Tag Archives: ocean

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole: Betwixt and Between (Epilogue)

Last year I contributed to a book edited by Tim Carson called Neither Here Nor There: The Many Voices of Liminality. The book draws together the expertise, experience, and insights of a coterie of authors, all of whom relate the core concepts of liminality to their unique experiences. Unfortunately, this book is still not available in Australia.

The blog posts that follow are my contribution to this book.

(Please note that this is the Epilogue – follow the links to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4)

It is hard to recognise the kindness and mercy of Providence when your soul seems to convulse with heartache …

Only hindsight provides us with that perspective …

Now I can say that it was mercy that led me to the shadows and the margins.

C.S. Lewis writes, “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered from time to time. God shatters it. God is the great Iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of God’s presence?” (A Grief Observed). My carefully constructed ideas of God and church lay shattered. I looked at the pieces and knew there was no rebuilding – I had to let go. How hard it is to trust that letting go process. David Foster sums it up beautifully, “Everything I’ve ever let go has claw marks on it.” Faith communities provide an instantaneous essential ingredient of what it means to be human: belonging. To leave is never easy.

Liminality is the ultimate life lesson in trust. It sounds very noble to say that we ‘choose’ to trust. I have found that I trust because I have no other options. No one throws themselves down some random rabbit hole in order to experience trust. Rather, the rabbit hole finds us, often through crisis or suffering, ushered in through our questions, or when our theological ideas no longer match our life experience. Liminality introduces us to trust.

For over two decades I had kept the oceans of mystery and paradox at bay. Suddenly the niggling doubts, the contradictions, the many questions that I used to wave to from a far and safe distance away, loomed like a tidal wave above me.

The ocean was no longer friendly. It had invaded my life and turned my world upside down.

This poem was helpful through that flood-filled time:

Breathing Underwater

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 neighbours.
Not that we spoke much.
We met in silences.
Respectful, keeping our distance
But looking at 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 flowing like an open wound.
And I thought of flight, and I thought of drowning, and I thought of death.
But while I thought, the sea crept higher till it reached my door.
And I knew that there was neither flight nor death nor drowning.
That when the sea comes calling you stop being good neighbours,
Well acquainted, friendly from a distance neighbours.
And you give your house for a coral castle
And you learn to breathe under water.

Sr. Carol Bieleck, RSCJ (from an unpublished work)

I felt like I was drifting in an endless ocean with no shore in sight.

It was the observation of a friend that brought me back from the house of sadness. “Nic, I don’t even pretend to understand what this must all feel like, but as your friend, I can tell you that the world and religious structure you were part of is really, really small. I know you think it’s the centre of the universe, but it’s not. Your world is about to get so much bigger.” He was right. Falling into liminality was about letting go of so much. I do not want to downplay the grief associated with the loss I experienced. It felt as if I was saying goodbye to something or someone else nearly every day. But I was also saying hello – to a new world, to new friends, and to a whole new way of being and seeing.

A few years have passed since saying goodbye to so much of life the way I knew it. These days I find myself quite removed from this first half of life with its overtures of religious zealotry. It has been a time of healing, detoxifying, learning to breathe again, and acclimatising to a very different world. There is a sense of standing on a threshold, “betwixt and between,” as Victor Turner once described liminality. According to Turner, it is temporal space – the midpoint between a starting point and an ending point. It holds the idea of temporarily having fallen between the cracks of social structure. However, I would agree with the wisdom of a friend who remarked that our whole life is a liminal space. It is a way of holding ourselves in this world – with an open hand, instead of tightly clutching.

Liminality, presented to me wrapped in pain, exile, and humiliation, was and is a gift. It highlighted to me the bars of my ideological and structural prison of fear, all dressed up in religious morality.

I also experienced a reunion with old friends I had left behind when entering my version of religious absolutism all those years ago. One of them was the joy of not knowing, and the other was the delight of wonder. That most ignored and banished exile of fundamentalism, wonder, has returned to me. Tentative at first, and then, detecting a safe place, she brought her suitcases and moved in …
… Every day she delights me with her songs …
… Every day she teaches me to return her gaze and open my eyes …

Liminality has also changed my taste for music. There is a new rhythm: an unforced rhythm of grace that is now free from being reduced to a necessary tick on my doctrinal boxes of orthodoxy. A rhythm that is tangible, warm, comforting, strong, and relentless.

All is grace!

So, dear Liminal Traveler, I offer you my story in the hope it will bring you a sense of connection to the many others who, like you, may have fallen down the rabbit hole. For me, liminality is the ‘thin space’ of which the Celts have spoken, the rabbit hole where the door between this world and the next is cracked open for a moment, a most uncomfortable place that not everyone will care to hear about or understand.

