Of whales and flying fish

Category: Monthly Reflection

humpback breaching

 A week sailing in the Caribbean has left me with an ongoing awareness of the vastness of creation. For at least three days of the cruise we saw nothing on the horizon except, occasionally, another ship in the far distance. I spent many hours simply looking at the deep waters below and, when seaweed appeared on the surface, delighting in the flying fish that shot up out of the ocean and traveled for long distances before diving back into the sea. I wondered what other creatures were at home in the depths beneath us and thought of the whale I adopted twenty years ago.

When I first met her Salt was teaching her first calf to graze on the ocean surface ocean where there was an abundance of plankton. She had been named for the dozens of small white spots on her tail and her son was called Crystal. Each of her subsequent offspring were given names relating to their mother and all were recognizable when the dived by the design on their flukes. Researchers in Provincetown, Massachusetts photographed the whales and gave them names so they would recognize them when they returned from the Caribbean each spring to feed in the Atlantic.  Most summers Salt was spotted by marine biologists and I received information about their research and sightings of her and other whales. When she became a grandmother it was cause for great celebration.

Several years ago I was back in Provincetown and went on a whale watching boat as I had done most years since meeting “my” whale. I never expected to see Salt again; the ocean is so vast and despite her size, about 60 feet in length and weighing forty tons, she is a speck in the sea. We had a wonderful time that day with many whale sightings including a teenager breaching and playing around the boat, and the captain had just turned the vessel around to return to harbor when one of the marine biologists announced that we would pause to try to identify two whales seen together at the three o’clock position. I was standing by the rail at nine o’clock when he told us that one of the two whales was Salt. Both of them dived and likely would not come up again while we were in the area; I had been so close but missed seeing Salt because I was on the wrong side of the boat. A minute or so later Salt and her companion came up on my side of the boat; she separated from the other whale and swam towards us until she was lying right alongside where she stayed for several minutes. My tears of joy joined the waters that were Salt’s home and I experienced a deep connection to this wonderful gentle giant of the sea.

I tell this story in my book Ask the Animals and it came alive to me once again in the Caribbean. She was out there somewhere living and breathing in her natural element even as I inhaled the humid air and watched the flying fish in mine. This awareness became prayer. I think of God as spaciousness, a very different conception to the one I grew up with in which God was seen as a punitive father who punished the disobedient. There was no room for exploring beyond the narrow confines of what we were taught as “the” way of faith. When Paul preached to an audience in Athens where philosophers were in constant debate about religion he used poetry with which they would be familiar. “As I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he is Lord of heaven and earth, does no live in shrines made by human hands…’in him we live and move and have out being’ as some of your own poets have said.”   Acts 17:23-25, 28.

When we know that God is the element in which we live, move and have our very being, life is transformed. There is no place where God is not. Getting outside for even a few minutes on a busy working day and looking at the sky reminds us of the ‘beyondness’ of God but also stirs in us an awareness of the intimate presence of the divine within. Times away in the vastness of creation restore us, but every day we can pause to celebrate our place in the web of life, our connection with the Creator of all who inhabits us.

St. Bonaventure wisely said many centuries ago: “God is an intelligible sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” The sponge in the depths of the ocean is immersed in the vastness of the water that fills it but it does not cease to be a sponge. These days my spiritual journey is a joyful discovery of the Spirit within, constantly surprising me with fresh awareness of God’s intimate presence. I want to acknowledge my “sponginess” that is not diminished by the awesome flow of divine life throughout all the membranes of my being. I give thanks for flying fish, whales and sponges and for the vastness of the ocean which is their home and the source for me of fresh awareness of the grace of Creator God.