Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Coral Castle/Breathing Underwater

Coral Castle/Breathing Underwater

“The sea crept higher, till it reached my door.
And I knew, then, there was neither flight, nor death, nor drowning.
That when the sea comes calling, you stop being neighbors,
Well acquainted, friendly-at-a-distance neighbors,
And you give your house for a coral castle,
And you learn to breathe underwater.”

You may recognize these concluding words of the poem “Breathing Under Water,” by Sister Carol Bieleck, RSCJ, if you’ve read the fabulous book of the same title by Franciscan Father Richard Rohr, about Spirituality and the 12 Steps.

In a Blue Theology prayer book of “Ocean Devotions,” this one could be my Call to Worship.

Here’s the whole poem.  Just read it and let it “sink” in.  I then add a few reflections, including a cool idea about how coral itself breathes underwater, and helps us all breathe as well. 

But, really, the poem sinks/floats on its own – it might be best just to let the deep mystery be, leave that tender wet moment alone.

Breathing Under Water
I built my house by the sea.
Not on the sands, mind you;
not on the shifting sand.
And I built it of rock.
A strong house
by a strong sea.
And we got well acquainted, the sea and I.
Good neighbors.
Not that we spoke much.
We met in silences.
Respectful, keeping our distance,
but looking our thoughts across the fence of sand.
Always, the fence of sand our barrier,
always, the sand between.
And then one day,
-and I still don’t know how it happened –
the sea came.
Without warning.
Without welcome, even
Not sudden and swift, but a shifting across the sand like wine,
less like the flow of water than the flow of blood.
Slow, but coming.
Slow, but flowing like an open wound.
And I thought of flight and I thought of drowning and I thought of death.
And while I thought the sea crept higher, till it reached my door.
And I knew, then, there was neither flight, nor death, nor drowning.
That when the sea comes calling, you stop being neighbors,
Well acquainted, friendly-at-a-distance neighbors,
And you give your house for a coral castle,
And you learn to breathe underwater.

-Rohr uses the poem’s imagery to offer, in his words, “some underwater breathing lessons for a culture and a church that often appears to be drowning without knowing it,” trapped in the rising tide of brokenness and addiction, needing to surrender to God.  Rohr calls the 12 Steps “12 Breathing Lessons.”  Having had a spiritual awakening, “We can breathe, and we can even breathe under water, because the breath of God is everywhere.”
-“Breathing under water doesn’t make sense,” writes Fr. Arthur MacKay in a lecture based on Rohr’s book.  “God acting on us does not make sense– in a world where we thought we succeeded, or failed on OUR OWN…  It is the opposite of what we expect, a paradox.”  Rohr calls that paradox healing, salvation, recovery.  
-Why is a castle made of coral so intriguing?  I had a fishbowl in college with a fabulous castle my goldfish swan in and through.  My mother read me Robert Louis Stevenson’s  A Child’s Garden of Verses, and I can still recite the poem of a little boy dreaming as he sends boats of stick and leaves down river; “Green leaves a floating, Castles of the foam, Boats of mine a-boating, Where will all come home?”  Castles of the foam.  I want to live there in that mysterious wet palace.

-Talk about mystery – coral.  It does breathe underwater.  It looks like rock, forms solid reefs.  But coral is an animal.  And coral has its own in-house food service – ocean algae, a plant, lives in symbiosis with and within the coral.  Animal and plant each ensure the other will live – structure and safety for the plant, built-in food for the coral animal.  And while coral reefs cover only 0.0025 percent of the oceanic floor, those resident plants inside the coral generate much of the Earth’s oxygen.  Breathing for themselves underwater, corals also help create the oxygen that keeps us alive. 

Another reason to move into the coral castle.  There we can breathe.

I post these ocean devotions every Wednesday here and on Facebook.  Dive in with me!