May you be present in it, for it is indeed a most confusing and liberating gift. Holy.

Don’t surrender your loneliness
So quickly.
Let it cut more deeply.
Let it ferment and season you
As few humans
Or even divine ingredients can.
Something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes so soft,
My voice
So tender,
My need of God
Absolutely
Clear.

Hafiz

 

Heaven in a Puddle

“Every Path has a Puddle!” – George Herbert

A few days ago my fur children and I were on our routine jaunt to the beach. It is always at a brisk pace as there is nothing more fun on Planet Earth than for the lab and the pug to plunge into the waves. So they attempted to get to the water as fast as possible, dragging their human behind them like an odd pair of sled dogs. It had rained heavily the night before, and the bumpy road and sidewalks displayed a vast array of all shapes and sizes of puddles. Now, puddles are also very close to the heart of my dogs, especially the labrador who tries to submerge himself into their shallow murkiness in the hope of who knows what!

As we came around the last corner before the beach, where the street slants ever so slightly and creates a dip on the side of the road, there it was before us … the mother of all puddles. It stretched for several meters, like a mini lake, and the lab whined with sheer joy at such a glorious sight. At that moment the clouds parted and just for a few seconds heaven was in that puddle. The sun, the clouds, and the bright blue sky admired themselves in the water-mirror on the road. And then, as quickly as they came, the heavenly display was gone, and we stood at the edge of a muddy puddle in the greyness of the day.

As I waited for the labrador to stop pretending that he was a living submarine I looked up. There was no clue of the sunshine or the blueness of the sky that had appeared in the puddle. Just dark, menacing rain clouds. But I was not fooled – I had seen heaven in a puddle – a deep azure sky and a glittering sun that shines beyond the temporary weather patterns.

Sometimes life is like that mud puddle. The truth is that for some folk, labouring in a world that often groans with insidious injustice, their whole life is a puddle – here today, gone tomorrow and forgotten. All cliches and memorable quotes put together cannot change the heartbreaking existence for many people. For others, life holds puddle-seasons. I wish it wasn’t so. I wish every child born would live a life beholding and grasping the beauty of vast oceans, crashing waves and endless beaches. But that is not yet a reality.

So we often live our lives in light of puddles – muddy, murky, messy, shallow and bedraggled. How easy it is to tell our stories and shape our reality by mud and grime, but that is not the whole story. It is just part of the story. The very puddle that holds contaminated slop is also able to hold the sun, moon, stars, billowing clouds and eternal blue heavens that hide light-years and galaxies. Now and then, like thin places and portals, our puddles become mirrors to another dimension, another way of seeing. And once you see you cannot ‘un-see’ … your story begins to change…

As the dogs and I kept walking to the beach, I stared at another puddle, and I saw my face in it. Scientists now tell us that humans and their galaxy share about ninety-seven percent of the same kind of atoms. The idea that we are stardust is not ludicrous at all. “It’s a great human-interest story that we are now able to map the abundance of all of the major elements found in the human body across hundreds of thousands of stars in our Milky way,” says Professor Jennifer Johnson from Ohio State University. It is indeed a great human-interest story. It changes our way of seeing … it changes the way I perceive the face that is staring back at me from the puddle … it changes our story. Our little puddles begin to hold galactic possibilities of the now … and the not yet.

According to Sacred text, thousands of years ago a man called Jacob had a puddle moment. He suddenly saw what was already given, unbeknownst to him, and exclaimed his surprise. My prayer for you, dear friend, is that you would have Jacob’s eyes as you contemplate the divine and the star clusters in the puddles of your life.

 

“Some people could look at a mud puddle and see an ocean with ships.” – Zora Neale Hurston

Your Life as a Deep Blue Sea

“I must be a mermaid, Rango. I have no fear of depths and a great fear of shallow living.”
– Anaïs Nin –

In the last month, we have packed up our household, travelled two thousand kilometers south with three cars and two dogs in tow, and then unpacked what we had just painstakingly wrapped up at our new residence on the glorious Mornington Peninsula in Melbourne, Australia. Our current location fulfils a bucket list dream: to live within walking distance of the sea. I have always loved the sea, and it has been calling me closer for a very long time.

A couple of days after our arrival we took a walk to explore our new neighbourhood and discovered, much to our delight, that we had landed on the shores of Port Phillip Bay just in time to watch an annual phenomenon: the spider crab migration! As we stood on the pier and observed the ocean floor, it seemed to be alive and moving – with thousands upon thousands of crabs doing their crab thing. It was fascinating. Someone we know has spent many hours filming this nature extravaganza – have a look at her blog here.

