We stood upon a promontory, at the ocean’s edge, this late spring past, south of Portsmouth. A slight sea breeze lifted spirits, and kites, and moistened the morning air. Below, hunting among the seaweed, the rocks, the sand, hunting for clams and crabs and fish, we watched an elementary school class at play. Blue shirted boys, yellow bloused girls, teachers free in the sun to walk and talk, and the steady ocean wind around enveloped us on the continent’s eastern doorstep. The wind blew in the memory of a verse.
Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the great waters. They see the deeds of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep. For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea (Ps 107:23).
Today we pause. Ours is a restful sermon, today. We are ready, come Columbus Day weekend, across the campus and country, for a spiritual siesta, a personal paseo, a moment along the ocean for Sabbath rest. He leadeth me beside the still waters…
That spring seaside day, one boy was fixing a kite. Red haired, freckled, pensive, enthralled. Then he looked up and out and east, out and across the great deep. Now 7 soon 17 soon 47 soon 87: there he looked out and east and waited as the wind wrapped him in quiet. For a moment, an early summer moment, outside class, alongside surf, beside friends, for a moment, he took an ocean view. We do too, at least we should. Today, with him, for a moment, we pause ‘to see the deeds of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep’. Look. Look east and into the sea breeze. Let the salt fill your lungs. Let the waves lap your toes. Let the blue sky and the blue sea widen your eyes. Let the roar of the surf give rhythm for your eyes, your heart—your blues. An ocean view. What do you see? An ocean view is a view of beauty and goodness and truth.
Do you see beauty? “Who hast laid the beams of thy chambers on the waters’ (Ps 104:3). This week we recognized and celebrated the Higgs Boson. We recall, especially in such a week, that over 15 billion years have now passed since ‘the earth was without form and void and darkness was over the face of the deep’ (Gen: 1:2). The blue on blue line at the horizon sky on sea, sea on sky, air on water, water on air, oxygen on hydrogen, hydrogen on oxygen, light on life, life on light. Hurricanal terror lies beyond that horizon. Tidal crests powerful to destroy may there arise. ‘Leviathan’—shark, octopus, whale, all—there dwells. The beauty is terrific, to be sure. Captain Ahab’s eye, hunting the great white whale, limping upon a leg lost, crazed by the fury at the horizons of death and life—his eye too is ours. Our ocean view, to be true, views the entire ocean, its present blue horizontal perfection and its wild, violent, creative-destructive, hurricanal power. Beauty is not entirely subsumed under placidity. Sometimes, as Jeremiah admitted, you have to accept and improve upon what is not good but given: ‘seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare’ (Jer. 29:7). Sometimes the historical redress to wrong you seek is still some years hence. In some beauty there is a time to embrace, and in some there is a time to refrain from embracing—to run for cover, if you can. On that spring morning—see!—a gull drifting on the waves, a ship listing starboard in the sun, a fish jumping—clap!, a swimmer in the great salt sea. Job: ‘he has planted the circumference of the earth’. Beauty, pure and powerful, there is in an ocean view.
In Le Recherche des Temps Perdue, M Proust has given us written beauty, set inland in Paris and then at Balbec by the sea. The beauty he sees encompasses both. Proust can see the ocean and its beauty in the fields by which he drives, but also can see the beauty of the fields in the ocean he loves. He wrote: The contrast that used then to strike me so forcibly between the country drives that I took with Mme. De Villeparisis and this proximity, fluid, inaccessible, mythological, of the Eternal Ocean, no longer existed for me. And there were days now when, on the contrary, the sea itself seemed almost rural. A tug, of which one could see only the funnel, was smoking in the distance like a factory amid fields while alone against the horizon a convex patch of white, sketched there doubtless by a sail…made one think of the sunlit wall of some isolated building, an hospital or a school…all this upon stormy days made the ocean a thing as varied, as solid, as broken, as populous, as civilized as the earth with its carriage roads over which I used to travel…
Do you see goodness? Walk slowly, down to the water’s edge. ‘He has inscribed a circle on the face of the waters at the boundary between light and darkenss’ (Ps 104:9). The mighty ocean provokes human courage. ‘They that go down to the sea in ships”. The account of the lepers healed, wherein only one returns thanks, is St. Luke’s way of painting the portrait of such goodness. Goodness in creation and life. Goodness in redemption and healing. Goodness in sanctification and thanksgiving: ‘Rise and go your way. Your faith has made you well.’ (Luke 17: 19). Gratitude is the attitude best suited to faith, and life, and eternity. Gratitude brings a responsive human creativity, responding to the divine. There is a responsive human redemption, responding to the divine. There is a responsive human holiness, responding to the divine. Leif Erickson, in a sloop, paddling from Iceland to Greenland to New Scotland. Christopher Columbus, the Nina and Pinta and Santa Maria at sail, our namesake this weekend, coming ashore from three little boats. Magellan rounding the tip of South America. Captain Cook circling Hawaii. The Gloucester fishermen whose names sit ensconced in their statue on the coast. The four chaplains, painted and framed into our window here at Marsh Chapel, a rabbi, a priest, and two ministers, who gave their life jackets, and so their lives, to others in the Atlantic in 1944 .
The tide comes in and the tide goes out. Real change for real good is real hard. It comes by increments. Alice Munro’s Canadian stories, honored this week, exhibit the progress of love. The progress of love. It comes by increments. Some of Jim Crow died in the Civil War, but not all. Some of Jim Crow died in Reconstruction, but not all. Some died with Voting Rights Act, but not all. Some of Jim Crow is running scared in the face of expanded health care for the poor in the south, but there will be some left, even after this. The Social Security Act of 1935, remember, excluded farm workers and domestics. Real change for real good is real hard. It comes by increments, like the glory of the morning on the wave. Bit by bit, wave by wave.