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Sandcastle Theologian

Sandcastle Theologian
Paul Tillich built sandcastles all his life.  First on the sands of the Baltic Sea as a child and as an adult.  Then in the US, from his 40’s long into retirement, on the Atlantic beaches at his beloved home on the eastern tip of Long Island. 
I have always pictured Tillich as a man of cities, this profound Protestant theologian.  He taught in urban, industrial Berlin, Dresden, and Frankfort until the Nazis forced him to flee Germany.  In 1933 the faculty of Union Theological Seminary all agreed to take a cut in pay to fund Tillich’s escape and new life in the bustle and business of New York City, where he lived the rest of his life.
But Tillich credited time spent on the coast and by the sea with inspiring many of his radical new ideas and new language of theology. 
(This is a longer post than I usually do, reprinted from another website I used to write for.  Tillich is hard to edit/summarize, but if you can, keep reading to the end for a sweet Frederick Buechner story about Tillich building in the sand and weeping.)
In his late career reflection On the Boundaries: An Autobiographical Sketch, Tillich frames his whole life as a series of paradoxes, boundaries he straddled, one of which is “The Boundary of City and Country.”  He writes:
“The weeks and later months that I spent by the sea every year from the time I was eight were even more important [than his family background] for my life and work.  The experience of the infinite bordering on the finite suited my inclination toward the boundary situation and supplied my imagination with a symbol that gave substance to my emotions and creativity to my thought.  Without this experience it is likely that my theory of the human boundary situation, as expressed in Religious Work, might not have developed as it did.
“There is another development to be found in the contemplation of the sea; its dynamic assault on the serene firmness of the land and the ecstasy of its gales and waves.  My theory of the “dynamic mass” in the essay “Mass and Spirit” was conceived under the immediate influence of the turbulent sea.  The sea also supplied the imaginative element necessary for the doctrines of the Absolute as both ground and abyss of dynamic truth, and of the substance of religion as the thrust of the eternal into finitude. 
"Nietzsche said that no idea can be true unless it was thought in the open air.  Many of my ideas were conceived in the open and much of my writing done among trees or by the sea.  Alternating regularly between the elements of town and country always has been and still is part of what I consider indispensable and inviolable in my life.”
Tillich can be a bit dense and abstract.  Let me unpack the above quotation for its “marine theology.” 
§      Coast and ocean give Tillich an imaginative symbol for the human experience of “the infinite bordering on the finite” and of religion as “the thrust of the eternal into finitude.” Ocean is the eternal, the infinite, while we land mammals are dependent on the land, the finite, but drawn to the depths, to the infinite.  We are boundary, coastal people, longing for the infinite. 

§     The infinite he also calls “the depths” and “the abyss” (which in Greek means ocean depths) and writes in a sermon, “The name of infinite and inexhaustible depth is God.  That depth is what the word God means.”

§   Tillich likes the word “dynamic” – the dynamics of faith, and here, “the dynamic, ecstatic ocean” and “the Absolute (God) as ground and abyss of dynamic truth.”

§    True ideas come from the open air, and open sea.  Tillich loved cities, but he had studied German Romanticism, that we experience God in nature.  In several sermons he condemns our utilitarian view of nature and how we must hear nature itself longing and crying for salvation.

But Tillich not only thought “deep” thoughts at the sea.  He played there.  I’m reading a biography of Tillich in which a grainy snapshot of a Long Island Tillich sandcastle appears.  There are also all kinds of stories about his extensive travels, long walks, mountain climbing, and rambles by the sea. 

And there is this beach story about Tillich that Frederick Buechner relates.
“They say that whenever the great Protestant theologian Paul Tillich went to the beach, he would pile up a mound of sand and sit on it gazing out at the ocean with tears running down his cheeks. One wonders what there was about it that moved him so.
“The beauty and power of it? The inexpressible mystery of it? The futility of all those waves endlessly flowing in and ebbing out again? The sense that it was out of the ocean that life originally came and that when life finally ends, it is the ocean that will still remain? Who knows?
“In his theology Tillich avoided using the word God because it seemed to him too small, denoting only another being among beings. He preferred to speak instead of the Ground of Being, of God as that which makes being itself possible, as that because of which existence itself exists. His critics complain that he is being too metaphysical. They say they can't imagine praying to anything so abstract and remote.
“Maybe Tillich himself shared their difficulty. Maybe it was when he looked at the ocean that he caught a glimpse of the One he was praying to. Maybe what made him weep was how vast and overwhelming it was and yet at the same time as near as the breath of it in his nostrils, as salty as his own tears.”
Why is it so sweet to picture Tillich doing the childlike playful act of making a sandcastle?  Why are we surprised to hear of him sitting on a pile of sand and weeping?  Maybe because we believe the stereotype of German sternness or that theologians repress their feelings?  Do we assume that academics stay inside all day?  Can one have such “deep” profound ideas and then spend hours building something that the tide will destroy?  
This ocean person is simply grateful that Tillich followed his countryman Nietzsche’s idea that true ideas must be thought in the open air.  For me to be able to finish this essay, I had to take a walk outside.  Thanks, Paulus.
I post these ocean devotions every Wednesday here and on Facebook.  Come and sea.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Who is Safe at Point Lobos?

