Photo: Arnold Gold / Hearst Connecticut Media
MILFORD — When the surf’s up, the Rev. Matt Lindeman of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church sheds his white priest collar for a wetsuit and heads to Rhode Island after dropping his 6-year-old son off at school.
“It’s part of my own self-care and spiritual growth,” he said of his year-round surfing. “It’s a prayer time for me.”
Some of that praying has been asking God to help him through rough conditions on the water — rocks, big waves, possible sharks.
Other times the sport buoys him spiritually through the grandeur of nature and life lessons that surfing teaches, including preparation, persistence, effort, planning, decision-making and patience in waiting for the right wave or one’s turn in the lineup of surfers.
The beauty of the world and the dynamics of nature as seen from the water put Lindeman in touch with God, he said.
“When I’m truly present with God, it diminishes my own agenda,” Lindeman said. “When reminded of god’s bigness and my smallness, it has a way of organizing things.”
Lindeman became an avid surfer as a young teen when his parents, both Episcopal priests, moved to San Diego.
Lindeman used to ride his skateboard to the beach early each morning before school to hone his skills out of eyeshot of his peers.
He became an accomplished surfer, but left the sport for about 10 years to attend college in the Midwest and serve in the Peace Corps in El Salvador.
Lindeman reconnected with surfing through a friend and parishioner at a church in Southport where he served as youth minister.
“It was perfect timing for me because I needed something besides my daily life and work,” he said.
While hanging 10 is exhilarating and grounding for Lindeman, it never takes priority over his parish work. But then again, in many aspects they are blended, because back at the church surfing principles are present in his teachings and dealings with the flock.
“The youth find it to be really cool that the priest is a surfer,” said parishioner and youth minister Maureen Lucas. “It makes him more relatable as clergy… Seeing this is that person (who) connects you to God makes it less of a division between us and the priest.”
Lucas said people in the church connect with him through surfing.
“It grows relationships and helps for everyone to know each other better,” Lucas said. “He inspires others to open up and share their passions because it’s all OK — he’s more than just a collar.”
Parishioner Burvee Franz said his wife purchased surfing lessons for the family donated by Lindeman for a church charity event, and it is memorable.
“I can’t surf to save my life — I’m not cut out for it, but it was a blast,” Franz said. “Because he’s a surfer, he’s got more patience (waiting for the right wave) and a better understanding of how people relate.”
Referring to the surfing lesson, Franz said, “It was nice to see him in a completely different environment — it’s different than you would normally interact with a priest.”
Franz said Lindeman is correct in his philosophy that “You can’t fight the ocean. It’s too big and too powerful.”
Parishioner Michael Thomas said there is such a “spiritual component” to surfing, and that the sport combined with Lindeman’s “forward thinking” is what’s helping the church to grow.
“Not only does he surf, but he’s gotten other people out there,” said Thomas, a formal Naval officer familiar with the power of water. “It’s exciting, it’s exhilarating, but also being out on the water is peaceful, meditative and makes you feel closer to God.”
Lindeman said he likes the tie-in that water is a big theme in the Episcopal church. There is holy water, the parting of the Red Sea, Jesus walking on water and baptism as the death of the old self and birth of the new.
He often draws upon surfing to get a religious concept or life lesson across.
“Part of surfing is navigating that tension,” he said. “In that moment of riding the wave, if you’re not 100 percent present, you’ll blow it.”
The trip to Rhode Island takes one to two hours and Lindeman unplugs from technology for the few hours there.
He likes surfing in the cold and said spring, fall and winter are the best seasons for surfing in the Northeast because the water is more still in summer.
There are times it was so cold out while surfing that he had icicles on his wetsuit.
Lindeman follows the tide charts and weather closely to gauge the waves and says there’s nothing like the aftermath of a hurricane or Nor’easter on the coast to get the best surf. He also has a phone App for watching surfing competitions, most recently taking in a big one in Hawaii.
Lindeman has set rules for himself — no surfing on Sunday because that’s his big work day and he puts family obligations first.
Lindeman is married to Anna Einstein, a Spanish teacher at East Shore Middle School, and they have two children, Jonah, 6, and Ruth, 2.
The passion for surfing runs deep and long. He even went surfing and taught a surf lesson on his wedding day; a mishap with a surfboard among a party in their group made for some tension.
Upon Lindeman’s ordination in 2015, the congregation where he was a youth minister gave him a surfboard as a gift. In that job, he used surfing to engage the young people.
His church office is old-style New England, but there are personal touches, such as a surf board fin on his desk from the time he washed up on a rock.
There are times he has called upon God directly when there were dangerous circumstances, such as waves too big, rocks other weather conditions or “sharky” waters — although he never confronted one.
In those cases, his prayer was, “All right God, help me, I can’t do this on my own,” Lindeman said.
There’s a life lesson there as well, he said.
“When we’re afraid we can do things not in our best interest,” he said. “we all end up in situations when it’s not under our control.”
That prompts the broader life question, he said: “How do I move from fear and anxiety to wonder?”
The parishioners are so used to the surfing side of Lindeman’s life, the small talk is often about waves, weather and comments such as, “Where’s your wetsuit?”
“There’s such an infectious joy in the water,” Lindeman said.