Pretend you are on retreat and the leader puts this moon shell in your hand. The leader then invites you: “Ponder this shell and then prayerfully allow its shape and beauty to open up your heart.”
That’s what Anne Morrow Lindbergh does in “Gift from the Sea,” her amazing 1955 collection of essays inspired by seashells.
“This is a snail shell, round, full and glossy as a horse chestnut. Comfortable and compact, it sits curled up like a cat in the hollow of my hand. Milky and opaque, it has the pinkish bloom of the sky on a summer evening, ripening to rain. On its smooth symmetrical face is penciled with precision a perfect spiral, winding inward to the pinpoint center of the shell, the tiny dark core of the apex, the pupil of the eye. It stares at me, this mysterious single eye – and I stare back.
“Now it is the moon, solitary in the sky, full and round, replete with power. Now it is the eye of a cat that brushes noiselessly through long grass at night. Now it is an island, set in ever-widening circles of waves, alone, self contained, serene.”
By the end of her essay “Moon Shell” she has referenced Quakers, Plotinus, Catherine of Siena (“The cell of self-knowledge is the stall in which the pilgrim must be reborn.”) John Donne, William James, Mary and Martha, and Virginia Woolf.
It’s a poignant essay by a woman longing for solitude and stillness, a time and space of her own. She wrote it during a precious few weeks on a Florida island away from her husband and five kids. She names the moon shell her “island shell” and takes it home with her to remind her of this time apart.
I read this book long ago, and remembered her lovely descriptions of shells. But rereading it this week I was struck by Morrow Lindbergh’s sadness and longing. Even though she lived what seemed a privileged and successful life, she felt trapped, like many women in the 1950’s, by the needs and expectations of others. She says the moon shell reminds her of what Jesus calls Mary’s “better choice” against all the distractions of a Martha life.
It was restless women like Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Betty Friedan who helped the second wave of feminism come crashing onto the shores of America in the 60’s. Like Morrow Lindbergh’s revelations from the sea, so white middle class women heard a call to leave the stifling confines of the suburbs, seeking voice and choice.
I like that we call the different eras of the women’s movement “waves.” A good image for what can happen when we listen to the sea and its many gifts.
(We’ve got 18 great Blue Theologians here this week from churches in Lakeport and North Hollywood, experiencing waves and moon shells, solitude and stillness. bluetheology.com)