Behold the Sea!

This blog has suffered neglect over the past few months. The current polemics in the Roman Catholic and other churches do little more than prove the inadequacy of ecclesial institutions and the sinfulness of the most sanctimonious of the men and women involved. My life as a priest has been painfully affected by my pending divorce and the death of my parents. We are faced with the same great obstacle – the mystery of evil. It matters not what clever arguments we produce to justify evil and get God “off the hook”! The alternatives to belief are nihilism and a feeling of absurdity that leaves us in agony. I would advise more Christians to read Albert Camus to make a new approach to God that really means something more than vacuous words. We can then discover the mysticism of Jacob Böhme, Nicholas Berdyaev and Novalis in a world other than that of monotheistic fundamentalism.

Perhaps life in this world is to be compared with going to sea on a small boat, facing a vastness that reveals our insignificance. That is certainly my experience, though I take great care to choose the weather conditions that allow me to launch the boat and sail. In the following video, the sea seems benign, calm and contained by the surrounding land. The north-east wind howled between the Ile Ronde and Brest and the heavy chop made it very difficult to bring the boat about for tacking. That was the part I filmed very little for the reason of having to handle the boat.

I have not forgotten Fr Claude Barbarit, the priest for whom I crewed in a regatta in 2011.

If the sea of our ancestors inspired fear, our contemporaries seem to have mastered it. We think of those who work at sea, fishermen with reliable weather forecasting devices. Disasters still happen offshore and rescuers die helping a vessel in a storm. This saying “There are three sorts of people: those who are alive, those who are dead, and those who are at sea” is sometimes attributed to Aristotle.

Psalm 107 mentions the seasickness and the terror of those who work at sea:

They that go down to the sea in ships, * and occupy their business in great waters;
These men see the works of the Lord, * and his wonders in the deep.
For at his word the stormy wind ariseth, * which lifteth up the waves thereof.
They are carried up to the heaven, and down again to the deep; * their soul melteth away because of the trouble.
They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, * and are at their wit’s end.
So when they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, * he delivereth them out of their distress.
For he maketh the storm to cease, * so that the waves thereof are still.

You can’t trick the sea. It requires our truth ad loyalty. The sea is a place of courage. You have always to be available for the effort it can suddenly require from us. The sea is a place of solidarity. We challenge it together. The fraternity of the sea is experienced by mutual help, mutual respect and tolerance. The sea requires our care and attention to detail. Order must reign onboard. “Shipshape and Bristol”, the Royal Navy used to say. Disorder engenders panic. True seamen are the masters of everything we learn, and their experience is priceless. The sea is a place of beauty. Polluting it is intolerable, even the smallest piece of plastic, fishing line or spilled petrol! We are called to savour the constantly changing harmony and splendour of the sky and the sea. The sea is the most beautiful place, giving us a wide space of silence. If we are believers, our meditation affirms what we believe and opens our heart. The Star of the Sea above the horizon invites us to go that one step further. Remember that the sea is always the stronger.

La mer nous apprend la modestie”.

I leave my readers with a few lines from Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman:

O vast Rondure, swimming in space,
Cover’d all over with visible power and beauty,
Alternate light and day and the teeming spiritual darkness,
Unspeakable high processions of sun and moon and countless stars above,
Below, the manifold grass and waters, animals, mountains, trees,
With inscrutable purpose, some hidden prophetic intention,
Now first it seems my thought begins to span thee.

Down from the gardens of Asia descending radiating,
Adam and Eve appear, then their myriad progeny after them,
Wandering, yearning, curious, with restless explorations,
With questionings, baffled, formless, feverish, with never-happy hearts,
With that sad incessant refrain, Wherefore unsatisfied soul? and
Whither O mocking life?

Ah who shall soothe these feverish children?
Who justify these restless explorations?
Who speak the secret of impassive earth?
Who bind it to us? what is this separate Nature so unnatural?
What is this earth to our affections? (unloving earth, without a
throb to answer ours,
Cold earth, the place of graves.)

Yet soul be sure the first intent remains, and shall be carried out,
Perhaps even now the time has arrived.

After the seas are all cross’d, (as they seem already cross’d,)
After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d their
After the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemist, the
geologist, ethnologist,
Finally shall come the poet worthy that name,
The true son of God shall come singing his songs.

* * *

Ah more than any priest O soul we too believe in God,
But with the mystery of God we dare not dally.

O soul thou pleasest me, I thee,
Sailing these seas or on the hills, or waking in the night,
Thoughts, silent thoughts, of Time and Space and Death, like
waters flowing,
Bear me indeed as through the regions infinite,
Whose air I breathe, whose ripples hear, lave me all over,
Bathe me O God in thee, mounting to thee,
I and my soul to range in range of thee.

O Thou transcendent,
Nameless, the fibre and the breath,
Light of the light, shedding forth universes, thou centre of them,
Thou mightier centre of the true, the good, the loving,
Thou moral, spiritual fountain—affection’s source—thou reservoir,
(O pensive soul of me—O thirst unsatisfied—waitest not there?
Waitest not haply for us somewhere there the Comrade perfect?)
Thou pulse—thou motive of the stars, suns, systems,
That, circling, move in order, safe, harmonious,
Athwart the shapeless vastnesses of space,
How should I think, how breathe a single breath, how speak, if, out of myself,
I could not launch, to those, superior universes?

Swiftly I shrivel at the thought of God,
At Nature and its wonders, Time and Space and Death,
But that I, turning, call to thee O soul, thou actual Me.

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3 Responses to Behold the Sea!

  1. warwickensis says:

    Two versions of that part of Psalm civii, They That Go Down to the Sea in Ships, for you:

    Setting by Purcell

    Setting by Herbert Sumsion sung by the Choir of Ely Cathedral

    Both very evocative, particularly Purcell’s staggering like a drunken man. Enjoy!

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