Updated: Jun 30, 2021
Faith draws us to venture out into the untameable Ocean, trust that we will survive, and participate in its healing flow.
The call of the Ocean
Have you ever felt the call to the ocean? My family often mentions this feeling, this, despite choosing to live our lives far inland. I find that I don’t just feel drawn to the sea, I want to venture out on a pier, or wade in as deep as I can manage, or clamber to the further jetting rocks, to be as close to the waves crashing as I can. I stay there awhile. Experiencing the exhilaration of its power, the fear of my own being, and the awe of its mysterious, untouchable depths and vastness.
The ocean has since ancient times symbolised chaos: the uncontrollable and meaningless. This is one of our deepest fears as humanity, for in it is the potency for piercing us with the grief of suffering and loss. Our lives are constructed around how to avoid it. Yet, as we venture out towards the sea, as we fear its ferocity and immensity, we are also drawn towards its freedom. The freedom of running scared no more. The freedom of surrender.
We have so far seen how:
we find ourselves born onto stages that give us scripts on how to live our lives, conditions for if we are to belong here or have worth (https://www.thomasrowlandcounsellingservices.com/post/faith-and-fear-part-i-stories-of-fear-and-stories-of-faith)
how these stages also mask our fundamental fears, the darkness and questions that lies behind:
death and the question of significance (https://www.thomasrowlandcounsellingservices.com/post/faith-and-fear-part-ii-death),
mystery and the question of what we trust (https://www.thomasrowlandcounsellingservices.com/post/faith-fear-part-iii-mystery);
our inner reality and the question of whether we can live with integrity (https://www.thomasrowlandcounsellingservices.com/post/faith-and-fear-part-iii-our-inner-reality).
Approaching these fears can be like venturing into a dark cave and finding that they are doorways into new realities of hope, belonging and intrinsic worth. We’ve finally seen how such whispers from behind the caves let the still waters of faith erode the shamed hardened off flow within so that the life, energy and wisdom of our spirit can flow again (https://www.thomasrowlandcounsellingservices.com/post/faith-and-fear-part-iii-our-inner-reality).
A final aspect of the abyss behind the stages we live by is chaos: the fact that there is a vastness over which we have no control or even influence. We have no control over our heritage, the past that has determined so much about our life, including the privileges we possess: the family, genetic and cultural heritage we are born into and our historical and geographical placement. We have little control over much of the present, of worldwide happenings (like a global pandemic of a virus that keeps mutating), of even our surroundings, the people we live with or just pass by, the Earth we live on and walk through. And we have such little control over our future, what could happen, when something we long for will happen. Our circle of power is a small rock in time and space within an ocean of forces.
This leaves us with a fundamental question: will I survive?
Our modern society masks this in multiple ways. Meritocracy seeks to mask our privilege by saying you have control over your place in the pecking order. Incredible technological advances have brought with them fantasies of control: we believe we can or should be able to control disease, injustices, other nations, often through the means of global economics. Some psychologies offer (and can deliver to an extent) the promise of how to take control of your own life or how to influence others. Science seems to promise the taming of the ocean: yes, we can control it all! Yet this same science is leading to self-destruction as a species.
And we learn our own ways to avoid our fears of being fundamentally not in control. We learn how to manipulate others, maybe through niceness, intimidation or bullying, or to keep our emotions in check, or to push out our past trauma - the wildness that threatens our sense of safety. We develop beliefs to help minimise the fear that arises here: the belief that if we just think something through enough, we will prevent something bad from happening; or the belief that if I do something, something bad won’t happen. Or we might learn to avoid chaos through taking a stance of powerlessness, and being rescued by someone else who can be strong for us.
The problem with all of this is that we live our lives running scared. They drive us into self-limiting behaviour, behaviour that maintains stress and anxiety, or behaviour that removes the possibility of pursuing something meaningful or an intimate connection with another. We live avoiding, and so miss real life and love. And so, these are all, to some degree, self-destructive mechanisms that lead to depression, anxiety disorders, addictions, relational breakdown or abuse, and suicide.
Faith trusts in the ocean
Faith is that part of us that calls us to the edge of the shore to touch the ocean. For in the abyss of chaos, in the acknowledgement of all we cannot control, we must relinquish our attempts to contain the ocean, we can surrender the endless, never satiated compulsion to make ourselves safe, towards living life firmly on the shore. It’s like we’ve so far been trying to fit the ocean into our small thimble of being and are bursting with the pressure and impossibility.
