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Starting Point

Standing on uncertain ground creates yearning for God


Where I live in Maine near the Bay of Fundy, the tides are extreme, usually between 15 and 20 feet. When the tide comes in, the beaches almost disappear, and the waves lap at your feet. When tide is out, long stretches of rocks, sand and mud are exposed. In some places, it is possible to walk to nearby islands. Many coves look as if someone pulled the plug, and all the water drained away to the other side of the world.

Recently a friend visited me and saw these dramatic tides for the first time. When she arrived, the tide had just turned to go out and she delighted in watching many seals frolicking in the harbor, body-surfing on the fast current swirling around the breakwater. As we toured the area during the afternoon, we kept checking the level of the water. By the time darkness came, low tide was here, and my friend was duly impressed by the great contrast.

I assured her that the pattern was steady and reliable and that the tide would come and go again during the night. And even though she understood that fact logically, when she rose in the morning and looked outside and saw the mud flats again, she said to me in mock dismay, “The water never came back!”

We laughed, enjoying a moment of breath-stopping wonder, playing with the imaginary world as children do when they want to scare themselves.

I know that in the spiritual life we do this often, and usually without so much awareness and humor. We have plenty of evidence that life is ultimately trustable, that God takes care of us, that what we need comes to us, that the great universal rhythm is intact, dependable. And yet many times we look out over some temporarily barren expanse in our lives and say, “This time the water isn’t coming back.”

Something in the center of the human being is primitive and child-like and it interprets life as a fearsome experience. It tends to forget that the sun always rises, the moon waxes and wanes, the tides go in and out, the seasons circle through the year. It forgets that we are all firmly embedded in those cycles, that there is no place to fall, that we are always caught and held securely within the embrace of the Holy One.

Rather than seeing this fearfulness as evidence of sin or failure or an obstacle to be overcome, I prefer to think of it as a divine gift, a quality that God hard-wired into us to help us preserve our innocence and receptivity. From fear and forgetting the religious impulse arises. Fear makes hope possible. Forgetting creates in us a yearning to remember our deepest truth. We discover in ourselves an ancient and irresistible need to conceptualize and relate to God, a need for prayer and sacrament and ritual and community. We seek God and we join with fellow seekers because we perceive our smallness. Remaining slightly uncertain about the ground we stand on keeps us vulnerable in a way that leaves room for God’s presence and intervention in our lives. If we were never hungry, then manna would mean nothing to us. If there were no loss, there would also be no gratitude.

I walk beside the water every day, seeing it new and fresh and appreciating all its manifestations, empty and full, low tide and high. I practice giving thanks for what is given and what is taken away. I bow in reverence to my natural human fears. I choose, again and again, in union with all the rhythms of this earth, to place my trust in something larger than myself.

Mary Vineyard is a massage therapist living in Downeast, Maine. Her e-mail address is mkvine@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, March 30, 2001