The Sea Within: A Meeting of Matter and Spirit
Why are we in love with the sea? Everyone knows we are, but no one knows why…
Modern times are not the low tide of sea-love but the high. Our minds may have demythologized the sea, but our hearts have not. We no longer think of it as Mother, or goddess, or spirit, as our ancestors did, but I think we love it even more than they did. Just look at the prices on real estate ads for oceanfront land.
When we’re at the place where the sea and the land meet, why do we love to look at the sea rather than at the land?
We act on the sea with our ships, but she acts on our souls with her beauty. We conquer her physically, but she conquers us spiritually. How does she come to have such power?
Is the gravity that draws our soul to the sea in us, or is it in the sea? What is the link between the matter without and the spirit within, between salt water and love? Is it the sea water in our souls, or is it the soul in the sea water? Or is that very question the wrong one, one that could be asked only by a modern mind that has separated reality into mere matter without and mere spirit within, the intellectual albatross of Descartes and the so-called “Enlightenment”? We may have to turn back the cultural clock to solve our riddle.
The myth maker, the poet, the mystic, the sailor, the saint, and the child know here best because they know HER; the scientist knows only many things ABOUT her. They know her personality; he knows only her blood type.
Though the sea is not a goddess, she is more like a goddess than a chemical. So the pagan mistake of seeing too much in her is not as bad as the modern mistake of seeing too little.
Moses used her as a symbol for all matter. That cosmic stuff that God’s Spirit blew on and formed in the creation story in Genesis—why did Moses call that “water”? If you watch the stormy sea pacing in its cage like a tiger, you will know. As you watch, you enter a time machine: you are watching a picture of the drama of creation. When He designed earth’s stormy oceans, God painted a picture of His Spirit breathing His timeless passion out onto the heavy seas of time, on the first day of creation; and He hung this picture in His nursery (earth) for His children (us) to see once they would be born.
The mystery of the sea is only the most obvious example of the mystery of all nature. For not only the sea but all nature contains a mystery: why does it fascinate us so? Why is it inexhaustible to our spirit? Why is a forest of trees better than a forest of telephone poles? We deliberately turn trees into telephone poles or buildings, yet we love the raw material more than the things we make out of it. Why?
An Iroquois would say it is ORENDA. A Taoist would say it is the Tao. But what is that? What is the spiritual power of matter? What power, what spiritual electricity, what strong magic, did the Creator put into the creation?
If we ever find the answer to that question, I think we will find it first in the sea. For there we find the most magic of all. All nature is radioactive with a mysterious spiritual power that we do not understand, but it shows itself most powerfully in the sea. We never feel more humble and helpless than when we face the sea—and we never feel happier…
We are no longer versed in the art of third-eye seamanship. This ancient art was practiced in all premodern cultures. It could be called the art of sign reading. It assumes that nature is not just a thing but also a sign, like a word, and therefore is not just to be looked-at but also looked-along. You look-along a sign, not just at it; you READ the sign. But modern books at the sea always look AT it instead of ALONG it, so they miss its significance, its signing. They never learned its language, which is sign language. They’re so busy imposing their own advanced scientific languages on nature that they don’t listen to nature’s own simple sign language speaking to them. They think nature isn’t signing but spastic. They are like unsocialized children who can’t read body language.
I think words are not meant to capture the answer to the sea’s mystery, any more than they are meant to capture the strangely similar mystery of music. I think our question about the riddle of the sea is meant to be asked, but not meant to be answered. It is supposed to go on and on like the waves.
The music is playing all the time. All the intermittent musics on earth are surrounded by the perpetual music of the sea; and the music of the sea is surrounded by “the music of the spheres.”
Why doesn’t God let everyone hear this angelic music all the time if it is so beautiful? Maybe He does but we don’t hear it because we let worldly wax grow in our ears. Or maybe He doesn’t; maybe it’s not our folly but His mercy that insulates us from it; maybe God puts cotton in our ears because beauty so big would drive us mad (the sea almost does, already); because if we heard those cosmic chords, so tremendous and remote, perpetually shaking the skies and making Him that sitteth in the heavens to laugh, we would be unable to eat, sleep, reproduce, or survive; because it would be an unbearable weight of glory that would crush our spirit like a locomotive crushing a bug, a fire that would burn up our mind as a furnace burns a moth. Maybe we would just disappear. Maybe the only way to survive in this angel-haunted universe is to be deaf and dumb.
God, our hearts, and the sea: three inexhaustibles. No surfer in history has ever been heard to say: “Now I’ve had enough of waves.” No lover will ever say, “Now I’ve had enough of her.” And no saint will ever say, “Now I’ve had enough of God.”
When you live by the sea, everything changes, and the change is the same as when you believe in God: you are never alone. There is a Greater Presence next to you every minute. You have to take account of this Presence every day, at least unconsciously….You always have this large, unpredictable wild animal in your neighborhood. It’s like having a 500-pound mother-in-law living in your back yard.
Waves are lips. Lips can kiss, or speak, or bite. Gentle little waves kiss the children who play in them. Larger waves kiss the surfers who ride them. Bigger waves than we can handle bite us. But what do they speak?
All waves speak, but they speak in tongues, and we can’t interpret their speech. That’s probably because it’s too simple, like God’s. Maybe all they’re saying is I LOVE YOU, I LOVE YOU, I LOVE YOU, I LOVE YOU, I LOVE YOU until the end of time. Like God…
The sea is the perfect toy. It’s unbreakable and unloseable, always available and always alive. It plays and plays with you without ever getting tired or bored. It dances with you and wrestles with you and boxes with you and tosses you around. It’s just dangerous enough to be exciting. And you never have to put it away when you finish playing with it.
The surf can make us all children again in five seconds if only we let it. Think a truly radical thought: think what a revolution it would be if everyone on earth played in the surf once a week. How much depression and suicide and hatred and violence and resentment and anger and envy and boredom and addiction and wars and murders and plots and tyrannies would just go out like a candle in the water? The sea is a peacemaker. How can surfers be warmongers? How could anyone drenched with the wisdom of playwater ever come up with this brilliant idea, the idea that has moved so much of our history? — “Hey, it seems we’ve got problems. Let’s deal with them this way: let’s dress up in funny uniforms and go out and kill each other.”..
Deep down, we know our souls need something wild, something dangerous, something that makes us feel alive. The sea does that. It’s the last untamed place on earth.
By Dr. Peter Kreeft