Underwater Cathedral

Although I come from a long line of beachy people, I am not a beachy person myself. I burn too easily to worship the sun. Instead, I wear broad-brimmed hats and scurry to the shady spots along the shore. Because I grew up bouncing in the waves, though, I am a watery sort, especially where the water is warm. Every year or so, my husband and I try to head to points southerly where the seas are clear and the fish are friendly, and we join them there. We are not deep-sea divers; we are humble snorkelers.

When I see heroic types headed out with the scuba crowd, I think, “Gear. Big-time gear,” and give myself a headache. Also, I know there is clockwatching involved. I don’t want to be another commuter in the ocean; if I were packing to go the distance and watching each minute, I could have stayed home and ridden the A-train. But I am always glad to grab a snorkel and some goggles and see the scene closer in, wherever my flutter kicks can carry me.

One year, the two of us decided to take a “snorkel safari” in deeper waters, on a boat that took us out to a distant reef, with a crew that handed all of us DPVs. Dive-propulsion vehicles, DPVs for short, are propeller engines that will pull you in pretty much any direction you point them, up, down, away. The moment I saw the bubbling wake I was leaving behind me, I realized it was a mistake. There are few other times in my adult life when I felt so conspicuous, so incongruous, so hugely out of place, as though I had just crashed a wedding wearing a Halloween costume.

Usually, underwater, I have an abiding sense of belonging. Belonging, as well as vulnerability and awe, all these emotions that comprise the essence of spiritual experience. Frequently, the religious sentiment is described as an oceanic feeling, a feeling which dissolves our sense of separateness and replaces it with a fuller sense of self. Certainly, I’ve had religious moments underwater, instances when I myself have connected with eternal return. Then the ocean feels eerily familiar, like an early childhood home, and I seem to remember having coming from it a long, long time ago.

Near the water's edge

The entrance to the cathedral

Evolutionary biology teaches us that human life emerges from the sea. The rivers that run to it are considered sacred; think of the Hindu devotees bathing in the Ganges or John baptizing Jesus in the river Jordan. Many faith traditions speak of life-giving waters and with good reason. Between snorkeling sets, in the shady spots at the beach, I put my hands to work on a couple of baby blankets intended for my friend’s twins, laced in brilliant, bright, beautiful shades of green and purple. Then, one afternoon, I spied them below me on the ocean floor: a cluster of splayed Sea Fans swaying in the currents, in the exact same combination of purple and green. I immediately intuited that we were all born from the waters. They offered us our first baptism.

On the island that my husband I like to visit in the British West Indies, there are relatively few roads and a great many churches. Around each bend, it seems, lies another church. Across from practically each church sits a cemetery, always on the ocean side, so it overlooks that tides as they ebb and flow. The sandy graves are gorgeous, lavishly adorned with flowers in a profusion of tropical tones. They are carefully tended. In addition, their regular maintenance is overseen by the Recreation, Parks, and Cemeteries Unit, one single department of the ministry. Somehow the dead and the living alike participate in the recreation there, a notion I thoroughly endorse.

Sometimes, nearing the water’s edge, I repeat this rhyming couplet from a poem by E.E. Cummings: “For whatever we lose, like a you, or a me, it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.” That’s a sound summary of my underwater experiences over the years, since the tension between polar opposites has gotten lost in the swirling waters as soon as something larger rushed in. When I remain quite still in the ocean, nearly motionless as I float in the midst of a school of shining Sergeant fish, I find I am at once a visiting tourist and their fellow seafarer.

Such an exhilarating encounter makes me feel vividly alive, and yet… The surreal element of suspended animation reminds me of that life-saving strategy they taught us in the Y swim class, the one regrettably dubbed Dead Man’s Float. Bobbing in the water, I am sustained, kept afloat, much better without any exertion on my part. There’s no place for me to go. My task is to simply keep being. Could just such a spot mark the start of eternity?

Recently, I was describing our latest snorkeling excursions to a good friend, a secular guy who has traveled several of the seven seas. Speaking to him, I characterized those as repeated trips to a vast underwater cathedral. “Yes!” he answered, emphatic. “That’s it. Totally.” I occasionally question whether those people who don’t get religion underwater really do not get religion, not in its broadest meaning, anyway.

Not everyone who dons goggles is feeling worshipful as they wade into the waters. I understand that. But I also believe that a person might find that a coral reef is not so different from a burning bush in the magnificence it communicates. We don’t have to wander far, nor must we ascend to the mountaintop, in search of profound religious experience. Probably, though, we will have to begin by taking some small plunge.

We don’t need to dive too deep to encounter wonders. Only scores of meters out from shore, they will rush in to meet us. It’s quiet underwater. Creatures there dart and halt, appear and disappear, hold us in their line of vision, include us in their world for a while. No words are exchanged; no sounds are made. Yet if my snorkel was given a voice, it would say, Hallelujah. All those humble fluttering snorkelers and I would be singing like an Hallelujah chorus, while the sea would continue its preaching — to the choir, yes, and also to anyone else who’ll listen.


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