, but I think it is more or less believing in air. I was doing that very thing when my plane was falling. And I was deeply grateful for that air. For it is faith, and it is also the air I breathe. Open this for a glimpse of that unseen thing, air: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4gs_qlCWrPk