As we walked out to the end of the pier observing these enchanting, pre-historic-like creatures, the water became deeper and darker. Eventually, the crabs disappeared into the sheer depth of the sea and no one would have known of the crustacean diaspora that was unfolding on the ocean floor. At that moment the sun disappeared behind the clouds and as the day became grey, the ocean, still alluring, seemed almost menacing. A few moments before, if the temperature was right (!!), I would have willingly and joyfully jumped into the sparkling water, but now I felt hesitant and unsure. The sea, like our life, is both enticing and terrifying, alluring and menacing, welcoming and hostile, joyful and grim. Yes, our life is a bit like the deep blue sea.

Us humans suffer from ‘chronic assumption disease’ – it is easy to assume we know one another. But how can we possibly comprehend what goes on in the depth or the shallows of another person’s life? Or, for that matter, have we taken time to consider our own life with all its ups and downs, crystal calm moments and stormy waves? Do you ever find yourself doing or saying something and wondering where the hell did that come from?

Spiritual contemplatives and mystics of all different faith traditions have encouraged us to observe the patterns of our lives and pay heed to our ways. It is the practice of reflection and recognition that brings us to maturity, contentment and/or change. The sea is a gift to us. It connects us to meaning and purpose. A sunset over the water fills us with wonder. A beach holiday rejuvenates the weary. It provides us with a powerful metaphor for our lives. We can build on an idea that our life is a peaceful lake – predictable and measurable. However, it only takes a few years of existence on this planet to discover that our life, your life, my life is a lot more like the roaring, at time tumultuous, mysterious and playful sea – full of stories and adventure.

Your life, dear friend, is not a lake or a puddle or a single stream story. No, it is so much more – it is wide and deep and blue. It contains Leviathan will all its fury, and yet Nemo can also find a home there 🙂 It is your mystery and a constant reminder that you are held in the loving hands of Divine Mystery. May you live it to the full. Happy scuba diving … surfing … sailing … swimming … snorkeling … paddling … breathing …

“The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. To dig for treasures shows not only impatience and greed but lack of faith. Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach – waiting for a gift from the sea.”
– Ann Morrow Lindbergh (Gift from the Sea) –

What The Sea Teaches Us

“Listening through the heart is not something you must learn to do. It is something you need only reclaim and remember.”
– Stephanie Dowrick –

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I loved going to the sea ever since I can remember. In Germany it was the chilly harbours along the North Sea. The fishermen would sit there like a line of dominoes on the freezing cement curbs, their buckets filled with a variety of sole, mackerel, cod or whiting, while their cigarettes created a hazy cloud above their heads.

When we moved to South Africa we would use our weekends to visit Durban’s magnificent Indian Ocean. I have a distinct memory of my father and I enjoying the huge waves before being told off by the lifeguard. As newly arrived immigrants we did not understand a word that this bad-tempered, red-faced man was saying to us until he pointed to the rather obvious warning sign displaying a giant shark. Apparently, we were swimming in unprotected water and had thereby become tantalising human bait.

Since moving to Australia over three decades ago, I have never failed to appreciate the beautiful beaches of this fair isle. I have spent many hours walking the Mornington and Bellarine Peninsulas in Melbourne. The Sunshine Coast here in Queensland, however, has to take the prize for some of the most breathtaking beaches I have ever seen. And there is something so therapeutic about walking on their shores.

The sea teaches us many things. One of them is that there is a rhythm to life that we can miss amongst our often artificial, neon lights of suburbia. Nothing can stop the sun from rising or setting and no barrier can stop the tide from rolling in. Observing and connecting with this rhythmic part of nature stirs something deep inside of us … whispers of hope and providence.

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Swimming in the deep blue sea has always thrilled and scared me. It reminds me of life. The deep is not safe, yet sitting on the shores is not an option. On the shores I will never experience the healing, stinging salt water that washes over me, like my tears and my prayers. You never learn to swim in the shallows. There is something about launching out into the deep. Many years ago Jesus told a disheartened fisherman to launch into the deep. The rest, as they say, is history.

I look at my feet as I squelch the sand between my toes. The many broken shells remind me that they too, once held life, and that life passes quickly. “Travel lightly,” they whisper to me. Life is short and these feet are made for walking, not for being tied to the many cumbersome burdens that modernity claims we need. Accompanied by the unruly frivolity that overtakes my hair at the beach, it adds the classic reminder: “Beach Hair Don’t Care.” The sea and its shores reminds us of the splendid and simple joys of life.

Most of all, the sea reminds me that to wait is holy. The sea cannot be rushed or ruled. We can only wait … and in that sacrament of waiting we find untold treasures. Isn’t it about time you took a walk on the beach, dear friend?

“The beach is not a place to work; to read, write or to think … The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. To dig for treasures shows not only impatience and greed, but lack of faith. Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach—waiting for a gift from the sea.”
– Anne Morrow Lindbergh (Gift from the Sea) –

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