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Starting Point

In the sunny sands of long ago


When I was a little kid, a real treat was a day trip to the beach. We lived in Hempstead on Long Island, and Dad drove us in our old Packard to Jones Beach. Mom packed lunch in a wicker basket. She wrapped sandwiches in cellophane paper and packed several thermos bottles with lemonade.

I remember the parking lot at the beach, and how hot the pavement was, and how even hotter the sand was. And later how the car was like an oven when we climbed into it to go home.

We always parked near the confection stand, a large red brick building with a long counter that faced the beach. I could not reach the counter and the soda or whatever was purchased there had to be handed down to me. There were long yellow strips hanging from the ceiling that trapped flies. Large swirling fans hung from the ceiling.

We had a big green beach umbrella, and under that Mom spread a blanket on which we stood as she covered our fair-skinned bodies with a generous coating of Noxzema.

Dad took us into the water. He taught us how to tread water and then how to swim. He warned us about dangerous currents. Mom and Dad would watch as we played. When it came time to eat, we would go back to the blanket where Mom would use towels to wipe off the sand. Minutes later she would be picking grains of sand from a dropped sandwich.

I liked watching the seagulls feed in the surf. I liked burying my toes in the wet sand.

I remember thousands of people on the beach. There were miles of umbrellas and acres and acres of blankets of all colors and sizes. There were all kinds of people, people of so many races and ages, all together on that vast beach enjoying the sun and water. They were enjoying each other, too, doing just what I was doing, watching and being curious about all the facets of human life on a beach on a hot summer’s day.

I got lost once. I wandered too far and could not find my way back to the Behrens blanket. I looked for our car and found it, and soon Dad came there and found me.

The ride to the beach happened over 40 years ago. But I take that one day and hold its memories close to me now and take a careful, loving, seeking look.

How wondrous it was, all those people at rest and play. Parents feeding their young. Fathers seeking lost sons and daughters. How many warnings there must have been about the heat of the sun and sand, the danger of high waves and deep currents, warnings about cramps and those jelly fish that stung. And the young and old, walking in the surf, looking for strange living creatures and perhaps a treasure that might wash up from some far shore.

What is God? I am not sure. What does religion hope to embrace and teach? Much of what I know about religion barely, if at all, encompasses the free play of that one summer’s day.

If we as children of this God could learn on this shore of life to feed each other; if we could learn to keep an eye open for those who are lost; if we could share these sands of life, making room for what we perceive as the different and marginal; if we could know and cherish the mystery of all the color and warmth, the seeking and feeding, the waves and the sky; if indeed we rode into life as I did to that long-ago beach, and simply share the stretches of the day with the people with whom we share this corner of time and light - life would then be like a day at the beach. It would be a life of people at play before the sea of the Lord and all its mysteries.

What can religion say about such an idea? Is there a name for such? A name for what we do and see and love in the innocence of our youth?

Perhaps when we are lost, and in need of being found, God will come again. And in that coming we will be given a name for what we are, a name that will help us all see the one stretch of sand we share, the one sea that spreads before us.

Trappist Fr. James Stephen Behrens lives at Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Ga. His e-mail address is james@trappist.net

National Catholic Reporter, July 28, 2000