The following is an excerpt from the introduction to our new Theology of Home book, now available at The Mercantile HERE.
By Carrie Gress and Noelle Mering
It starts with a most basic element: water.
One drop at a time.
“Water,” Leonardo da Vinci observed, “is the driving force of all nature.” All day long, we wipe, rinse, wash, soak, sip, douse, spray, pour, quench, splash, and sprinkle it. We scarcely give attention to its importance until we are faced with its absence or its enormity in the vast expanse of the sea.
The sea is man’s first playground. We have flocked to it in droves for sustenance, recreation, vacation, restoration, and relaxation. The steady pounding of the waves holds our attention, delights us as we splash in its surf, and lulls us to sleep when we close our eyes. Life at the sea is so commonplace that references to it pepper our language in ways we scarcely consider; everyday words like navigate, inundate, flood, flounder, ebb and flow, sailed, and buoyed.
It is no accident that high cliffs and bluffs are prime real estate. Whether on a pristine day, or accompanied by the unfolding drama of wind and clouds, light and dark, we are mesmerized. A sea view was the first theatre. The founders of Venice loved it all so much, they perched their city directly upon the very sea itself.
Of course, there is also a dark side to the sea. It is unfathomably big, unpredictable, untamable, and unrelenting. Even that fluid boundary where land meets water shifts as the years pass. Little is left untouched by the erosion of tides and the spray of salt water, the battering of the surf or the weight of wind.
Epic tales and stories from The Odyssey, Moby Dick, and the Master and Commander series, to the exploration of the likes of Columbus, Drake, and Magellan, have enchanted us since the dawn of history. In these stories of adventure and woe, the human spirit and the great drama of life, the sea becomes setting, symbol, and character—imbuing the entirety of the story and the psyches of the subjects.
This double nature of light and dark leaves us a bit off balance. The sea is a source of innocent delight for children, treated with the lightness of a summer weekend with picnics, sandals, stripes, and brimmed hats. It is also a formidable force and can evoke a sense of terror.
Yet still it compels us, draws us, eliciting reverence and awe.
Maybe the two sides are of one piece, and the same hint of danger is contained in the delight. Perhaps the potential for terror is a part of the inexhaustible appeal. Or perhaps it has more to do with something deeper. “In fact,” philosopher Peter Kreeft explains, “the sea is to the land what God is to everything – the surrounding ultimate mystery.” We sense something, even if only in our subconscious, that pulls on the unbroken string connecting us to our ancient ancestors, and stirs our universal and primordial desires and fears.
The sea draws us in but also makes us want to draw some of it into our homes. We want to live near it or at least bring its beauty inside, either a reflection of the tranquility and clarity or the drama and deep moodiness of the sea. It reminds us of adventure, recreation, a quest for something beyond ourselves. Perhaps we simply want to remember a particular vacation, or place and people we once knew. Even Odysseus planted an oar far from the sea among people who didn’t recognize it. Farmers saw it as a winnowing fan, useful for separating wheat from chaff. Beyond its use or ornamentation, it was a stake in the ground, a sign that his trials were truly finished.
In many respects, the sea can feel like a man’s world – most of the great literature on open waters is written by men about their adventures and quests, while women are left at home to “tend the hearths.” But the bulk of this masculine experience doesn’t need to leave women out of the conversation about the mystery and depths of the ocean, or of its beauty, bounty, and joy. Curiously, the sea can inform us more about who we are as women and how, in many ways, it reflects and mirrors deep elements about us that have slowly been eroded in our imaginations by today’s culture.
We live in a time of great confusion as human nature continues to be destabilized. The very thought of trying to define concepts like man, woman, and family have grown cloudy. This obscurity has serious consequences. We cannot become what we do not know. Humans have long needed northern stars—guides, midwives, saints, tutors, rabbis—to help navigate the journey of life. But in many ways, we have become adrift, left without a true compass for how to live well as human beings made in the image and likeness of God.
Much progress has been made in our understanding of biology, but we have regressed in our understanding of ourselves and our enduring human nature. We have bodies, but beyond the pursuit of drives and urges, it isn’t always clear what we ought to do with them.
What has risen in our cultural consciousness is a reverence for the natural world and the significant role it plays in our lives, livelihoods, health, and homes. Rather than rue this cultural shift as imbalanced, we can squeeze from nature the truths it contains about us. God created man and woman, and God created the earth. Both were made as a reflection or iconographic look into who he is. Creation points to God, but it also provides a mirror that often reflects in marvelous ways our bodies and souls. This is the reason the sea still enchants us, scares us, calls us, and refreshes us after all these millennia of trying to tame her, capture her, and bring her home.
St. Josemaria Escriva used the phrase “new Mediterraneans” to describe the process of going deeper into the interior life to discover new insights about what we already know, or have already heard so many times before. There is a mysterious power of the mind unleashed when we “discover” something we already knew, when we contemplate truth from a new vantage point. These revelations, uncovered through prayer, then overflow into the rest of our lives. This process, aptly given a maritime-themed name, is one that reveals to us the depth and richness of the faith. In meditating on the ‘same’ stories, prayers, and scripture, we can glean startling new windows into truth. What was familiar becomes suddenly deeper, broader. What was not new becomes so, again and again, as uncharted horizons are opened to us. We hope these pages herein will provide a fresh look at the familiar.