The Mediating Shell
Ankle deep ocean water bubbles over with frothy, white suds – like diamonds massaging the meeting place of land and sea. A little further out and, if the wind is slightly blowing out of the northeast, the ocean water glints an emerald green. Just off the shoreline, the water finds that magical depth allowing it to radiate a sapphire-blue that spreads itself across two-thirds of the planet. And beyond and below that, when the continental shelf falls away and the ocean water sinks to the depths of leviathans and sea monsters and imagination, down, down, down in the deep, where all the light flitters away and ordinary perception panhandles with empty pockets, the ocean turns to onyx – the place where profundity is exceeded and nothing meaningful can be said; the depths educe mystery, perpetual vacancy, the dark dwelling place of God.
“This is the true knowledge of what is sought; this is the seeing that consists in not seeing, because that which is sought transcends all knowledge, being separated on all sides by incomprehensibility as by a kind of darkness,” wrote Gregory of Nyssa.
People do funny things at the beach. People will spend $30 to $50 on a chair they will use once or twice, an umbrella that will be used less, and coolers, special beach t-shirts, plastic shovels, watermelons, little charcoal grills, grotesquely written “novels,” and nets and fishing rods and tackle boxes; and they will try to hoist it all underneath a single arm and walk for half a mile before they pick just the right spot to spend the day – a spot identical in every detail to where they first stepped foot on the beach.
But I get it. I do. Novelty brings out the goofy excitement in us. That’s why we throw footballs and kick soccer balls on a beach. Dig holes for no reason, chase crabs that we’d be too scared to actually catch, and fly kites. The Wright Brothers didn’t come to the beach because of good wind to learn to fly. They came to the beach because in the event of failure it would be seen by the public as just another goofy thing people do at the beach.
My favorite people watching activity at the beach, though, is the shell hunter. This might be the kookiest of all activities. They walk the beach with plastic bags, become enthralled by a bed of shells, and indiscriminately start grabbing. And then continue their treasure quest at the next exposed bed. Why would anyone do this? It is a shell – literally the remains of an animal. I’ve never seen anyone pick up a fish or bird carcass and carry it home as some sort of vacation trophy.
But I understand this too. There’s something magical about the near-endless shapes, spirals and color of shells. Something washed ashore by tides and time, a token from a place we know about only from our imaginations. The shell, then, is some sort of mediator – the one who, if we have ears to hear, tells us about that which we can never really know. That is why as children we all learned to put the shell to our ear and listen for the ocean – the whispers of revelation and mystery coming out of the deep.
Jacobus da Varagine, a thirteenth century hagiographer, wrote a little story about Saint Augustine. The story has no historical roots, save Augustine’s long work on the Trinity, but regardless of facts, it is weighted with truth. According to the story, Augustine strolled along the shore, contemplating the Trinity and how best to explain such a mystery, when he came across a small boy. The boy was running back and forth from the shore to a small hole he had dug in the sand. With each trip he carried a little bit of ocean water in a shell he had found and poured the water into his hole. The great bishop came to the child and asked what he was doing, and the child explained that he was attempting to drain all the water from the ocean and put it into his hole. Augustine pitied the child in his attempt to accomplish the impossible. So he explained the futility of the work. “My dear child,” he said, “the sea is so great and the shell and the hole are so little.”
But the boy responded, “That is true. It would be easier and quicker to draw all the water out of the sea and fit it into this hole than for you to fit the mystery of the Trinity and His Divinity into your little intellect; for the Mystery of the Trinity is greater and larger in comparison with your intelligence than is the vast ocean in comparison with this little hole.”
This story has been passed down, translated, painted, and spread around the globe. If the glorious Doctor of the Church, Saint Augustine, cannot comprehend who God is, what hope do we have? And because of this story, the seashell is now a symbol of Saint Augustine.
It is a goofy preoccupation, this theology business. And anyone who claims to be successful, that is, anyone who after years and years of study believes they can say something about the nature of God has been only fooled by ego and hubris.
How then do we make sense of this God who came to Moses in a dark cloud; the God whom the Psalmist says, “Clouds and thick darkness are all around him;” the God who alludes comprehension? We go to God’s shores, where a voice is left in a shell, and listen.
“Where the mysteries of God’s Word lie simple, absolute and unchangeable in the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence…amid the wholly unsensed and unseen they completely fill our sightless minds with treasures beyond all beauty,” says Pseudo-Dionysius.