Imagine something with me. You’re in a ship in a raging sea, going somewhere important. Perhaps going on a pilgrimage. But it’s beginning to look like you’re not going to make it. The ship dips and lists. The sea is alive – a force against you. You pray to God to save you from destruction.
Doesn’t our faith often feel like this? Like we’re being tossed around by untamable wind and waves? Medieval theologians often compared the world to the sea. “All the ways of this world are as fickle and unstable as a sudden storm at sea,” wrote the Venerable Bede in the 8th century. And every soul must cross this sea on the journey through life.
So what do we do? Usually we respond with alternating displays of strength and alarm. We try to build a stronger ship. Bone up on our sailing skills. Lay in resources. And when the storm comes, we cry out to Jesus to pilot our ship.
Now imagine that the worst happens. Despite everything you’ve done, your ship capsizes . . . you fall into the water. And it becomes calm, buoyant. You realize that you’re floating. Swimming. Drinking water yet not drowning.
How is this possible?
Perhaps because we’ve got it wrong. Perhaps Jesus does not pilot us through the sea but is the sea. Perhaps this is the way we make it through the waves.
Two female mystics of the Middle Ages paint this picture of our journey. The 14th-century Dominican Catherine of Siena prays:
I proclaim and do not deny it:
you are a peaceful sea
in which the soul feeds and is nourished
as she rests in you in love’s affection and union
by conforming her will with your high eternal will—
that will which wants nothing other than that we be made holy.
In this prayer, the sea becomes a figure of God’s gracious abundance. The soul does not have to survive the water in a ship. Instead, God is the water. He envelops us, and we rest in him.
We might even go for a swim in this sea. The 13th-century mystic Marguerite d’Oingt writes of a vision of unity she received:
The saints will be within their Creator as the fish within the sea: they will drink as much as they want, without getting tired and without diminishing the amount of water. The saints will be just like that, for they will drink and eat the great sweetness of God.(source)
Marguerite envisions the sea as a source of living water that never runs out (John 4:10-14). It’s a source of nourishment, where the saints (that’s you and me!) taste the sweetness of God.
I love this imagery for the way it rewrites the usual script about the sea of life. In the words of Catherine of Siena and Marguerite d’Oingt, the sea does not inspire terror but represents the incredible generosity of God. It’s a way to conceive of being fully enveloped in God’s goodness. And it’s an image of peace and rest.
As we ply the waters of life, let us remember the vastness of God who, like the sea, is everywhere. Let us be assured that if our ship capsizes, we will not perish. Should we be tossed overboard, we can swim like fish in the sea that is God.
This post is loosely based on one chapter from my forthcoming book, 3000 Miles to Jesus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life for Spiritual Seekers. It’s a sneak peak behind the scenes, because it contains a lot of material that didn’t make it into the book! Click here (my author website) for more info on 3000 Miles to Jesus.