Who is Safe at Point Lobos?

Was Point Lobos State Reserve here on Monterey Bay a safe place for me to hike this past week? Closed since March because of the pandemic, this magical place, called “the crown jewel of the State Park system,” welcomed me back to its power and beauty that day, alongside a zillion of my closest friends.  If you plan to go, get there early.

Of course Point Lobos is safe – it’s a State Reserve, not a State Park.  To “reserve” means “to set aside, to preserve for future use.”  Which is also a definition of “to make safe.”  Considering that Point Lobos in 19th and early 20th century was a busy commercial site for fishing, whaling, abalone canning, coal mining, granite quarrying, cattle raising, and that it almost became a town with hundreds of homes, Point Lobos was indeed saved, and set aside for the future. 

Designated a State Reserve in the 1960s, it later became part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary -  sanctuary, again, means a safe place.  And it’s part of the California State Marine Reserves network, which limits fishing in its waters.

Unlike a Park, a Reserve is managed with the wildlife in mind, not people – no ball games, stay on the trail, closed before sunset when the animals come out to eat. 

Which means it’s actually only safe for the animals and trees and ocean, no guaranteed safety for us.    It’s closed occasionally in the winter during high surf, high winds, downed trees and mudslides, because the people, not the animals, might get hurt.

Some of us locals (and probably some tourists) grumble that the State folks are being too cautious.  On any day, wet or dry, winter or summer, a guest could risk life on the wet rocks, slip on a trail, trip over a branch.  Life is dangerous.  We go to what has been called “the greatest meeting of land and sea,” to the wild, to, as Thoreau said, see our limits pushed.

Some of us grumbled also when it was closed in March – can’t we be outside and distance and escape our lockdown?  They tried keeping it open, but folks were not staying apart or wearing masks, and then the whole coast was coned off to discourage out of town visitors.  Now those turnouts and beaches are slowly reopening.   Lobos was one of the last to welcome visitors back.

Maybe State Parks is just doing their job, being good stewards, when they close it.  The land and trees and animals need some recovery time free of thrill-seeking tourists, some respite after a storm.  It’s not all about us and what we want.  Stewardship sometimes means saying no.

I did feel safe on my hike at Lobos.  This time around everyone was wearing a mask, and rangers cautioned us to distance and be safe.  But will I go back?  Not sure – that was a lot of people and so many cars parked on the highway to pass coming and going.  It was great to see deer and dolphins, lupines and lace lichen, granite and breakers, Whaler’s Cove and Bird Island. 

But I think I’ll do my small part to let it be a true sanctuary and reserve, without my presence at least for a while.  Let it rest, and be safe.
I post these ocean devotions every Wednesday here and on Facebook. 
Ocean blessings to you all.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Water: Struggle, Pain, Rebirth

Water: Struggle, Pain, Rebirth

“Black bodies have always known struggle when it comes to water.”

If you’ve been to a poetry slam, you know the power of the performance. It must be heard, not just read.
to hear “Water” by these four artists.  I tried to transcribe it – here are some excerpts.   

More info below on ocean murder at sea during the Middle Passage.  But really, watch and listen….

 (Singing…) “Under the sea, under the sea…”

Wading in the water are the bones of our sons and daughters.
On high tide skeletons skate on soil.

Black bodies have always known struggle when it comes to water.

In a cemetery disguised as an oceanic playground
I was in the Middle Passage between ashes and holiness.
An oil spill of our family polluted the water.

I, my sister’s keeper, sacrificed my breath to keep her afloat.
She sank to the bottom to raise me
But something raised me
Palms on the soles of our feet
Ancestral ghosts wouldn’t allow the sea to swallow us whole -  again.

After Yemaya, African goddess of water, gave birth to the 14 arishas, her water breaking caused the great flood that created the ocean.
After my own mother’s water broke she named me Morgan.  It means “of the sea.”
And the water was where she hoped I’d learn to breathe.
But when my father told me the truth of my conception as they drowned themselves in liquor on homecoming night, it was then that I realized I was gifted with the name so I would never have to know what sinking felt like.

Black bodies paving ocean floors
Like drowning family trees
This is why waves taste like tears
This is why oceans are salty.

Black bodies have always known pain when it comes to water.

