I have just returned from a writing retreat. Rather than go to a cabin in the woods I went across the Atlantic and down the length of the Mediterranean on ship. Day after day I gazed at the ever changing sea and sky while working on a new book. Not surprisingly, it turned out to be a remarkably fertile context for the work I was undertaking.
I am, of course, far from the first person to note the way in which nature can support spirituality. Nature mysticism is quite popular where I live – a region of South-West coastal Canada and North-West coastal USA sometimes called Cascadia. Levels of identification with institutional religion are at their lowest in both respective countries, but levels of interest in spirituality are the highest. Nature mysticism and the secular spiritualities it supports thrives amidst mountains that cascade into oceans. In his book, Cascadia – The Elusive Utopia: Exploring the Spirit of the Pacific Northwest, Douglas Todd describes it as “a spirituality of place based on a geography of wonder.”
Mountains and oceans call our attention to the transcendent, to that which is beyond the self. Those who live on the sea know its awesome power and learn to respect and cooperate with the forces of wind and water, never to presume to control them. This is why I have long found sailing to be such a spiritual activity. Sailing demands attention to the realities that are beyond the self, and then invites alignment and cooperation with these larger-than-self realities. When on the water I am keenly aware of my place in web of creation, and of the interconnectedness of all things. Even if I am alone, this is a relational awareness. I am aware that that the world is not separate from God or external to God but intimately related to God. It is within God. Sallie McFague, the American feminist theologian now teaching at Vancouver School of Theology, argues that the world is God’s body. She goes on: “It is not ours to do with as we wish. It belongs to and tells us of God. This sacramental view of the world as God’s body demands that we see the world as ‘other’ – not simply us or ours – and treat it with appreciation, respect and care.”
It is this “otherness” of the wind and sea that make them such a potentially rich doorway to the transcendent. Attention to that which is beyond the self always opens us to the Ultimate Other. Awe and respect are the precursors or worship for those who come to know the Ultimate Other who resides in wind and sea – or better, who holds wind, sea and all that is within the divine self.