The Old Man and the Sea

August 18, 2015 Length: 18:11

It's summertime! Does God speak to us through the wind, waves, and sun? Fr. Steven thinks so, and talks about why all of life is sacred and that our witness weakens because we fail to live the Church outside the Church.

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My dear friends, you’ve all been there: the sun beating down on the sand, the smell of fresh and restorative sea salt peppering the air, the sound of the crashing waves, far more effective than any sound-box could ever be, the brisk and startling taste of salt water, the unbelievably beautiful vistas, whether on a clear day or cloudy. Yes, I’m talking about a visit to the ocean. As the summer wraps down and we are called back to more serious things through our participation in the feast of our Lady’s Dormition, many of us have attempted a little R-and-R, fun in the sun, or even a chance at a quite time for reflection, all depending on your age, marital status, and whether the presence of children colors your activities. For the first time in a number of years, I, too, returned to what I have always considered the healthiest and most peaceful of venues. Indeed, I find it difficult to return home once there, the allure of the sounds and smells of the environment proving intoxicatingly seductive.

But more than a call to abandon all and enter into a life of simple pleasures and laziness, the ocean seems to me to be representative of something far more primal. Some have proclaimed that their contemplation of the sea leads them to the realization of how insignificant they are in the face of such an overwhelming and vastly incomprehensible force. After all, as many scientists say, we know much more about outer space at this point in history than we do about the secrets that the oceans hide. And at times even I am tempted to fall into a sort of vague pantheism when contemplating them. It is too easy to ponder one’s existence as something purely biological when we know that even our very bodies are 99%, well—water.

Is there something about this like-meeting-like that makes us so drawn to something essential for life? In Genesis, it is recorded that God formed man out of the dust of the ground and breathed in his face the breath of life. This happened right after a fountain came up from the ground and watered the whole face of the earth. This added detail from the second Genesis creation story shows that water was intimately connected with mankind, who appeared right after the watering of the earth. Who was to say whether the dust from which man was taken was dry or not? All indications point to the fact that water is an element intrinsic even to our very first appearance on the earth. It is the most basic element needed for our lives, and constant replenishment guarantees our continuation. So should it come as a surprise that when we see this gigantic source of life and health and regeneration of body and soul, we are drawn to it in ways we cannot even understand?

Walt Whitman, in one of his many seminal works of poetry, said in response to his experience of the ocean in the work “Sea Drift”:

As I watch the bright stars shining, I think a thought of the clef of the universes and of the future.

A vast similitude interlocks all, [...]
All distances of place however wide,
All distances of time, [...]
All souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different,[...]
All nations, [...]
All identities that have existed or may exist, [...]
All lives and deaths, all of the past, present, future,
This vast similitude spans them, and always has spann’d,
And shall forever span them and [compactly] hold and enclose them.

From an Orthodox Christian standpoint, Whitman comes very close to summarizing the attitude that we have towards our common humanity in its relationship to the Creator. Now, Whitman was no Orthodox Christian, but he did develop aspects of his own gifts and God-given talents thoroughly, and as a result we can certainly sympathize with these perceptive and intoxicatingly human observations.

A cursory glance at the Book of Psalms shows the Prophet-King David entranced with the beauties of creation. To him, creation itself testified to the greatness of the Lord and all the wisdom found in the very nature of that creation. This wisdom is our Lord Jesus Christ, who created the world and all that is in it by the command of the Father and the power of the Holy Spirit. Every vespers service, we hear:

O Lord, your works shall be magnified greatly.
You made all things in wisdom.
The earth was filled with your creation.
There is this great and spacious sea.
The creeping things are there without number;
The living things are there, both small and great (LXX Psalm 104:24-25).

Clearly, David was enamored of the Lord’s work and saw in it an opportunity for praise and adoration. The temptation to confine gratitude and worship to the walls of the church is in fact reflective of a heresy that tells us that God can be confined, that his boundaries are set. God does allow himself to be found in a special, sacrificial manner in a temple or ark or the Mother of God whom we are celebrating, or in a church building consecrated to him, but he is also everywhere present and fills all things, the operative word being all. This heresy of confinement and setting limits to the Lord must be fought on all fronts. We must never be accused of star-gazing or any sort of pantheism; this must always be made clear, and that we see in the Lord’s works the Lord himself and no other.

But neither must we succumb to the disease of secularism, that which attempts to dissect our Christian lives into categories with appurtenances and attributes common to the artificial distinctions of sacred and secular. For the Christian there is no such thing. All of life is sacred, and is made so by the appearance of and acceptance of the grace which our Lord Jesus Christ provides to the whole world. This is a significant point to be made when the Church interacts with the world. It adds a dimension of importance, consideration, and holiness to all things revealed in the world: scientific, artistic, political, humanitarian, and, yes, even the hideous. For the aberrant acts of human beings, according to our own theology, do not deprive them of the image of God, even when we have a terrible time trying to recognize it. Indeed, one could argue from an Orthodox standpoint that even the brutality of radical Islam in the guise of so-called ISIS is reflective of an attempt to coalesce the spiritual—though their concept of that particular term is wildly perverse—out of the secular. This, indeed, might be the greatest heresy of Islam, which as St. John of Damascus reminds us, is a Christian heresy. St. John tells us:

A false prophet named Mohammed has appeared in their midst. This man, after having chanced upon the Old and New Testaments and likewise, it seems, having conversed with an Arian monk, devised his own heresy.

