God, the Ocean

A little over a week ago, I got to be near the ocean. I didn’t get to see it. I didn’t get to tuck my toe into the salty fluid; I wasn’t able to wade upon the sand and rocks and contemplate the depth beyond the shore.

(I was near the ocean because I traveled to South Carolina for an incredible interfaith retreat, which I will likely write about later. For now, though, I feel compelled to share a meditation about God as ocean.)

I was less than 20 miles from the expansiveness of the ocean, from the habitat for more species than I can ever encounter in my lifetime. I was only 20 miles away,  and I didn’t get to feel the force of the waves. I didn’t get to hear the crash of the water upon the solid rock. I didn’t get to see the movement of water or taste the salty breeze. Not even 20 miles away, I didn’t get to encounter the mystery and might of the sea.

(Lament is a sacred sound, for it makes manifest our longing for the bigness that is beyond us. I am a lover of the Incarnation and I pray with my feet, my flesh.)

Cape Point, South Africa. Photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

Although I am Midwesterner and live over 1,000 miles from the ocean, I have encountered its vastness many times before. I was born about 40 miles from the ocean, in Bangor, Maine. I have looked down into the waves from a plane 30,000 feet above the blurry blue. My travels have permitted me to dip my body in both the Pacific and the Indian. I have entered the Atlantic over and over. I have waded into the water from the west and east coasts of North America and the west and east coasts of Africa. I have walked to the tip of Spain, thought to be the end of the world in the Middle Ages. There too, I stared into the sea.

You might say that the ocean and I have been in a relationship for as long as I have been on Earth.

Cape Point, South Africa. Photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

I have understood God as ocean for years, but it has mainly been a metaphor I’ve kept in the quiet of my heart. I really started to think of God this way when I was a new novice with my community and my contemplative life started moving me away from the shallow water and into a depth that was over my head. During those days, I found myself praying God, I want to swim in the deepest parts of your love. I wrote in my prayer journal, God, I want to swim with the creatures that glow in the dark. 

On a “hermitage day,” I visited the Shedd Aquarium and sat in a dark room beside panels of thick glass, where I gazed at the beauty of bioluminescent sea creatures. In the quiet and dark, I meditated and prayed. Among the glowing life, I embraced not understanding God’s mystery.

Sunset at Cape Point, South Africa. Photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

A couple of days ago, while working on preparations for a writers’ retreat I am leading, my study brought me to this letter to artists by St. Pope John Paul II, which I didn’t know about before. A quick read brought me to this phrase, a total thrill:

“Artists of the world, may your many different paths all lead to that infinite Ocean of beauty where wonder becomes awe, exhilaration, unspeakable joy.” – St. Pope John Paul II

Apparently I am not the only one who knows God as an Ocean. Evidently others have experienced how many paths of goodness can lead to encounters of beauty, wonder, awe, exhilaration and joy. This, I am learning, is the stuff of saints.

This is what swimming in God’s love does: it opens up waters so deep that we can only rejoice. This is what communion with God’s Spirit is: a love so expansive that we cannot explore all of it in our lifetimes. I am not an oceanographer, but I suspect those who are would say the same about this planet’s great seas.

St. Pope John Paul II’s message is meant for everyone, not just those of us who might claim the title artist. All of us are called to be creative; we are children of God, who is infinite creativity. We all get to washed by this love, transformed by its power.

And, all of us are called to contemplate the goodness of God, to experience its expansive mystery. We are invited to dive to the depth of God’s mystery; this is a universal call to holiness. We all are invited into depths that are over our heads, where we can swim with mysterious creatures. Our discoveries and encounters in the Ocean will change us, awaken us.

I am learning that as we get farther from the shore, we will realize that we have always been swimming. No matter if we are in a land-locked place thousands of miles away from the ocean, the Ocean is where we came from and it is where we always are. The Ocean is our true home.

Will you come and swim with me?

At Cape Point, South Africa in 2002.

A great big exciting God question

A vivid memory has been speaking to me all summer: a sunny spring day, as the fourth period of the school day began, a few excited ninth-grade boys came to class eager to ask a question. Their energy was animated and slightly nervous (“You ask her.” “No you ask her!”) for I believe they knew, at a great depth, they were considering something powerful. Then the question came forth–maybe the greatest question I have ever been asked:

“What if when we imagine things it gives God the ability to create things?”

I was stunned. I said “WOW!”  What else could I say?

I loved the idea of God needing us so much that he is practically dependent on us to help create the universe of his dreams; it is empowering to consider that God’s love can only be fully manifested if we say “yes.”

Participation and relationship is natural activity and genuine Gospel living, of course. Certainly, building the kingdom of God is work of service, prayer, community, activism, and solidarity. Good Christian activism, in particular, is a loving labor of creative problem solving so yes, I knew that God needed us and has hope for our lifelong to-do lists. Even so, this is what happened in my journal a few days later:

“What if when we imagine things it gives God the ability to create things?”

Yes, “What if!” What if God needs us so much to dream up new realities in order for them to exist?

It’s expansive stuff, really: the new realities we must imagine might be in an evolutionary metaphysical dimension, or they could be about coming up with new ways of being Church, sharing our abundance, and showing forth the Gospel goodness–ultimately revealing the solid strength of peace and justice. Christ totally has a way “of making all things new,” maybe even those things that we think are going just great.

It takes more than dreaming though. Gospel living is really about letting go and allowing God to work through us. When we let go we could end up in a place of awe, of just being free to step back and see how God wants to show up and be seen.

photo by Jane Comeau
God shows up in the art of free-writing

Amazing artists certainly seem to experience this.

Throughout the summer, I have been on a bit of a creative journey and have been learning a lot. Presently, I am very blessed to be here on a scholarship and have my first-ever experience of a writer’s workshop.  I’m amazed as I listen in to other faith-filled artists disclose their process and experience. I am overwhelmed with gratitude and awe that I get to learn and be encouraged by some of the most brilliant creators I have ever met.

As I listen, I notice that each artist seems repeat a truth: it is necessary to submit to an energy outside of ourselves (God!). It may be called “letting the poem say what it wants” or “seeing what’s behind what you’re saying,” whatever it is, it’s an act of trust and trial. Basically, as we create, we must let go of judgement, be vulnerable, take wild risks and let God take us where we’d rather not go. It’s discipleship– following Jesus’ way of humility and self-emptying. Otherwise, we become journalists and not artists and end up recording what we see and not what God is trying to say.

God has a lot of truth to tell, has a lot of love to show off. Is this why God calls us and creativity compels us? What if God needs us, desperately, just as we need God for our basic existence?

“What if when we imagine things it gives God the ability to create things?”

Back in my classroom, after I said “WOW!” to the great question my students, in their 9th grade boy sort of way, then said, “I know, right Sister?! Like, what if since we can imagine a planet ruled by aliens and robots, then now God will make it?”

Ha! OK, well, that’s not really where I went with the question. Still, I just said “Wow!” with a wide smile. I felt relief that my response of wonder seemed to satisfy their young seeking souls.

How wonderful it is that youth are so great at speaking the truth without knowing it!

How wonderful God is for loving, trusting, and needing each of us, even if we don’t know it!

Wow! Amen!