But it comes. JFK: “I believe that America should set sail, and not lie still in the harbor”. An ocean view is a long view. An ocean view is along view when it comes to the potential for goodness. The struggle, the wrestling, for the good is not progressive only, successful only, victorious only. There is regression, amnesia, selfishness, sloth. Ebb. Flow. Undertow. All. Hume: “Man is a fixed and limited animal whose nature is absolutely constant. It is only by tradition and organization that anything decent can be gotten out of him”. If a Norseman though in the 13th century or so could sail a rowboat to America…lf an Italian sea captain sailing under a Spanish flag could boldly sail where no one since Erickson had sailed before…If we can land a man on the moon…Goodness has as much of a shot as evil. Bill McGibben is alive and well. Holding the horizon in view and sailing for the north star by night will give us guidance. Micah: ‘God will again have compassion on us. God will tread out our iniquities under foot. He will cast our sins into the depths of the sea.’ Good. Goodness. Across the tides of time. In an ocean view.
Do you see the truth? Hold the sextant, true, true north. Measure by the stars. Others have sailed this circumference before. The variations of the sea coast are a warning. Walk the beach. Students! Once a month, in your time in Boston, get to the ocean. Sand and mud. Craggy rocks. Cliffs. Inlets and outlets. The detritus of seaweed, barnacles, shells, mollusks, driftwood, shells and stones and pebbles and sand. All higgledy piggledy, at sixes and sevens, messy, disordered, quirky, oblique, out of alignment. Sand gives way to marsh. Marsh to wetland. Wetland to stone and cliff. Cliff walk to tide, ebb and flow and undertow. We are not in Kansas anymore, as a great American, Dorothy Gale, once said. On an ocean view, life is not all rectangles, all flat, all squares. Nor is truth all rectangles, all flat, all squares, all right angles. ‘New occasions teach new duties. Time makes ancient good uncouth. One must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth. Truth is messy, like the seacoast. One must upward still and onward who would keep abreast of variegated, seaside, truth. Listen again to a part of our morning’s epistle: I am suffering and wearing fetters, like a criminal. But the word of God is not fettered…If we have died with him, we shall also live with him; if we endure, we shall also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; but if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself…Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth (2 Tim 2:8ff). Sometimes the fetters themselves bespeak the truth of freedom. John Lewis wrote that he finally felt free when he was placed in jail in Nashville in 1960, in the struggle for civil rights.
Allow if you will a penultimate, pastoral word. It is six months since Marathon Monday. I know we are Boston Strong. But we are also Boston Healing. Life has ebb and flow to it. And undertow. There is more than meets the eye in life. Sometimes, in grief, sometimes, in trauma, sometimes, in loss, the real work comes later, later on, five months later. Many there are, right here, ready to help. An ocean view may help. Remember Thurman: the ocean and the night surrounded my little life with a reassurance that could not be affronted by any human behavior. The ocean at night gave me a sense of timelessness, of existing beyond the ebb and flow of circumstance. Death would be a small thing, I felt, in the sweep of that natural embrace. Take the sweep of that natural embrace with you, this Lord’s Day, as with the benediction at the close of service, we mark together again both our fallibility and our mortality.
And in application, a personal coda, for the day’s restful, seaside homily, about the view from Portsmouth, from Balbec, from Cape Cod, from the shoreline:
Our summer pilgrimage to Spain this year included the ocean view from the shorelines of Mallorca. On Mallorca we had an interview with the ghost of Frederik Chopin and the spirit of George Sand. At every turn on those beautiful Ballearics one enjoys an ocean view. We carried that ocean vista with us in a return visit and retrospective journey to the haunts of college study in Segovia. The spiritual offering, the ocean view, of my Spain, just the lovely enjoyed part, can be summarized in two gorgeous Spanish nouns: siesta and paseo.
Siesta. At noon in Segovia, still, though the grace is receding in Madrid, all activity (work, study, commerce, all) ceases. At noon, one returns home, after a half-day of work, home to family, home to food, home to conversation, home to relief from heat, work, boss, responsibility, home to a massive, savory meal of wine, pasta, vegetables, wine, lamb, soup, rice, wine and pastry. After said repast, all go to sleep. It is 1:30pm and 100 degrees Farenheit. It is time to beat a hasty retreat from mad dogs, Englishmen, and the noon day sun. The common decision to leave behind ‘getting and spending in which we lay waste our powers’ is a radical cut into life, a separation, an existential liberation. Where finally do you find life? How much in work and how much in love?
Paseo. Shops in Segovia reopen at 4pm and work recommences then. Somewhat grudgingly, the labor force returns in force. But by 7:30pm or so, the ‘tiendas estan cerradas’. And then, throughout the town, the population enters into an evening parade, a daily stroll, the ‘paseo’. The walk. The evening walk. Chopin, maybe following his paseo and ocean view, said: ‘I came to stay in a wonderful cloister, in the most beautiful place in the world’. The common decision to leave behind ‘getting and spending in which we lay waste our powers’ is a radical cut into life, a separation, an existential liberation. Where finally do you find life? How much in work and how much in love? And given all we have been given, are we not for a moment ready to turn and give thanks to the Giver of every good and healing gift?
A nap and a walk and an ocean view, a reminder in gratitude of the beautiful, good, and true. Beginning with Whittier, we shall end with Tennyson.
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.
~The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel