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The World Was an Ocean

I’m feeling a little lost these days, as though I’ve awakened from a troubling dream to find that nothing is where it was or as it was. I’ve entered my forties during a nationwide cultural and religious shift, during a global pandemic, and a future that once presented a hazy but recognizable profile has become a blank. The energy that carried me through other seasons of difficulty has run out. I am groping for the familiar on an alien planet.

Without meaning to, I’d slipped into the assumption that the world would go on pretty much as it always had. I picked up the phone and made a call with the certainty that the person I loved would be waiting on the other end of the line. I was sure of what I’d find behind the doors of the homes, businesses, and churches with which I was well acquainted. My interior world was recognizable, if not always comfortable. I knew what I believed. At the very least, I could identify which people, which institutions were sturdy enough to lean on. That’s the trouble with illusions, isn’t it? You don’t know you have them until they’re taken away.

Some weeks ago, I stumbled on an old recording of A Horse and His Boy’s “And the World Was an Ocean.” It’s a song I found compelling from my first introduction to it. Its heartbreaking simplicity begs the listener to sing along. Hearing it again surprised me out of a profound silence, and I joined Seth Harper without thought, as if by muscle memory.

One day I woke up and the world was an ocean The sun ran in circles to keep me confused My bed was my lifeboat as I was its captain My wits not about me, my spirit diffused. —”And the World Was an Ocean,” A Horse and His Boy

Harper’s image of desolation perfectly reflected my reality. I woke one morning to find myself scanning the surface of a vast oceanic void, searching for shorelines. “I am lost in the current,” I sang, “I’m lost in the blue / I am lost without a compass / I am lost without you.” I didn’t know how lost until the singing stirred my grief, didn’t recognize the truth until my tears told me so.

Suddenly, the water was everywhere. I found it in my Instagram feed, when a sample of Scott Erickson’s iconography caught my attention. In the image, a hermit crab struggles in a tiny, cramped shell. Erickson is talking about the challenges and gifts of transformation, urging the viewer to recognize that the shell provides only an illusion of safety. His words brought me back to the lifeboat, a small thing in the frame of my mind, a fragile wooden shell pitted against the fury, the mystery, the sheer breathless expanse of the ocean.

And then in the course of an ordinary day, as I washed dishes or folded laundry (you know how it is with these things), I remembered a sermon I heard more than a decade ago in which the preacher referred to the fall of mankind as “The Great Gasp.” We were made to live inside the love of God, he said; that love, that water, was the air we were meant to breathe. In turning away from the true face of God, we cast ourselves on dry land, into an environment for which we were entirely unsuited, to gasp and struggle. To die.

I pulled up Audrey Assad and Fernando Ortega’s “O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus” and set it to play on repeat. “O the deep, deep love of Jesus / Vast, unmeasured, boundless, free / Rolling as a mighty ocean in its fullness over me / Underneath me, all around me / Is the current of his love.” I want that love to flow around me and through me. I want to abandon myself to it. But apart from the principle of the thing—the abstract theological imperative—I don’t know how. I have dipped my toe in the water and come away changed, but if I fell in, all the way, I would die. That’s my feeling on the subject. The love of God is infinite and fathomless and it will kill me. It’s the kind of fear you don’t acknowledge on a Sunday morning.

I am not so much lost as I am exploring a Welcome more expansive than I ever dreamed possible. It is calling me out of my flimsy boat into the staggering embrace of home. Helena Sorensen

Over the last eighteen months, I’ve led several groups in a study of Robin McKinley’s Beauty. The novel is deceivingly simple, with a rich story buried beneath the familiar elements of plot and character, and it’s the only retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” in which the Beast’s love transforms Beauty, and not the other way around. I’m moved by their early encounters, the ones defined by Beauty’s fear. Faced with a gigantic, hairy creature whose motives are unclear, and imagining herself in danger of imminent death, Beauty reacts as anyone would. She tries to protect herself. Her amygdala kicks into gear. She vacillates between freezing and fleeing, with an occasional fight. This in spite of the fact that McKinley’s Beast does nothing to cause her fear. Unlike his Disney counterpart, his faults are a matter of the past; during all Beauty’s sojourn in the castle, he is gentle and undemanding. He defers to her, makes himself vulnerable to her, offering a genuine love that Beauty cannot receive. Why? McKinley doesn’t make the reason explicit, but I learned not long before I began the study that when the amygdala is activated, the pre-frontal cortex is offline. In other words, when a person is in the midst of a fear reaction, the parts of the brain that allow for relational connection are shut down. You cannot be afraid and receive love at the same time. You might say that fear casts out love (as love casts out fear). It’s one or the other.

How, then, do we overcome fear and receive love? How do we fall into the ocean when our fingers are biting into the wood of the lifeboat? Those deeply buried fear responses were formed before we understood what was happening to us; they’re intrinsic. Often we are not even aware they exist. As a child, I did not have words to say that the God I was introduced to was a beast. I did not know I was afraid. Someone painted a picture of the Eye of Sauron and called it Holiness. Someone told stories of violence and retribution and called it Love. Someone used “his ways are higher than our ways” as a panacea to justify all manner of horrors and then pointed my young heart toward the monster and said, “This way lies hope.”

That these conflicting messages were wrapped in earnestness, in fine clothing and stained glass, in lofty language and lovely music, only complicated the matter. My exterior confidence belied the fundamental reality that, when presented with the Person(s) of God, I was no more than a frightened little girl. Was? Am? I don’t know how to define the overlap of was and is, the layers of truth in my one subjective experience, the past selves I carry with me and those I am and will be. I only know that Beauty eventually uncurled her fingers from the banister where she cowered and stepped up to the Beast and saw him and knew him. In the same way, I am uncurling my fingers from the side of the boat, maybe because it is leaking and doomed, but maybe also because the ocean is beginning to look a little less terrifying.

I found the water again in a passage near the end of one of my favorite fantasy novels.

Could there be candle flames burning under the water? There could. I knew that, when I was in the ocean, and I even knew how. I understood it just as I understood Dark Matter, the material of the universe that makes up everything that must be there but we cannot find. I found myself thinking of an ocean running beneath the whole universe, like the dark seawater that laps beneath the wooden boards of an old pier: an ocean that stretches from forever to forever and is still small enough to fit inside a bucket, if you have Old Mrs. Hempstock to help you get it in there, and you ask nicely. —Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Gaiman, it seems, has a sense of the ocean that surrounds and undergirds us; he knows how terrible it looks from the outside, how peaceful from within. Like the old preacher, he grasps the unnerving truth that the ocean is more our home than dry land, that we were made, so to speak, to breathe water.

I would like to close, Reader, by tossing you an anchor, but I cannot. I am drifting. The nature of my journey is as mysterious as these strange new surroundings. Don’t fear for me, though. I am not so much lost as I am exploring a Welcome more expansive than I ever dreamed possible. It is calling me out of my flimsy boat into the staggering embrace of home.


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