It’s summer in Rhode Island. I’m stating the obvious to be sure, for everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s summer. Being new to Rhode Island I am sensitive to the experience of it being summer, because while it reminds me in many ways of an English summer, it contrasts dramatically to the Phoenix, Arizona summer, from which I feel I have escaped. This is my recent experience of summer as a furnace heat of the sun driving people into air conditioned hibernation. In Rhode Island, summer is a time to come out of hibernation and to reconnect with the delights of living on the coast in a State of the Union, which seems to be more sea than land.
I notice that the cells of my body respond in some mysterious way to the siren call, not so much of the sea, which is frightening in its vastness, but of the seacoast. I felt this intensely, as last Sunday evening Al and I were treated to dinner at the Dunes Club in Narragansett. The place where we ate was a mere hands breath away from the sound of the sea lapping against the human-made barrier of the sea wall.
For me, the lasting impression is not so much of the sea, but of a liminal space between land and sea. Liminal space expresses the experience of inhabiting both sides of a boundary. The seashore is a liminal space where land, water, earth and sky, with a fluidity, transition in and out of each another. This liminal-transitional place evokes the ancient primal memory of the sea as the birthplace for all life. This primal memory of life’s aquatic origin lodges in the unconsciousness of the human body’s cellular memory.
The significance in the experience I am trying to articulate, seems to lie in seashore as a place on the margins of both land and sea, a place of transition where I experience a fluid process of dynamic motion, of ebb and flow, of merging and separating. The power of this experience lies only partly in its sensory nature. It’s also an experience that is beyond the senses. The word I give to this is intuitive, some might say spiritual. At the intuitive level of experience being on the seashore evokes in me a profound awareness of the transition between having and yet still waiting, of now, and still not yet.
Groaning in travail
It is Saturday morning again. I rise and sit to address God’s invitation to come into conversation with the lectionary readings for Sunday. The week leading up to this moment has been a process of unconscious percolation, punctuated by the moments of conscious panic – a certain degree of groaning in travail, being subjected to futility, fearful of not having anything to say come Saturday morning. As I sit, I note with curiosity that on my way to address the words of the Apostle Paul in the 8th chapter of his letter to the Romans, this is how I begin – by reflecting on the transitional dynamics of the seashore.
I am curious because before I sat down to write I had no notion that these would be the recollections that would come to mind as I begin my journey towards Romans 8: 12-25. Rather like the sea, Paul’s writings often strike me as a little two vast for easy comment, and in places, unpredictably contradictory.
At first sight it’s easy to read Paul as making the all-too familiar dualistic distinction between the body as bad and sinful in its carnality, and the spirit as good and pure. It’s easy to dismiss Paul’s distinction between flesh and spirit as the dualistic expression of a pre-psychological mind. However, I think a dualistic reading is more our problem, than Paul’s. After all, we are the heirs to the triumph of Greek philosophy with its inherent dualistic, body-spirit split perspective. We should remember that the Classical dualislism is the philosophy Paul most confronts, challenging its assumptions at every turn with the paradoxical message of the cross and resurrection of Christ. For Paul the paradox of the cross and resurrection is the challenge to the dualism of the world he lives in, not its confirmation.
Today we are just as dualistic as our forebears, the difference being that we now elevate the body over the concerns of the soul. A post-psychological, and hence post-dualistic reading of Paul’s distinction between flesh and spirit might be rendered as a distinction between appetite and intention. Paul’s startling message to the Romans is that it is through the transitioning back and forth between body and spirit within one integrated experience, that salvation is offered. The tension Paul identifies is not a tension between the spiritual and the physical, but between living life controlled by self-seeking appetites and a examined life directed by an intention that opens us to the transformation of grace.
The central message of Paul is that in Christ simply everything has changed. As the Message, a contemporary Bible translation of verses 12-14 puts it:
So don’t you see that we don’t owe this old do-it-yourself life one red cent…. God’s spirit beckons. There are things to do and places to go.
Paul reaches the peak of his eloquence in a sequence of transitions that is simply breathtaking:
We are children of God – if children then we are heirs of God – and if heirs of God then we must be joint heirs with Christ – sharing the same inheritance as Christ – which is why this life involves both suffering and joy. It’s not only at the individual level we participate in the same life that Christ lived but the very world itself – the entire cosmos is on a journey into the realization (groaning in travail) of the glory to be revealed in us as children of God.
Yet, how can we not be mindful of a world groaning in travail (King James), subject to futility (NRSV), more or less held back (Message) in a week when children die on a beach in Gaza as an unintended consequence of the escalation of violence between Hamas and Israel, when a commercial airliner is shot down on the border between the Ukraine and Russia, when each week we face an influx of vulnerable, unaccompanied children on our southern border, seemingly unable to embrace the primacy of compassion over politics.
Everything in creation is being more or less held back. God reins it in until both creation and creatures are ready and can be released at the same moment into the glorious times ahead. (Romans 8:21 the Message translation).
At the intuitive level of experience being on the seashore evokes in me a profound awareness of having and yet still waiting, of now, and still not yet. This intuitive expression of the sensory experience of land and sea, earth and sky as interweaving transitions is a good way to understand the relationship between flesh and spirit, at both the individual and the cosmic dimensions of experience.
There is no demarcation; no strict dualistic separation between the physical and the spiritual, between realization and still waiting, between frustration and fulfillment, each is simply a place on a continuum of the ebb and flow.
To live in hope
Paul’s message is that in Christ, God has made the outcome of liberation inevitable, even while we live through the messiness of the tension between our desire to have our small-self appetites satisfied (which is the root of all the pain and suffering we inflict upon one another) and our intention to open to our greater-selves represented by the life in the spirit.
In the meantime we wait in hope, remembering that hope is always an expectation of what has not yet arrived. The object of our hope is not the best we can expect. The object of hope is something just beyond what we are capable of imagining. Hope is faith in things unseen, as the writer to the Hebrews states it. Yet, while the object of hope is beyond our imagination, the very act of hoping means that we are being conformed into alignment with that for which we wait in hope. In the meantime, as the Message translation words it: Meanwhile, the joyful anticipation deepens!
When we manage to peel back nearly 2000 years of dualistic and patriarchal reading of Paul we discover something startling at the heart of his Christian message. Paul fundamentally understood that God valued the human body so much that he came to live within the limitations of having one. He preached a God who valued the human body so much that it is through the physicality of a bodily resurrection that salvation comes into the world.
Standing on the seashore, experiencing the interplay between land and water, earth and sky, I experience the primal resonance of the sea as the womb of all life on earth. This awareness or resonance is lodged in the memory of every cell in our human bodies. Similarly, might this not also be a metaphor for the relationship between flesh and spirit. The experience of spirit is a deep cellular resonance always in a process of emerging to give substance and shape to our conscious intention.