You may wonder why I see the sea as a miracle, as something supernatural; isn’t the sea the most natural thing in the world?
Of course the sea is natural, if anything is. The sea is the most “worldly” thing in the world: It is four-fifths of the world. Yet “the sea is another world,” as Anne Stevenson wrote. I think she meant by that not that the sea is extraterrestrial, like an alien or an angel, but that it is superterrestrial, totally terrestrial, terrifically terrestrial. And that’s why it’s so supernatural. It’s so supernatural because it’s so natural.
For all of nature is a miracle, in fact the primary miracle. And the sea is the closest part of nature to the whole of nature. So the sea is the most miraculous thing we see. People come to disbelieve in miracles only when they forget the most massive and obvious of all miracles, nature itself; and that’s hard to do when you live by the sea.
The sea has a personality because of her border with the land, which defines her. Nature has a personality because her border with the supernatural defines her. If nature is only “all there is,” then how can she have such a distinctive personality? Why is she so tangy and salty and unpredictable and lively? Why is she a she? If there were no He, the word she would be meaningless. Nature must have an Other, a Lover.
Here is a simple proof that nature is a miracle. A thing that can be caused only by God and not by nature is a miracle. But nature is a thing that can be caused only by God and not by nature. Therefore nature is a miracle. Nature can’t create herself. (Even God can’t create himself. Nothing can. God is not created at all.)
Perhaps some events that we call miracles really come from some part of nature that we just don’t know about yet, rather than directly from God. But nature as a whole could not possibly have come from any of her parts. Therefore nature as a whole is a miracle.
If you want to understand this, live by the sea and you will see God. For God surfs!
Thy way was through the sea,
Thy path through the great waters; yet thy footprints were unseen. (Ps. 77:19)
The Sea Is an Icon of God
The sea is the earth’s most remarkable icon for God:
Like God, she is “beauty ancient yet ever new,” unchanging yet ever changing, eternal yet dynamic, immovable yet moving, timeless yet alive, formless yet full of personality, infinite yet definite, fearsome and wonderful, full of life and Mother of all life, source and master of life and death, maker and breaker of living things.
And like God, she is wild. (God is a wild man; if that makes no sense to you, you have never met him.) Thoreau says, in Cape Cod, “The ocean is a wilderness reaching around the globe, wilder than a Bengal jungle and fuller of wonders.”
The sea is also Godlike by being the absolute. Land is relative to sea, not vice versa.
The sea is also Godlike by being vast and deep.
And by being self-effacing. It lets you just sit there and watch it or ignore it. It only occasionally shouts, “I’m here!” in storms. It’s the taken-for-granted background to everything in the world, and it lets itself be forgotten for a long time. But not forever.
The sea is also like God in being a perpetual presence. It is always there, the omnipresent background to our lives. Whatever happens to us happens to us on the water planet. Every event in human history has been surrounded by the sea, as every event in our lives is surrounded by God. However trivial or ugly the plot of a life may be, the setting is always deep and beautiful.
Another reason why the sea naturally symbolizes God is because its matter naturally symbolizes spirit. It seems to be composed of matter that is only a split second away from becoming spirit, or spirit that just solidified into matter a split second ago. Loren Eiseley, in The Immense Journey, says, “If there is any magic on this planet, it is contained in water . . . remarkably like the mind.”
If water is like mind, then mind is like water. And Eiseley sees that half of the equation too:
As for men, those myriad little detached ponds with their own swarming corpuscular life, what were they but a way that water has of going about beyond the reach of rivers? I too was a microcosm of pouring rivulets. . . . I was three-fourths water, rising and subsiding . . . in my veins. Thoreau, peering at the emerald pickerel in Walden Pond, called them “animalized water.”
As a chicken is an egg’s clever way of making more eggs, a man is water’s clever way of invading the land.
Why is the sea Godlike in so many ways? Because it emerged straight from God’s mind, and his mind is still upon it. It is a mirror. Of course Mind is spiritual while both the sea and mirrors are physical, yet both the sea and mirrors are natural symbols of mind.
The mind is most visible in the eyes, “the windows of the soul.” If you want to see a person’s soul, look into his eyes. Look into them, not at them; look along his outer eyes with your own inner eye. If you do that, you will see his mind. Now do the same thing with the sea: Look into her eye, and you will see the Mind of God.
Of course you can’t see God, or any mind, with your outer eyes. And if you could, you would be blinded. Even the sun blinds you if you look at it directly. But you can observe it, during an eclipse, by looking at its image reflected on paper. You can do a similar thing with God. The paper here is the sea.
When you sit by the sea and watch the waves with both attentiveness and peace, both alert and calm, without either laziness or agitation, then your inner eye will open and you will see the mind of God reflected in his great earthly mirror. For he designed it precisely for that purpose: to reflect him to you.
Moving water is holy water. It exorcises the evil spirit of atheism. It baptizes the unconscious. It is more powerful than any argument. That’s why there are few atheists who live by the sea, or even by a swiftly moving river or brook.
Take a baby from birth. Put him near the water. Let him grow up on the shore. Let the water be his only teacher. Let the waves be their words. I will wager that he will not grow up to be an atheist.
The Sea Tempts Us to Gratitude
What could an atheist do with the sea? How could he place it? For him, no Mind designed it, no Artist loved it into existence. It is not art; it just is. It does not mean, only be. It has no place, no address, no home in the Mind of God. No heavenly Father gave it to him as a gift. What a terrible moment that must be for an atheist—when he feels great gratitude for the gift of the sea and there is no one to thank for it.
For most of us, the most terrible moments in life are the moments of grief, when hope is tested. For an atheist, I think the most terrible moments must be the moments of joy, when there arises from his heart the wisest and best feeling anyone can have—cosmic gratitude, praise for his very existence and that of the whole universe—and he has to believe that that feeling is false, stupid, wrong, pointless, and out of tune with reality, since reality is nothing but chance and gravity and molecules. That feeling of cosmic gratitude and praise was a temptation to be “religious.” Imagine how horrible it must be to feel that gratitude is a temptation! That’s almost like believing that goodness is evil. It’s like waking up one morning to see that the sun is a black hole.
Wonder and gratitude can be triggered by anything—a bird or a baby or a buttercup; but there is nothing more potent at raising swells of praise in our innermost sea than the waves of the outermost sea. “Deep calleth unto deep at the noise of thy waterspouts; all thy waves and thy billows have gone over me” (Ps. 42:7). Advice for atheists: Don’t live near the sea, for if you do, you will have to suppress your own heart. Don’t be too friendly with the sea, for if you do, you won’t be able to be friendly with your own heart; you’ll have to scold it for being a fool.
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. When a landlubber asks what the weather is like today, he only means to ask about quantities of heat, precipitation, or wind velocity. But when a seasider asks that question, he means: What is She doing today? What’s Her mood? What’s Her will? How is She acting? You always have this large, unpredictable wild animal in your neighborhood. It’s like having a five-hundred-pound mother-in-law living in your back yard. . . .
Technology is the most obvious and pervasive new feature of our lives, the one thing we are very, very good at, the defining feature of our modern civilization. Machines are good things, of course, and the artificial is natural to us; after all, our own hands are tools. But they are less deep and less real and less alive than we are, and we are becoming more like them, less deep and less real and less alive. We have made our good servants into our bad masters. . . . The sea is a powerful antidote to this.
The excerpt was taken from The Sea Within: Waves and the Meaning of All Things (St. Augustine’s Press, 2006).