I press my ear to an abandoned skull, hear the thoughts of the woman who used to live inside it.
The struggle and the scream, “They tried to kill me.”
It was the sound of the ocean.  I was told it was a conch.  But they didn’t know.
Yamaya’s first gift to humans was a seashell in which our voice could always be heard,

A reminder that whether slave ships, firehoses, levies, tears, 

Black bodies have always known rebirth when it comes to water.

No bullets, no fists, no chains, no whips can hurt an ocean
We are children of the sea
Underwater is where we have learned to…..(big breath.)

“Up on the soil they work all day
Out in the sun they slave away
While we devotin’
Full time to floatin’
Under the sea.”

I wrote last week about Danni Washington who taught me of the lingering anger and pain from so many deaths at sea during the Atlantic Slave Trade.  Dear friend Anne Swallow Gillis sent me this performance by a team at a Youth Speaks poetry slam, “Brave New Voices.”  (

More research led me to this sculpture by Jason deCaires Taylor on the ocean floor off Grenada of 26 Black children holding hands underwater.   And to a review of a book, “Slavery at Sea” by Sowande’ Mustakeem that estimates 15% of slaves were thrown overboard alive or dead, maybe 1.5 million bodies and souls in the ocean graveyard.  

“Slavery was not a phenomenon experienced once captives disembarked, but rather, as Mustakeem suggests, slavery began in that liminal space at sea…Mustakeem challenges the notion that the plantation was first initiation into the world of chattel slavery. Viewed from within her daring paradigm, the experiences at sea constituted the first phase of enslavement…..She asks readers to understand the Middle passage from the standpoint of the men, women and children confined to the hull of leaking “waterlogged coffins.”

When it comes to water, let us learn of the struggle, share in the pain, and labor for the rebirth.
I write these ocean devotions every Wednesday here and at on Facebook.   Our Blue Theology Mission Station service trips for youth are cancelled this summer, but we still pray and work for the ocean here on Monterey Bay.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Black Lives and Blue Water

Black Lives and Blue Water

In my pantheon of heroes and sheroes, my new favorite is Danni Washington, science storyteller, passionate ocean advocate, STEM advocate for young people especially girls and the only woman of color hosting a TV science show.

At age 21, a recent marine science grad from Univ. of Miami, Danni founded “The Big Blue and You” to educate and inspire youth about ocean conservation through art and media, with yearly “Art by the Sea” celebrations, so far involving 5000 kids.  In her fab “Pearls of Wisdom” series she connects girls to marine science mentors like legendary Dr. Sylvia Earle, “Her Deepness,” pictured here.  She hosts the CBS series “Xploration: Nature Knows Best,” and was involved in this year’s hugely successful Smithsonian Earth Day project “Earth Optimism.”  Just to name a few.  Check them out, and her website, Instagram pics and YouTube channel.  (I first heard her speak at the March for the Ocean in DC two years ago.)

This past week she spoke with David Helvarg (another hero) on his podcast “Rising Seas” about “Black Lives and Blue Water.”  She bemoaned the stereotype that the environmental community is a white middle class movement, pointing out polls that asked, “Are you alarmed or concerned about climate change?” 69% of Latinx folks said yes, 57% of Blacks, and only 49% of whites.  She reminded us that communities of color are the most impacted by climate change, pollution and rising seas, especially in frontline communities like along the Gulf.

I learned something new from her about Black folks and water.  “With the history of the transatlantic slave trade, Black people have a unique relationship to the water because of the traumas inflicted on them in the water, with millions of lives lost at sea.  Water served as a barrier, imprisoning folks, keeping them enslaved because they didn’t know how to swim.  That legacy was passed on from generation to generation all the way to Jim Crow, when we were not allowed access to public pools, couldn’t learn to swim.  Black kids today are 10 times more likely to drown that white kids.  To swim is a basic skill we should have, it’s the first step to entering the ocean and wanting to be part of and connecting with our blue planet.”

Check out her various projects to learn more.  She is smart, funny, wise.  Indeed another of her creative ways to get kids into the ocean is by presenting herself as the “Mocha Mermaid – alluring, playful, mysterious and wise.”  Look up her mermaid costume!  Our world needs more such ocean advocates.
I post these ocean devotions every Wednesday here and at on Facebook.
  I am always happy to share ideas and projects/people/practices to deepen your connection to the ocean.  Be in touch!  FYI the Monterey Bay Aquarium is reopening July 13 for limited reserved visitors.  However I won’t be going back to my 22 year volunteer guide shift just now, too risky for this household of oldsters, maybe in the future.