As I’m reviewing various posts for a current large writing project, I came across a reflection on beauty from a couple of years ago that I had forgotten about. It all starts with cognitive dissonance–I live in the Ocean State and I don’t like the ocean.
The sea pronounces something, over and over, in a hoarse whisper. I cannot quite make it out. Annie Dillard
I live in the Ocean State. I really don’t like the ocean. Yet another opportunity for cognitive dissonance—what else is new? The strange thing is that this has turned out to be an ocean summer for me. First, a week early in June at a Benedictine hermitage on a steep mountain overlooking Big Sur and the vast Pacific Ocean (and I mean vast). Day after day of not being able to clearly distinguish the horizon between the brilliant blue sky and the equally brilliant blue ocean (when the hermitage was not in the clouds, that is). Then during Jeanne’s and my twenty-fifth anniversary week in July, we checked one thing off our bucket list and went on a whale watching expedition out of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Fortunately one whale decided that the ninety-five plus degree weather was not a reason to stay submerged and showed off for our boat for forty-five minutes. Finally, Jeanne and I spent some time visiting my son and daughter-in-law in Florida in August. They love the beach, so I found myself doing ocean-related things and meeting ocean-related creatures once again.
I am well aware that many people, including perhaps a number of you reading this blog post are ocean worshippers and can’t think of anything more attractive, peaceful and fulfilling than a day either at an ocean beach or on a boat on the ocean. I’m not a member of your club. Some look at or experience the ocean and are struck by feelings of peace and beauty. The ocean is indeed beautiful, but for me its beauty speaks of power, vastness, and a certain amount of fear. During the week in June that I woke up every morning with the Pacific at my feet, I always felt a bit tense and edgy, as if I was in danger of being swallowed up. The beauty of the ocean puts some people in a peaceful place, but it makes me nervous. As she often does, Simone Weil nails this:
What is more beautiful than the effect of gravity on sea waves as they flow in ever-changing folds, or the almost eternal folds of the mountains? The sea is not less beautiful in our eyes because we know that ships are sometimes wrecked. On the contrary this adds to its beauty.
Immanuel Kant had this tension in mind when he distinguished in his philosophy between the “Beautiful” and the “Sublime.” The Beautiful refers to things that are, well, beautiful—in the sense that they produce aesthetic pleasure and feelings of happiness. Things that are Sublime can also be beautiful, but tend to overwhelm us, disturb us, or even frighten us. The Sublime is “awesome” and “terrible” in the original senses of these words—it inspires awe and terror. Are you attracted and repelled by the same thing or experience? Do you consider something to be both beautiful and terrifying in its awesome, often destructive power? That’s the Sublime—and that’s how the ocean impacts me. It is both beautiful and disturbing, attractive and frightening. The ocean is sublime.
Just so that you ocean-lovers out there don’t think I’m nuts, the authors of the Old Testament Psalms agree with me. Over and over again, the Psalmist reminds us of the awesome power and terror of the sea; even more provocatively, these reflections are frequently used as a bridge to talking about God, the ultimate example of sublimity. Sometimes the Psalmist describes the power of the sea, assuring us that God’s power is even greater. Psalm 33 tells us, for instance, that “God collects the waves of the ocean; and collects the waves of the sea,” in control of even the most terrifying force imaginable. This can be source of comfort–
Psalm 46—God is for us a refuge and strength, a helper close at hand in time of distress, so we shall not fear though the earth should rock, though the mountains fall into the depths of the sea, even though its waters rage and foam, even though the mountains be shaken by its waves.
or of a petition for rescue from the often ocean-like overwhelming power of human reality–
Psalm 69—Save me from the waters of the deep lest the waves overwhelm me. Do not let the deep engulf me, nor death close its mouth on me.
Of most interest is when the Psalmist begins to attribute the very sublime, fearsome aspects of the ocean directly to God.
It is one thing to seek divine protection from the terrible and awful contingencies of human experience; it is another to attribute that very terrible and awful beauty to the divine itself. If what is greater than me is the epitome of the sublime, meaning that it not only is inexpressibly beautiful but also is unpredictable and terrifying, how do I respond? Is it possible for a mere, non-sublime human being to be in relationship with something like that?
If I am disturbed and made nervous by the ocean, there is a simple solution—stay away from the ocean. Good advice, but for me at least similar advice does not work concerning God. I’ve described myself at times as “God-obsessed” (as the poet Novalis once described Spinoza), meaning that no matter how unpredictable and disturbing the divine might be, I can’t turn away. That being the case, I find the following simple observation from Rowan Williams helpful: “If you want to swim, you must begin to understand the sea.” The Jewish mystics go so far as to suggest that if God is like the ocean, we are the waves on that ocean. That’s a bit esoteric for my taste, but the point is clear—God invites an intimacy so close that at times the horizon between the divine and human becomes as blurry as the horizon between the ocean and sky at Big Sur. And isn’t that the promise of incarnation—the fusion of divinity and humanity?
The older I get, the more time I spend trying to stay afloat in the divine sea, the more I am convinced that this is not a problem to be solved or an issue to be sorted out. It is rather something to be lived. I agree with the author of Psalm 84—“My soul longs and thirsts for the living God.” And according to Antoine Saint-Exupery, that is a good start.
If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.