Oceans have moved humans to awe and dread and fascination for as long as we have told stories to each other. Ancient sources tell of deep waters as places of chaos, death, confusion, and cause for fear. Places where mysterious creatures swim and play. Places of danger for those who venture upon them.
In the ancient imagination deep, vast waters are also places of awe, and mystery, and life. Life somehow springs forth from chaotic primal waters. In Genesis 1, for example, God’s Spirit moving over the depths summons creation from the waters. Order begins to emerge. And as God speaks to Job we hear of earth’s waters coming to birth from the greater womb of creation. The seas become clothed in clouds and swaddled within darkness. God establishes boundaries for the waters. As in Genesis, the Divine renders order upon the original elements of creation; lending some shape to the waters of disorder and chaos is key to that. And in Psalms we learn that God acted in Wisdom to create the earth. The feminine aspect of the Holy has lent its power and joy to creation in all its multiplicity. The “great and wide” sea teems with things both large and small.
These biblical allusions to the deep waters of ocean and sea encourage—maybe even assume—clear fundamental responses: awe, wonder, and reverence. We stand only at the edges and shorelines, we ride only upon the shallow surfaces of unfathomable mystery and depth. For the ancients, human knowledge and pride meet their match as we gaze upon the oceans or attempt to understand them. Even modern science is humbled by efforts to understand the depths of the oceans and their many unknowns. We always have been, and still are, overwhelmed by the power of the oceans. They are the source of all life and carry the forces of destruction. We need them even as we still fear them. They hold both peril and gift. They are sometimes calm and sometime crashing. Their currents can carry us where we don’t want to go; their undercurrents may bring us down.
And all the while, if we stop to listen, powerful waters have much to tell us.
I have known people, for example, who find that oceans provide an apt metaphor for our own internal lives of psyche and spirit. We experience calm and storm as waves of emotion move through our lives. Unfamiliar currents may pull us in unwanted directions and we must come to understand them, ride them as best we can. And there is a vast sea of unknown, unexplored depth within each of us that we hardly know and understand. If we understood the seas better, perhaps we would also understand ourselves better psychologically and spiritually.
Or, perhaps, we would understand our own relationship to the Eternal Source and to others if we paid more attention to what vast waters teach us. The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, for example, reminds us that:
A wave is a wave. It has a beginning and an end. It might be high or low, more or less beautiful than other waves. But a wave is, at the same time, water. Water is the ground of being of the wave. It is important that a wave knows that she is water, and not just a wave. We, too, live our life as an individual. We believe that we have a beginning and an end, that we are separate from other living beings.
And with that simple image he reminds us that we come from, and return to, the same Source. Paying attention to the teachings of oceans among us can provide helpful insights…and can remind us of essential relationships.
I have not spent tons of time in my own life around oceans. I’ve climbed around some rocks on the shore of the Pacific Northwest. I’ve sat on beaches on both side of the Atlantic. I’ve seen birds that belong to the seas. And I have felt the scent of seawater permeating the air while approaching the water. But only occasionally.
Like some of you, my exposure to powerful expanses of water has come mostly from the Great Lakes. Freshwater seas, inland oceans, some people call them, because they are so huge. They form and shape weather, as the oceans do. And they carve our landscapes in amazing ways.
It happens that I had a chance this week to spend a short bit of time walking along a stretch of Lake Michigan shore where there were very few people. I paused for a few minutes to simply watch the water, then closed my eyes to just listen. Maybe some of you have occasionally done that. Stopped. Looked. Listened to the water.
What do we learn of the Holy Creator in such moments? Or of our relationship to the Creator? Perhaps we learn…
…that we are foolish when we pretend to know or control the energy and power and ways of the Holy. We can never fully comprehend the movements and currents of an ocean, or of the Holy.
…that we remain in deep relationship with the waters from which we came. We are made mostly of water. Our tears resemble the composition of the salty seas. The oceans shape our lives, our weather, our landscapes…and, mostly for the worse, we now affect the oceans. …that we need the waters, much as we need some awareness and connection to the Creator. Much as we need connection to one another.
…that when we neglect or abuse our deep relationship with the waters, that we will die. Just as our internal lives dry up and become brittle or barren when we neglect the Sacred within.
…that we are not, really, the center of the universe. We are not the main point of reference for all of creation. We are a small part of an astonishing web of complex, joyful, shimmering, vibrant life that permeates even the depths of the seas.
…that God is like a vast sea, birthing and continuously supporting us. Shaping our lives in different ways, just as waters shape our landscape.
…that if we are to thrive we must practice some awe and wonder at the power and mystery of the waters, just as we approach the Holy with awe and wonder and acknowledge Mystery. We stand on little scraps of God’s shoreline and float upon the waters. But what we comprehend of the full ocean is quite small.
And, finally, like the Psalmist, may we always remember to offer abiding awareness and thanks for the wonders of creation, for the waters of all Life, and for the Source that has given birth to all.
-Rev. Ruth Moerdyk
Scripture: Job 38:1-18; Psalm 104:24-26