The Orthodox teaching always sees the world as good, with even mankind’s worst moments unable to tarnish the essentially sacred nature of creation. Orthodoxy seeks to reclaim that which is lost and to uncover the beauties of that which is encrusted with dirt, not to enslave any free human being of God-given free will by enforcement. If God desired this, he could have mandated it for Adam and Eve in the beginning and saved everyone a great deal of time and grief. But part of the wonder of creation resides precisely in our ability to discover and discern it. Who has not marveled upon the manifest beauties when suddenly coming upon an unexpected scenic panorama, or feels chills down the spine at a certain moment in a particular piece of music, or even when new meaning is uncovered in a familiar text from literature or poetry, and not even to mention that which we discover every time we concentrate and pray over a piece of Scripture which is always inexhaustible.

I am often reminded of that quote near the end of the movie, American Beauty, from the narrator, who happens to be dead and was prematurely murdered, about his life:

It’s hard to stay mad [he says] when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much. My heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst, and then I remember to relax and stop trying to hold onto it, and then it flows through me like rain, and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life.

The point here is that, not only is the world full of beauty, it is beauty itself, in that God created it and infused every molecule with life, and life comes only from him. He himself also walked among us in this very world. “Consider the lilies of the field,” he said. “Even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these,” showing that Jesus was all too aware of the glories of creation. And where the movie goes wrong is that no life is little or stupid. Thomas Carlyle, the man whose French history inspired Charles Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities, was insistent that: “One of the Godlike things in this world is the veneration done to human worth by the hearts of men.” Certainly, something some sections of the world need to hear these days.

King David again tells us about man: “For you have made him a little lower than the angels, and you have crowned him with glory and honor.” No life is small. No life is insignificant or useless in the eyes of the Lord, who is mindful of every moment of every day in each human being who ever lived. St. John Chrysostom instructs us that God loves us more than a father, mother, friend, or any else could love, and even more than we are able to love ourselves.

This same creation, both the mundane and the more exalted human explorations of it, should suffice to give us spiritual nourishment our entire lives, to brighten the day and awaken the spirit when we begin to feel down and out about life’s sometimes tiring vicissitudes and random-like spins of the wheel. There is much to draw on as substantive spiritual forage that resides just an eyeball’s glance away. And particularly useful it is when we try to convey the Orthodox message to the world at large. If one is looking for despair, confusion, tyranny, hopelessness, and fatal shackling of the human spirit, well, all one really needs is a cable or satellite subscription. If one is looking for a religion that commands and controls, something which assures salvation if only the rules are followed, and which appeals because there is a seeming emphasis on discipline that masquerades as piety, there are numerous directions in which one could wander. But if one wishes not a religion or public media, but something that proclaims loudly, incessantly, and consistently the utter dominion of God over the earth, that reflects his glory and beauty in all its parts, and that values the life of every man and woman, no matter how lowly or exalted, no matter what station of life or circumstance, then Orthodoxy is not just an answer but the answer.

Yet Orthodox tend to forget this themselves, and instead live their lives either in self-acculturated enclaves or false models of the Church that lean towards the aforementioned regulatory prototypes. Again, this is not to dismiss the importance of the assembly that all Orthodox gather in week after week and hopefully often day after day, for this is mandated by the Bridegroom of the Church and offers life-giving spiritual sustenance that is imperative if one wants to call oneself an Orthodox Christian.

But the test of the efficacy of what you receive in church is demonstrated by what you do outside of church, and this is where the failings occur. It is too easy to give into the temptation of secularism and try to parcel our lives into the here of church and the there of everything else. Sometimes this is because we simply are not aware that what we talk about on Sunday is also to be found during the week in other venues. We leave behind the spiritual because we intrinsically deny that the spiritual is found in many, many other places. We might not realize this, but the genuine practice of too many Orthodox prove the point. They have adopted the secular heresy into the everyday reality of their own lives and so lose a very valuable tool in failing to see the multitudinous examples of the spiritual that reside in everything around them.

When you come to a realization of this, your life changes and changes dramatically. In truth, for many, life may actually be a little more comfortable if we feel that we are in our world—God is in his—and we don’t have to constantly deal with him. But for those seeking a sincere and profoundly intimate and holy relationship with him, it is essential to seek him at all times. And he is not stingy in manifesting himself in all of his creation. And moreso for those who want to offer the world around them an escape plan for the hell of their often difficult daily lives; this becomes obligatory. For our view of the world is one that, by its very nature, is full of radiance and gratitude, love for every person, creature, creation, and the wonderful works that mankind produces and that God has given it to discover.

We see the difficulties and failings of human beings far better than anyone else, yet, unlike everyone else, we also see the solution and, what is best, have the capacity to offer it to others. We must only become more self-aware in this process, to develop the grace that God gives us, to understand what and who God is and what he offers us and where all of this is to be found—the Orthodox Church—and through the Church, everywhere, of course. And our faith gives us the power to see it and to proclaim it.

These are things that a trip to the beach can bring, yet, if this particular old man was more spiritually attuned than he is, the sea would have waited, not to inspire a newness of discovery, but only a confirmation of what he should have found long before. But I will take what I can get and try to remind myself long before the next journey—in fact, starting right now—that the wonders of our Lord are right in front of me: every breath that he pleases me to take. These are his blessings, and a moment without apprehending them is indeed a moment of life wasted. I pray to be worthy of these many blessings. And also I pray that God may bless each and every one of you.