Chris McDonnell: Catholic Times column – Our Blue Watered Home
Our blue watered home
Chris McDonnell CT April 02 2021
Seen from space our earth is largely covered by water, a blue film dotted with white cotton wool flowers of clouds. Without this water, there would be no life. The images coming back from Mars show us a world devoid of surface water, a barren world without life. It has been like that for millions of years.
Land masses, whether continents or islands offer dry places in the midst of the vast water expanse of the oceans. It is on the dry places that we have made our home, raised our families and set out to explore distant places beyond the sea edge that surround us. The water cycle that brings rain to the land sustains our lives, feeds the great rivers that, in their time, return water to the sea. These waterways have become points of settlement and great cities have grown on their banks.
These centres of human population offer a stark contrast to lonely off shore islands where nature offers a mark contrast to the concrete jungle of habitation. It is no small wonder that islands became settlements for monastic communities or hermits. Iona and Lindisfarne are two such islands in the United Kingdom as is Skellig Michael off the County Kerry coast of Ireland.
Such islands have a special quality of focus, girded by the sea, a limited place of simplicity.
Move out to the margin
and silently watch the surging sea
break on the sand edge, smooth stones
and shale, rolled and salt washed.
High on the hill, gathered stones
give shelter from the Western wind
building across a broad, open sky, the
full spread glow of late Autumn sunset.
Open grassland, treeless and torn by rage
Empty distance beyond the fence,
where sea-wail and sky-howl
touch the moon-cold night.
This awesome place of utter loneliness
where words lead back in loops
unless abandonment is complete,
this distant, desolate, island home.
There on an island we are confronted by the stark changes in weather and the incessant cycle of night and day, darkness and light. There, in solitude, we are forced to face the reality of who we are, whether the island is a physical place apart from our home or is experienced within the context of our everyday lives.
Dissolving darkness at the sky’s edge
a thread of orange, a breeze from the ocean
when after storm, the distant tide begins to turn.
Walk the shore as the chill stillness of Dawn
cradles the washed-out, sinking Moon.
A personal place of solitude for here only gulls
wheel and screech, hunting for food,
a place of isolation, where your voice,
calling across the sand, receives no reply.
A place of peace. Walk slowly along
the stirring sea edge, expecting nothing
and no-one calls your name.
somewhere (beyond this Island) a clock
names the hour of early morning prayer.
Here only the sea swell moves ever closer,
antiphons easing-in the shortened
hours of day.
Between sunrise and evening we walk,
each listening to the Word, returning
to the point of our departure, between
the running water and the rising land.
We live the experience, each speaking
the Word, returning to our hermitage.
The many silent stones we gathered listen
high on the hillside of our Island,
awaiting our return.
There is a silence that pervades an island, broken only by stirring wind and the high-flown plaintive call of black-headed gulls sweeping from the open sky.
Each of us has our own island, either a real place of experience or the hypothetical token of where we find ourselves from one day to another. It is no small wonder that our climate fashions the manner in which we pass our lives. Great storms sweep across the surface of our planet, hurricane-force winds destroying human habitations, excessive rain fall flooding villages and towns.
The frequency of such events is set to increase unless we tackle the great issue of climate change.
It is an issue that does not recognise political boundaries nor the multitude of languages that we use. It takes no notice of colour of skin or religious affiliation. We face the huge challenge of planetary forces that will overwhelm us if we do not act in a co-operative manner.
With the increase of global temperatures, the level of the water mantle that enfolds the earth will rise and many coastlands will be engulfed by the surge of the sea. Resistance to this change will be physically impossible and extensive inundation will result. The very water that sustains life will become a threat to its continuation. Already significant changes in the Atlantic Gulf Stream have been detected- it is this water movement that directly affects the UK weather cycle.
The second encyclical of Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, opens with these words:
“LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.
This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.
It is no coincidence that water plays a significant role in religious ritual, whether it is in the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan, and our own subsequent baptism at the font in church or in the great gatherings of Hindus bathing in the waters of the Ganges in Northern India. People enter the Ganges in order to purify themselves. Many pilgrims also take home small containers of water from there to give to friends and family who are not able to attend. This melt-water from high in the Himalayas is regarded as sacred and the river has become a place of pilgrimage. That same tradition is followed by pilgrims returning from Lourdes in the south of France.
From the water shallows round our coasts to the vast expanse of the great oceans, we are completely surrounded by and depend on water. It might be a local river flowing to the sea or the open beach where the surf breaks with a white, rhythmic regularity. Wherever we live, we are close to water.
The water that moistens our fingers as we bless ourselves at the church door remembering our baptism is the same water that has been recycled many times and has watered many places. It is the water that slakes our thirst, the water that we use to cook our food, the water that cleanses our bodies in shower or bath. It is the water that tends damaged skin after an accident or fall. It is water that cools us in the heat of day. It is indeed the water of life that we share, one with another.