Water

Hilton Head beach

What is it about water? Why are we so fascinated with it? We pay a premium to live by water. We go to places just because we want to be by water. We must drink it daily, use it to clean our bodies, baptize our babies. We listen to it, gaze at it, touch it, smell it, taste it for purity.

The water calls me. If I wasn’t so happy in my rural home in the foothills of the mountains, I would be where every moment of the day was accompanied by water. Fortunately my morning walk is beside a lake and I have moments to breath in the beauty.

The ocean calls me. I need time by the vastness of water, looking out to see nothing but water and sky. Every year I find a way to be renewed by the salt and sand, sky and starkness. It is the starkness of only water, sand, sky that I crave. The stripping of life to only the essential elements that renews my soul building it back from the foundation stones of existence.

For the first time I have come to the ocean alone. No children to play in the sand, no friends to share the experience, no husband to walk hand in hand on the beach. Just me. I have to be with the ocean. I’m using the excuse that I need time to write and I do. But it is the longing of my soul for the primordial water to cleanse myself in the salt water, like cleaning a crystal, an act of life-affirming renewal.

I’ve come to this same little borrowed hideaway for many years so I have my routine. The first morning is a long walk around the pristine neighborhood, seeing my favorite houses, hear the clang of metal against metal of the sailboats. This morning I walked out the pier and saw a solitary dolphin fishing for its morning meal. Every few minutes the fin or snout surfaced and I had a moment of joy.

I headed to the beach to read, walk and bob in the water. It is September so there are families with very young children and retirees, the people that are not bound to school schedules. The weather although still hot is not as intense as a month ago. I feed the parking meter and gather my chair and beach bag with the essentials: sunscreen, drinks and koozie, snacks, books, towel and phone. I alternate between reading, walking, swimming and just looking at the waves.

The water is just cool enough to be refreshing without any need to slowly get wet. Sometimes I face the vast distance and watch the birds skim across the water. The pelicans with their prehistoric silhouettes come in twos looking for fish. The seagulls fly just above the surface in large groups making the sound that is so familiar at the beach. Their squawk is as essential a sound as the crashing waves. Sometimes I face the shore with the colorful umbrellas flapping in the breeze and the colorless sea grasses nodding in agreement.

I’m not the only one who craves the ocean and aloneness. On the mantel of the cottage is a slim book, a book I had been thinking about for the last couple of week. Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, is a small book of wisdom and comfort for the inner life. Anne deeply craved solitude, her life of celebrity, family and personal tragedy left little time for quiet. In a two week trip to the beach alone, Anne wrote this treasure that has comforted women for decades.

Every chapter is telling a very familiar story woven around the beauty of shells on the beach. Anne needed time alone to sort out who she was from the world around her of demands and schedules. She voices the truth that so many of us share. Quiet, alone, solitude are not experiences to be shunned but moments to be savored as gifts to yourself so that the voice of your heart can be heard.

“Woman must come of age by herself…
She must find her true center alone“

“Perhaps this is the most important thing for me to take back from beach-living: simply the memory that each cycle of the tide is valid; each cycle of the wave is valid; each cycle of a relationship is valid.”

“I find there is a quality to being alone that is incredibly precious. Life rushes back into the void, richer, more vivid, fuller than before.”

― Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea

 

Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

A Year by the Sea by Joan Anderson

 

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Thomas Merton

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Last week I had the most unexpected delight. Brother Luke from the Abbey of Gethsamani wrote me this note.

Many thanks for the thoughtful and generous reflections about your visit to us. Rest assured, the company of our fellow pilgrims is a blessing and enrichment for us there in the choir. Every warm best wish and encouragement from us all!

I was so pleased that our time together was a blessing even though the Brothers in Gethsemani and I have never met. The quiet interaction of our devotion was equally beneficial to our hearts even though our conscious mind didn’t know the specifics. It is through the quality of our heart the blessings are received. This is one of the great mysteries and graces of the devotion of the pilgrim.

How do we grow the quality of our heart? So glad you asked! Because one of the most important spiritual writers on contemplation and devotion was a Brother at the Abbey of Gethsemani, Thomas Merton. All you have to do is open one of his many beautiful books on the contemplative life and you will find the answers to the way of a Spirit filled life. You may have heard of Thomas Merton before but if you haven’t I want to introduce him to you because he brought contemplation into the 21st century and continues the long line of Christian mystics going back to John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. You will find his influence on many of the lives of current spiritual writers.

Thomas, known as Brother Louis at Gethsamani, was born in 1915 in France to non-religious artist parents and spent his childhood going between France, England and the United States. He ultimately ended up Columbia University where he got a masters in literature, with a thesis on William Blake, the first clue of his future. By the time Thomas was in his mid-twenties, he had no living family and a deep Christian conversion. He felt called to the life of devotion and eventually found the Abbey of Gethsamani. Thomas wrote about his childhood and conversion experience and first days in the Abbey in his classic best-seller, The Seven Storey Mountain. With a great talent for writing about the contemplative life, Thomas continued his work as a writer as his vocation in the Abbey. Eventually he was able to move to a small converted hermitage on the Abbey grounds where he could spend his time in the solitude he craved. The last few years of his life (in the early 1960’s), he became increasingly interested in social justice and the common spirit between Buddhism and Christianity. He made a famous trip to India to meet the Dalai Lama and attend a global conference on world religions. Unfortunately Thomas died on that trip in an accident exactly 27 years to the day of joining the monastery.

I’ve known about Thomas Merton for many years but the visit to Gethsamani gave me the context to read his books I had collected. I could spend a lifetime with this amazing writer and mystic. But let us go back to the original question that we asked, how to grown the quality of your heart. Thomas has some beautiful suggestions. He said that you didn’t have to be a monk or nun to live the contemplative life, that the life of prayer is open to all of us. It doesn’t require hours of meditating or renunciation of the world to make your own life an act of devotion. Our lives are perfect for growing the heart for it is the act of taking time to connect with the Divine everyday and see everyone we meet and our work as service to the world. He wrote, “to be a saint is to be myself.” Doing the dishes and the laundry, our commute, caring for our children and our elderly parents can all be acts of devotion and love.

Yes, every part of our lives can be a chance for awakening. One of Thomas’ most profound experiences wasn’t in the monastery in prayer but in a moment while on a busy street in Louisville, Kentucky.

I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. . . . This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

Be who you are, love the life you have, spend moments in silence, start and end your day with moments of prayers, sing a hymn, read a scripture or inspirational book, notice the birds and the wind in the trees and realize we are “all walking around shining like the sun.”

Books by Thomas Merton:

New Seeds of Contemplation

The Seven Storey Mountain

Thoughts on Solitude

 

Books on a modern contemplative life by Marsha Sinetar:

Sometimes Enough is Enough  

Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics