I'm starting to think retirement and how fun it will be to become a "snowbird" for much of the winter. (In the past my hubby and I traveled to Florida in February for a short respite from our Minnesota winter.) While some may head toward the warmth of Arizona and the desert, my heart always yearns to be by the ocean. These 10 metaphors almost seem to be written just for me...
10 Lessons on the Beach
This summer, let the ocean teach you about God.
By Christopher and Karen Bellitto
1. Sunrise, sunset, surf
The sunrise and sunset offshore are dependable and steady, just like God’s love in our lives. The surf itself can represent God’s steady presence in our lives. He is always there whether the waves are big or small. Sometimes you can’t even see the waves due to fog or darkness, but you can always hear them. God is like that: Even if we are wondering where God might be in our lives during times that we’re sure he’s not there—the divine presence is regular, steady, even spectacular at times.
Tides change, yet they are constant. They will exist, forming the shoreline, much in the same way that God forms and shapes us throughout the times of our lives. Waves are relentless—they just keep coming—which reminds us of the way God keeps surrounding us with love, even when we resist. Sometimes we think God hits us with more than we can handle, but as the shore is resilient, so are we. How many times have we fought the tide, literally tried to swim against it, only to find that when we give in, it’s a much smoother ride? We know how powerful the water can be, especially when we’re in it. We want to be in charge and go in a certain direction. Fighting the undertow or waves is only a waste of energy. The water is actually more help when we give in and let it lead. We’ve got to let go and let God take us where he wants us to be. Often, it’s a much more interesting place, especially since God knows better what’s good for us.
As the surf represents God’s presence, the water itself is his love. It is calm underneath at all times even if the surface is stormy. Life will continue to go on steadily and God will always be there if we know where to look. Even in the deepest parts of the ocean where it is darker than night, there is life. Where we think there is blackness and death, we are actually surrounded by God’s love. We’re not alone.
Shells are God’s gifts to us, treasures to find and share with others. Shells can represent our unique God-given talents and gifts. Scallop shells, so small yet plentiful on most beaches, bring us joy in their varied colors and delicacy. It’s as though we can’t have too many, despite their abundance. Some of our talents may look much like those others possess, but we each have our own shading, shape and size. Our talents, however plentiful, deserve to be held up, delighted in and treasured—just as we do on the beach. Conch shells are rarely found intact on most beaches. We’re more likely to buy them at an oceanfront souvenir shop. To find one requires deep water and diving skills. Going out into deep water is necessary for finding some personal, hidden talents as well. It feels risky to express our individuality sometimes. But a conch holds the sound of the ocean, the rush of God’s breath, inside. Some talents are like that: rare, beautiful, hard to find, challenging to express, but well worth the risk of diving inward and revealing the treasure.
The rocks along the shore can hurt our feet but eventually make the soles of our feet stronger, more able to endure. Such are the tests in our lives that God knows we can get through. The first day on the beach we hesitate to go barefoot. We protect ourselves. But to experience fully the ocean of life, we have to take off our shoes and leave a mark on the sand, even though the rocks leave their mark on us as well.
The dunes that protect the shore are like family and friends protecting us from wearing down in the elements. Many beachfront properties have had to rebuild dunes mistakenly obliterated by developers. We need cushions from the power of ocean winds and tides. We can’t bulldoze our way ahead, without concern for the people around us. We need them—and we are dunes for them as well.
Too often, we want to be in charge of the journey and we fight God’s guidance. When our family goes to the beach, we usually pack for the duration with coolers, umbrellas, chairs, sunscreen, refreshments, towels and books to read. But we’ve found that all this gear can be a burden—to pack, to haul, to set up and to guard. Sometimes, the less you bring the more you enjoy. That’s how it is when you are open and welcoming to God and God’s inspiration in your life. You can get along without so much stuff. You can be free.
The sun at the beach can be very hot and can burn us if we’re not careful. God is in the cool breeze and refreshing spray of water. We need the cool respite to survive on the beach. We also need to be alert to God’s whisper in the breeze within our lives, sometimes so full of turmoil and pain. Sometimes we have to turn just so, to catch the breeze. We need to pay attention, to seek out what will cool and refresh us.
As much as we’ve learned about God’s very personal relationship with us at the beach, we’ve also learned to share that space. Other people with their radios, blankets and beach balls can crowd in on our carefully marked-out turf. We’re sometimes jealous and selfish of the attention and blessings and gifts God gives to other people. But God is infinite. There’s plenty to go around. The immensity of the ocean and the expanse of the shoreline manifest abundance, not limits or borders.
Lighthouses teach as well. Not every shoreline has a lighthouse, but those that do are beacons for anyone who is at sea. God is a beacon in our lives, the steady light that always comes around again. When God’s light is not on us, it’s no doubt on other people. Sometimes we forget that there are others who need God’s help more than we do. When that happens, we’ve got to be patient and generous. Maybe we can say a prayer for those people who are receiving the lighthouse beacon when it’s not on us. It’s a good time to remember that we’re in the light often enough to be guided toward our destination.
The ocean is full of power and majesty, as is God in the divine, infinite wisdom. Enjoy the view.
Remember the metaphors. Delight in the ocean, God’s pulsating and abundant fullness.
Dr. Christopher Bellitto is an assistant professor of Church history at the Institute of Religious Studies and St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, New York. He is the author of Lost and Found Catholics : Voices of Vatican II, published by St. Anthony Messenger Press. Karen Bellitto, C.S.W., his wife, is a social worker at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx. She and her husband contributed their perspective on the October 1995 papal visit to New York in the December 1995 issue of St. Anthony Messenger.