Song of the sea

Song of the sea

The Rev. Dr. Hilary Oxford Smith

7 June 2013

 

The pale winter sun is still warming as I walk along Cloudy Bay, south of the Marlborough Sounds. I can hear the ancient conversation between water and stone.
 
There is stark and tender beauty in the land beside the sea. Sand and shingle are patterned with the footsteps of time, shells, woven with an artistry of design. Silvery spiniflex, mat daisy, lemon lupins and sand tussock carpet the dunes and grow amidst the hardness of stone.
 
Te Ika-a-M ā ui, is silhouetted against the far horizon, telling the story of the Maori hero, M ā ui and how the North Island got its shape. Along the length of the bay, the Wairau River, with the serenity of turquoise, flows into the ocean. Maori have been living at this oldest site of early Polynesian settlement in New Zealand since the 13th century. The descendants of Kupe still scoop up oysters from the bay.
 
Since childhood, I have loved the ocean, its wideness, its song. Throughout the long generations, my family of fishermen and seafarers have come to know and respect this gift. The sea, teeming with life, is where the mystical journey takes place, where the frontiers of human fragility and divine blessing, spontaneity and unpredictability are experienced. She cannot be tamed. We can never know her mysterious depths.
 
At a time in my life when I was deeply sorrowful, it was the ocean and the seashore which became the places and source of my healing. I found solace and my God. At the heart of the ocean is a stillness and also a movement, a fluency. The rhythms of the moon and the tides, year after year, day after day, moment after moment, resemble the ebb and flow of our human breath and the living of our lives. It is to be present in the mystery of eternity.
 
Over the rising and setting of many moons, the sea has connected unknown lands and people with each other. This year, people have and will come together to celebrate the 1450th anniversary of St. Columba landing on a tiny island on the edge of the known world.   
 
From a privileged Irish family, Columba, a highly respected scriptural scholar, copier of manuscripts, devoted to the Psalms, knowledgeable about the constellations of the stars and the tides of our blue planet, left Ireland to live a life of asceticism elsewhere. In the spring of 563, he set sail in a curragh, made of wood and animal skin and, with some companions, voyaged to the farthest limits of the sea.
 
For over one hundred miles they sailed, the wings of sea eagles and kittiwakes sheltering them from the unbridled wind. They carried their 'little book' with them, the Bible, for inspiration and strength along the way. Before they saw land on the distant horizon, they would have smelt its fragrant, herb-rich goodness. On the evening of Pentecost, they landed on the Hebridean Isle of Iona and became reborn in a place that would become known as the cradle of Christianity.   
 
Summer gave way to autumn and winter. The Atlantic Ocean, with its dangerous currents and wild waves beat upon Iona's shores with unrelenting ferocity.  
 
“The Atlantic pulse beats twice a day
In cold gray throes…
Lucent as a prism for days, this shore, until
A westerly blows.
Then stones slither and shift, they rattle and cry,
They break and bruise.
Shells are scattered. Caves like organs peal
Threnody, praise…
Silence again. Along the tidemark wavelets
work thin white lace.” (George Mackay Brown)
 
It was no easy way of life for wandering Irish monks. Abbot Columba slept on bare rock, with a stone for a pillow. They set to work and built a monastery. Ever on the move, always looking ahead, they sailed amongst the islands and walked the land. Communities of prayer, learning and hospitality were established. People came from the 'airts an' pairts', to visit Iona and share in its sanctity and blessing.  
 
Carved stone crosses, illuminated manuscripts, harp and psalmody, theological encounter and refreshment:   island living in the presence of God. Creative threads that have woven an eternal story of relationship, community, devotion to Christ and the Presence who is Love.  
 
The life and legacy of Columba, known as 'the dove of the church' is to be remembered on the 9th of June, the date of his death in 597. Pilgrims from every corner of the world arrive at the jetty on Iona each and every day, to break bread together in the company of Christ and return home, inspired to make a positive difference in the world.
 
You and I, whatever our culture, history, language, colour, creed are island people. We are born of the sea. Throughout the centuries and now, we have journeyed far to come together. What have we gathered along the way?
 
“…pilgrimage is a circular route,
Following the scuffmarks of history.
Beware the onslaught of nostalgia…
the saintly monk who never broke a fingernail
or into sweat.
Remember, rather, and walk
in the footsteps of countless refugees,
tramping the forests of fear,
camping out in the fields of hopelessness;
the scent, not of crushed myrtle, but panic,
the sound, not of the lark, but of the sniper's bullet,
soaring, seeking warm flesh…
 
Remember all the invisible ones,
walk in the footsteps of the forgotten ones…
And when your place of departure
becomes also your place of arrival…
What of them do you bring to us?” (Kate McIlhagga)
 
Image: Water, Waves and Suds, Rick Edmonds, www.rickedmonds.co.nz
Notes
Te Ika-a-M ā ui:the Maori name for the North Island of New Zealand
For more information on the story of the land of Aotearoa New Zealand, click www.teara.govt.nz.
'Airts n' pairts' is a Scottish expression for all points of the compass
“Seascape: The Camera At The Shore”, The Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown, ed., Archie Bevan and Brian Murray,(John Murray, Publishers 2006)
“Address to a pilgrim”, Kate McIllhagga, from Around A Thin Place, Jane Bentley and Neil Paynter, (Wild Goose Publications 2011)
 
© Hilary Oxford Smith
6 June 2013