Ralph McMichael

The Beauty of a Beach

An 1890’s photo of visitors on the northern Gulf coast

 

After almost 40 years as a member of the clergy, I have recently done something that might have worried me when first ordained: I gathered with members of my wider family for an Easter weekend at the beach. We had Easter family devotions, but I was not ‘in church.’ And yet…

For Anglicans, and others in the broader Catholic tradition, nature and the supernatural are not seen as being antithetical, poised to combat one another in an adversarial way. We see nature as ‘graced;’ a view significantly different from one that confuses nature with Grace and or with the divine. We acknowledge the reality and power of sin, and our consequential human separation from God. Therefore, we fully appreciate the Grace of the Holy Spirit in offering us the opportunity for redemption without price or penalty (except for the need to renounce our pride).

A frequently used opening sentence for Daily Morning Prayer is this versicle and response: “The earth is the Lord’s for he made it: Come, let us adore him.”

And much loved are the opening words of Psalm 19: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork.”

Having grown up near the sea in Japan, and having crossed the Pacific Ocean five times by ship over those years (14 days each way), I have a strong sense of affinity with coasts, salt water, and ocean passages.

At the age of 21, I spent much of Lent camping and fasting as a solitary on the south shore of the Greek island of Crete. I traveled there by bus, from London to Athens, and then by ferry to Crete, the cheapest way I could find. It was between terms at Oxford, and I limited my reading to the New Testament and the recorded sayings of the Desert Fathers. The beach on the Mediterranean Sea was my place of rest, reflection, and refreshment. I am sure that many others find being on the beach the most alluring experience of the sea.

Why is finding peace on a beach such a common experience? Here are some briefly stated reasons why this might be:

⁃getting away from routine, stress, etc
⁃getting away to beautiful surroundings and relative quiet, accompanied by relaxed interchange with people outside of daily business interactions
⁃the seductive rhythm of the lapping waves, whether small or large
⁃often an onshore breeze, due to water and air temperature disparity
⁃the opportunity to just sit, doze, and or walk slowly on the sand

And yet, the paradox of our often-sought experience of being on a beautiful beach lies in its contrast with our biblical forebears’ pronounced ambivalence about the sea, and their sometimes downright fear and disparagement of it. For the Israelites, the sea was a context that evoked community memories of the flight from Egypt and the deliverance at the Red Sea, an experience relived symbolically in the later Jordan crossing into the promised land. Much Old Testament imagery, some of it memorably recorded in the Psalms and also in Jonah, shaped New Testament appreciation for Jesus’ ministry when he calmed waves and storms on the Sea of Galilea.

All this is not to provide justification for the idea that we can be just as close to God on the golf course or at the beach as we can be at church. Instead, we should treasure experiences of the beauty of the sea, and opportunities to encounter them. But we should even more treasure celebrating the Eucharist in church, not as a duty, but as a joyful re-experience of God’s unification of the natural with the supernatural.

For many people, times by the sea evoke a sense of wonder about purpose and meaning in life; they rekindle a sense of possibility in relationships; and provide opportunities to reimagine the future. Surely the Grace of the Holy Spirit is in all this.

 

I would like to credit my friend and former colleague, the Rev. Dr. Ralph McMichael, for his succinct and helpful delineation of ways of understanding the relation between nature and grace in his teaching and writing. In this regard, his essay in the book he edited, Creation and Liturgy: Studies in Honor of H. Boone Porter, is helpful. He is also the author of The Eucharistic Faith.