I will walk before the Lord, in the land of the living (Ps. 116:9).
One night, I dreamed that I was sitting on the beach, people-watching. Children were digging in the sand, some building sandcastles and some burying each other. Adults stretched out on towels, some watching children and others working on their tans. Dogs ran in the surf, trying to catch seagulls. Swimmers and surfers jockeyed for position in the waves while lifeguards kept watch from tall platforms overlooking the water. A pickup game of beach volleyball was just getting started.
Everyone seemed to be having fun. Kids squealed, adults ribbed each other, dogs barked. One and all, even the animals, seemed to have someone with whom to enjoy the day.
“Why don’t you get out there and join them, instead of sitting here alone?” a Voice asked from behind me.
I didn’t bother to look over my shoulder. “Doing what, Lord? I know it has been awhile since you’ve been to the beach, but in this day and age, you can’t just walk up to people in public and crash their good time.
“Shall I go ask to play in the sand with the children? Their parents won’t appreciate it if a strange middle-aged woman approaches their kids and asks to help them build sandcastles. Or perhaps I should lay out a towel beside the women in bikinis and sunbathe? I’ll either end up burnt to a crisp or someone will think my fat, white butt needs to be rolled back into the ocean.”
“You could go in the water.”
I snorted. “Remember the time when I was twelve years old, at that family reunion out at the lake? My younger brother and I had barely gone in waist deep, but we nearly drowned when we kept losing our footing and pulling each other under the water.”
“Mm, yes,” the Lord responded. “I seem to remember sending one of the moms over to walk the two of you back to shore.”
“Right, and thanks. Where were you when our parents shrugged off the near drowning of two of their three children and our aunt and uncle refused to chastise their teenage daughter—a girl who worked summers as a lifeguard, who abandoned two children she knew couldn’t swim, so she could go sunbathe on a dock with her friends?”
“Are you still bitter about that?” the Lord asked.
“Damn straight.” Then I sighed. “Well, only when I happen to remember how I ended up with a phobia of deep water.”
“Okay, then what about joining the beach volleyball game? You liked volleyball in high school.”
“I was also a hundred pounds lighter and had stronger ankles.”
The Lord’s voice was beginning to sound impatient. “Surely you’ve had fun at a beach before. You’ve lived in a popular oceanside resort city your entire life.”
“There were a few times,” I whispered, watching the waves, still not turning around to look at the Lord.
“Tell me about them.”
“When I was young, we’d go to Coronado Island on the Fourth of July to watch fireworks.”
“When was the last time you saw fireworks at a beach?”
“Decades ago. It’s not something that’s much fun to do alone.”
I could have sworn I heard a sigh behind me. “Did you ever go with others to a beach?”
I smiled now, remembering. “A couple of friends visited San Diego a few years back and asked me to join them at Pacific Beach. I didn’t even have a swimsuit, but one of them dug an extra out of her suitcase. I was so surprised that it fit.”
“You’re welcome,” the Lord said dryly.
“I didn’t want to go in the water but Pamela and Jackie insisted. Told me they’d drag me in. They stayed nearby, held onto me when the waves became stronger, helped me back to shore when I was ready to go in.”
“You went to the Holy Land in 2000,” the Lord reminded me.
My toes curled into the sand and my shoulders tensed. Remembering that trip was bittersweet. It was the first year I worked for Catholic Answers and the last time I was included in one of the staff’s public events.
From then on, I’d become increasingly invisible at Catholic Answers, eventually feeling like the crazy aunt in the attic. When I’d mentioned that sense of being progressively isolated within the company and removed from public visibility to my boss on the day he handed me my exit paperwork, he’d nodded.
But the Holy Land pilgrimage was still one of my best memories.
“Yes, Lord,” I murmured. “The first afternoon in Israel, I stood on the beach in Netanya and I looked out over the Mediterranean. The sea was this gorgeous deep blue I’d never seen before.”
“I had no interest in floating in the Dead Sea, but I did ride in a boat on the Sea of Galilee.” I grinned. “The tourist boats have a tradition of playing the national anthem of the country of the passengers. We sailed on the Galilee while ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ played over the loudspeaker.”
At that, I turned around. I couldn’t see anyone. “Are you just going to be a Voice in my ear, Lord?” I asked bitterly. “Then, when I need to see you, you take off?”
With a sigh, I stood and walked toward the water. A ball bounced into my leg. I scooped it up and tossed it back to the volleyball players. When a small child tripped nearby, I reached down and helped him back up to his feet. His mom looked up from her nearby towel and thanked me.
I had expected to be invisible as I walked along the beach, but people nodded hello. Another child asked what I thought of her sandcastle and smiled when I said it was beautiful. A dog trotted up and sniffed at my outstretched hand, nudged it. I obligingly scratched behind the dog’s ears. He panted happily, then raced off in search of more people to charm into ear scratches.
I stood in the surf, water lapping at my toes. There were a lot of footprints in the wet sand, but I had no idea whose footprints they were.
“I haven’t left you,” the Voice said, once again from behind me. “I see you when you’re alone, when you are with others. When two or more friends are with you, I’m there too, in your midst. When you help others, you’re bringing me to them. Whatever you do for them, you do for me.”
I looked down at the footprints in the sand. “If I’m following in your footsteps, Lord, why don’t I ever see you?”
“You don’t see me because I prefer to follow behind you in the land of the living.”
Michelle Arnold was a staff apologist for Catholic Answers, a Catholic apologetics apostolate in the Diocese of San Diego, California, from 2003–2020, answering questions from clients about the Catholic faith via phone, letter, email, and online platforms. She contributed essays to Catholic Answers’ online and print magazines, and wrote four booklets for the apostolate’s 20 Answers series. Her 20 Answers booklets were on Judaism, the New Age, witchcraft and the occult, and the Church’s liturgical year. Now a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, Michelle Arnold has a blog at the Patheos Catholic channel. A portfolio of her published essays is available at Authory.