Faith calls us to drop our thimble into the ocean itself as something we can trust.
What do we trust? We trust our own substance, that we have immense powers to be and become, to maintain our integrity amidst the chaos and make ripples that can change things. We trust that we, at our core, will survive the ocean. More, we can own the power and wisdom we do have within our spirit and so focus our energy on the deep impact we can have: this moment, the connections around us, the privilege and influence we do have. We might choose not to be controlled by the fear of failure, or other people’s disappointment, or being relationally vulnerable, and choose instead to trust our own integrity, our own strength to survive, letting others respond how they will. We might open ourselves up to the feelings within, the regrets, grief, fears, longings and memories that drive our lives yet can seem terrifyingly chaotic, and discover that we can feel them and still survive.
This all, ultimately, quietens the mind. It stops us chasing after the wind, exhausting ourselves with what we cannot control. Furthermore, it lets us step into our own spirit’s potency, because we are no longer afraid of it as chaos, nor afraid of the ocean overwhelming us if we let its wildness lead us.
And we also trust the ocean. The ocean, surprisingly perhaps, is a powerhouse for life on Earth; the uncontrollable is also the depths and flow of life. This is a vital invitation. On the shore, we try to control things like it’s all up to us (or our technology and economics): to protect ourselves from suffering, to fix where we’re broken, to undo injustices. In the ocean, we trust that there is, as well as our own personal and corporate power, deep wellsprings and currents of life, of renewing, or salvation if you life, that is untamable, powerful and unstoppable.
Now, there is a meaninglessness to a lot of the chaos of our lives: the meaninglessness of suffering and loss. This is part of the realities of our existence, and fear of suffering is a big part of this fear of the uncontrollable. Many religious traditions offer a wisdom more radical than the avoidance of suffering, than sitting safely on the shore. In particular, St John of the Cross’ idea of the ‘dark night of the soul’.
You see, suffering and loss unravel the meaning of our lives: the scripts that define us, others and how we are to behave become dubious, confusing, empty, impossible or directly the cause of our suffering; things or people we valued and cherished, that gave life meaning, are lost. For some, this disordering is permanent and leads to us being broken. For whatever reason, we don’t get the help we need and we are lost in the pain, perhaps for a long time, perhaps until we die. If, however, a person does receive the help they need, such a person might be able to return to their previous life and rebalance. This is the ‘fix’. The ‘dark night’ experience is, however, deeper than this: the person does not recover nor are they lost; instead, they find something new within, a resource or capacity, something precious, substantial they’d forgotten about or never knew; they discover something of their soul and their spirit, and of the Ocean within. Such people say that the suffering in some way saved them.*
Here, we find true strength not by being delivered from our weakness, but in our weakness. Here we find the path of death opening up into new life. Here, we succumb to something like the Japanese art of ‘kintsugi’, of repairing broken vessels with gold so that they take on a far greater value: we can find, in our brokenness, wounds, even the shattering that suffering and loss has wrought, the gold of something far more precious. This is to discover and surrender to the untameable Ocean.
Now, this is no apologetic for suffering, no attempt to justify a God who allows it. Rather, it is simply my experience of how my faith helps me navigate the various sufferings of life. My desire for control and the avoidance of pain lead me to rage against them as something truly evil, and leads me to live a shallow, often fragmented, life. But I find the Ocean of chaos will not flow as or when or how I want it to. It leaves me bewildered, unravelled and often shattered. Yet, in the stillness of faith, I can recollect myself, and find, nevertheless, I am invited, even drawn, to hope that something of life and healing flows on, everywhere, subtly, perhaps even silently, filling the crevices of our broken, wounded, shattered world and lives.
Faith calls me to, like the thimble in the ocean, welcome and witness the Ocean fill these fractures and hurts, push against and pull down the walls we’ve made to contain it. Faith calls us to unleash our unique powers to make a difference in the moment and concrete realities we find ourselves in. Faith hears a whisper than in so doing, we are venturing out to join the untameable Ocean’s flow of compassion and love, destruction and renewal.
*Thanks to James Finaly’s Turning to the Mystics podcast for this insight into how suffering and St John of the Cross’ dark night of the soul intersect: https://cac.org/podcasts/dialogue-1-the-ascent-of-mount-carmel/