September 22nd, 2008

Sibilant Memory

Shhhhhhhh. The sound of the sea surging on the shore has not abated since it was first heard. Languages evolve, but this one, so richly sibilant, has come down the centuries intact and pure, fully comprehensible.

And the Mediterranean this morning is restless under a mass of gray clouds. A wave rushes upon the flat top of a large pale green rock. White foam spreads across its surface, and then streams down off its smooth sides, leaving a glassy sheen that is covered again by another surge of water. The cove is a cauldron full of these ancient rocks, engulfed by a roiling soup of white, pale green, turquoise, and dark blue.

Look! In the distance a bright shaft of sunlight descends from the heavy gray overcast. Like a searchlight beam it’s clearly defined against the dull cloudy sky and the dark foliage on the side of Punta Imperatore. The angled column of light produces an elliptical sliver of incandescence on the surface of the water. The shaft moves, changes its angle, and the shining brightness moves with it. And then, suddenly, it disappears.

This event of nature could not have lasted more than ten or fifteen seconds. An omen? A sign? It could represent the transience and insubstantiality of reality. Or the flirtatiousness of a goddess, who with a smile lifts her skirt to give a man a glimpse of her lovely leg.

A blindingly bright ellipse on the surface of the sea. Augustine or Petrarch or Boccaccio, or even that mystic Saint Catherine of Genoa, would doubtless be inspired to write a most meticulous description of Him, From Whom The Great Light Hath Shone.

St. Catherine, on March 20, 1473, suddenly had an experience of being overwhelmed by the shining brightness of God’s love. And Petrarch, atop Mount Ventoux, decided to open his copy of Augustine’s Confessions and read whatever page that fell open. He swore this is what his eyes fell upon:

“And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not.”

At the end we learn our obsessive pursuit of romantic love is an illusion, because what we’re seeking in others is just a shadow of the love of God. St. Catherine picks up where Augustine leaves off. God is incomparable, she says, and the way to God is through the denial of all created being, such as this rushing sea, and all ideas and images of God, and also one’s very self. St. Catherine understood that all we say about God is not God. Hers was a "nulla mysticism," that is, it reduced everything to nothing. But then this nothing, inexplicably, becomes everything. As she says, “My ME is God.”

I look out at the water where the illumination had just taken place. I wait for the divine brightness to reappear. But I see only grayness. And hear only the steady rushing and hissing of the sea.