Friday, April 13, 2012

A conversation between ocean and stone

     In an interview several years ago, Irish poet and philosopher John O'Donahue recounted growing up on the west coast of Ireland:  

 . . . [I]t's the Burren region, which is limestone. And it's a bare limestone landscape. And I often think that the forms of the limestone are so abstract and aesthetic, and it is as if they were all laid down by some wild surrealistic kind of deity. So soon - being a child and coming out into that, it was waiting like a huge wild invitation to extend your imagination. And then it's right on the edge of the ocean as well, and so a conversation - an ancient conversation between the ocean and the stone going on.* 

The photo above is of that interface between ocean and stone--the place of conversation--as O'Donahue put it.  A close look at the rock reveals the impact of those long encounters:  ridges, lines and fractures in the limestone.  His image of the interaction--especially in light of the photo--as being a "conversation" caused me to think.
      How many of us would think of water striking rock as "conversation"?  The Hebrew psalmist writes of the sea "making a noise" (Ps 98. 8) or "thundering" (Ps 96.11) and the "rivers clapping their hands" (Ps 98.9).  A quick search, however, doesn't yield a reference to water "speaking" or "saying".  And wouldn't most of us see such a conversation between water and rock as rather one-way?  The water being the active participant, the stone being passive? 
      Yet, over time, the impact of the conversation between sea and stone is evident -- certainly on the rock, as both the force of the water, and the corrosive nature of the salt take their toll.  But the water absorbs minerals from its splashing.  Particles of stone remain suspended for some time in the water.  In short, both water and shoreline are changed.  It is much like any conversation between people, I believe.  That is, any encounter changes us both in some way.
      Many years ago now, I took a class in Process Philosophy (derived from the work of mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead).  Process Philosophy (and its cousin, Process Theology) assert that any encounter changes all parties to the encounter.  Sometimes the change is easily apparent; other times, the changes are only evident after a long period of time.   I often recall, at moments like this, the words of another philosopher/scientist/theologian (often associated with process thinkers), the Jesuit Tielhard de Chardin, who, in a letter to a young student, begins:

Above all, trust the slow work of God. We are, quite naturally, impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. . . . .   And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability - - and that it may take a very long time.** 

      We are such impatient creatures.  Immediate satisfaction/gratification is our goal.  We see it, we want it . . . NOW!  We desire it, we demand it . . . NOW!  We want our children/partners/parents to change . . .  NOW!  And we find it so difficult to let conversations proceed at the pace they require, including our conversations with the Divine, i.e., prayer.  We often treat our interactions with God as if God were a cosmic ATM -- as long as we put in the right card, and type in the right PIN, we should receive what we ask, without much delay.
      I wonder if many of our conversations with God (and others) are a lot more like that between an ocean and stone:  real change only happens gradually.  Yet, at some point in the future, we can look back and see how much we've grown.  A conversation between ocean and stone CAN take a long time!  
       Now if I only knew who is the ocean and who is the stone?



*The interview was with Krista Tippet of "On Being."  The full interview, as well as other photos, can be found   There is a wonderful gallery of photos of the Burren at

**Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Making of a Mind: Letters from a Soldier-Priest 1914-1919 (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 57.


  1. Hi Gary,
    Someone forwarded me your email about the Irish coast line and I wanted to say I really enjoyed what you wrote. I’m not a church goer though I am a spiritual person. I don’t go to church for many reasons but I must say one reason high on my list is that I find many services devoid of nature and natural philosophy. So your comments hit a cord for me and I have a few comments to offer back.

    Living near a coastline affords one a spatial context to the conversation you mention between land and sea. That is really important because a coastline is rarely straight. More often it curves into the distance pulling each beach comber farther down the beach to see what lay ahead of the curve. And the mysterious curve is what gives voice to the conversation between the land and ocean.

    When the ocean rolls up along a straight coast, you are right, it is only a slow force of erosion. But when the ocean rolls up on a piece of land that protrudes into the ocean, like a lighthouse, it focuses incredible erosion on the point and tears into the land like a youngster digging up sandcrabs on the beach. Meanwhile, where lands curves inward, the energy of the waves is slowed to a mere lapping upon the beach. In a short length of coastline, there are both loud and soft sounds. Think of the ocean as the breathe used to make sound while the land is the hard shape that creates different tones when the mouth takes different shapes. Together, land and ocean make song.

    These jagged edges mirror our souls. The convexities and concavities within us, are constantly pressed by our activities, choices and reactions to day to day living. The song of our souls is the conversation we do not tend to eavesdrop on.

    What I love about nature are the myriad of lesson available to us, if we take the time to look and listen. Land and water is like light and darkness; front and back, male and female, Yin and Yang. These are expressions of sets that make a unity, a whole, and neither part can exist without the other.

    Were it not for land and sea, we would have no place to live, no way to eat, no life whatsoever. The unity of land and water breathes life into our souls and affords us a place to struggle and learn. I have a limited religious education, but it seems to me that “Unity” shows up in most major religions. Often it is spirit, a truth or a destination. And sometimes I wonder if it is just a coincidence that the religions of island peoples have such a strong focus on the soul rather than the mere being.

    I agree with your point about our approach to the holy as an ATM. But what I see is that we do not look at nature and enjoy the lessons laid bare for us to see and hear. We tend to focus on our lives, our god (and heavenly rewards) rather than our small place in the landscape. We chose to believe our grand opinions, can save masses, rather than admit, the motley scrapes we make in the earth won’t endure for more than a season or two. Our opinions about morality and ethics are assumed to be closer to God than the divine natural system created by God.

    Why is it that so many formal church services disconnect nature from the divine? I have never experienced the divine spirit in a church. But almost any adventure in a state park or open land helps me hear the song of my soul and understand better those portions that need to be eroded and those that need to be protected.

    But Sir, I just wanted to let you know, that I enjoyed your words and I heard your message. I hope you can find more opportunities to work nature into your sermons (if you give them). There are those of us out here waiting to hear more substance and less rhetoric. Bravo!

  2. Thank you! There are many different opportunities/ways spirituality there encounter the divine. Nature is certainly one of them -- every religious tradition witnesses to that. Unfortunately, as you observe, lots of "religions" get caught up in other stuff (mostly head-stuff -- or "rhetoric" as you put it) and forget the visceral/experiential heart-gut-stuff that really gets us going.

    I grew up frequently visiting the dramatic Oregon coast. Lots of drama/spirituality there!

    Keep listening for the loud, and soft, voices from wherever they arise!