This was originally posted on my Patheos blog, Watching God.
When I was youngish, a friend of mine and I went to check out the Black Canyon of the Gunnison during a camping trip. It looks something like this.
Very pretty, yes? But it’s also a long way down from the ridge of the canyon to its rocky, watery bottom. A really, really long way down. So my friend and I—brave, stupid fellows who once tried to break through the ice on a lake while standing on it—literally crawled on our hands and knees to look over the edge. Heights are not really our thing.
This made me, perhaps, not the best person to see The Walk.
The Walk, for those of you who don’t know, is based on the true story of Frenchman Phillippe Petit’s illegal 1974 high-wire performance between World Trade Center towers. In real life, Petit spent about 45 minutes on that wire, walking and kneeling and lying down on a thin cable of steel 110 stories above the Manhattan streets. In the movie, it felt like a couple of weeks. It’s intended, I think, to be a film saluting Petit’s bravery, ingenuity and sheer stubborn will. Given my mild acrophobia, I just wanted the guy to get caught before he even started his walk. The ground’s not so bad, Phillippe. Really.
Had I been thinking about how this little tightrope stunt would impact me—in 3-D IMAX, no less—I would’ve brought in a bottle of Tums.
This is not a knock on the movie. Really, it illustrates just how effective it is. And even for me, the flick had some pretty beautiful moments in it.
For instance, the moment when Petit (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) first steps onto the wire stretching between the two towers. Clouds envelop the scene, and the wire vanishes in a blue-cotton haze in the distance. Petit speaks of the comfort that comes from placing his foot on the wire—how it supports him, how the towers support the wire.
And in that moment, it felt like a picture of faith.
Faith and tightrope walking, oddly enough, have a strange, shared history. Nik Wallenda, the tightrope walker who walked over Niagara Falls in 2012, is a Christian whose faith is instrumental in his work. “I grew up in a born-again Christian family,” he told QMI Agency at the time. “That’s the way I was raised and I find comfort and peace in that.” Loads of preachers have recounted the story of another famed French tightrope walker, Charles Blondin, who walked across the falls in 1860. He allegedly performed many great feats on that line, including pushing a wheelbarrow full of potatoes across it.
“Do you believe I can carry a person across in this wheelbarrow?” he allegedly asked the crowd gathered at the edge of Niagara Falls. “Yes!” the crowd shouted. But when he asked for volunteers, not a one of them took Blondin up on the trip.
It’s an illustration, pastors say, of a weak faith: We say we believe, but do we? Do we really?
I thought of that illustration as I watched the end of The Walk—Petit held up by this thin cord. Petit trusted. He had faith.
It was not a blind faith: He calculated the weight of the wire needed, the stabilizers it would require, all manner of eventualities. He’d been a tightrope walker for years, even practicing on wires that his friends would tug and yank, replicating the high winds he might expect 110 stories up. He trusted his skills, his equipment, his friends.
But the stunt required a severe, unblinking sort of faith even so. Any sensible man might still look at the wire—stretched nearly 1,400 feet up in the air—and grow fearful. I mean, how could a sensible man not? But Petit was taught by his mentor, Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), that fear and doubt mean death. When Petit feels an inkling of doubt during his training in the movie, the wire shakes and buckles. Sometimes, Petit falls. He has the skills to make it across, no doubt. But if he doubts his skills? Loses heart in the moment? If he lets the wire’s height or length get to him? There’s no way Petit would make it across.
“It’s impossible,” Petit says. “But I’ll do it.”
I was reading a story the other day bySalon’s Darin Strauss about how difficult it is, in this age of rationality, to have faith. “How, against a contemporary background, do you contemplate the almighty?” he wrote. “Who believes there’s an oasis in 2015’s scattered metaphysical sand?” Some say that it’s impossible to believe in God today. Foolish, perhaps. The ground’s not so bad.
But yet, those of us who believe in God feel our faith underneath our feet, holding us up. We feel the strength of what our faith is attached to. This is not a strange, frightening place; it is life itself. We believe. And we walk.
“The wire is a safe place for me to be,” Phillippe Petit once said. “It’s a rigorous and simple path. It’s straight. You don’t have meanders like, you know, on the ground, in life.”
Funny how walking as a Christian is often characterized in the same way. Rigorous. Simple. Straight.
I can’t claim to be free of fears or doubts. If my faith is a wire, it sometimes shakes. I sometimes fall. But I do have faith—faith that something special is waiting on the other side.