The Always Overflowing Sea

Turner, “Fishermen upon a Lee shore”

Spiritual Sunday

Given that today’s liturgical reading is Jesus inviting his disciples to become fishers of people (Mark 1:14-20), here’s a Pablo Neruda poem about fishermen. The poem works as a parable about our relationship with God and also with the environment.

The sea, Neruda makes clear, refuses to conform to human logic or human convenience. Even using a single word to refer to the sea reveals our desire to reduce and control because the sea is never one thing. The sea refuses to be pinned down, refuses to offer us a single answer:

There’s sea.
But what sea?
It’s always overflowing.
Says yes,
Then no,
Then no again,
And no,
Says yes

The sea’s relationship to the shore is like our relationship to God: its message, sometimes stern, sometimes soothing, confuses us. We must listen very hard to begin to make sense of what we are being told:

It slaps the rocks
And when they aren’t convinced,
Strokes them
And soaks them
And smothers them with kisses.

At one point Neruda describes the sea as a dog , at another a tiger. Sometimes the sea stammers, sometimes it asserts. With all the animal imagery, I think of C.S. Lewis seeing Christ as Aslan and of Mr. Beaver’s caution:

“He’ll be coming and going,” he had said. “One day you’ll see him and another you won’t. He doesn’t like being tied down–and of course he has other countries to attend to. It’s quite all right. He’ll often drop in. Only you mustn’t press him. He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.

Tame, however, is what we want from the sea. In Neruda’s final stanza, the fishermen demand that the sea conform to their needs, pointing out to it that they are in control because they name it (“Oh Sea, this is your name”). Although they claim it as a “comrade,” they regard it as such only when it caters to their agenda, and they criticize it when it beats hard or shouts loud. “Give us this day our daily fish,” they demand, which would sound reasonable if they hadn’t previously described the sea as their foe. The poem concludes with a mixture of self pity and greed:

We are meager fishermen,
Men from the shore
Who are hungry and cold
And you’re our foe.
Don’t beat so hard,
Don’t shout so loud,
Open your green coffers,
Place gifts of silver in our hands.
Give us this day
our daily fish.

They will be grateful if the sea delivers, hostile if it doesn’t. That’s not how the Lord’s Prayer is supposed to work.

In The Book of Job, Satan observes that, while it easy to be devout when things are going well, experiencing hardship is another matter. When a suffering Job finally challenges God, God responds with a fair amount of sea imagery to make the point that divinity is beyond our comprehension:

 Who shut up the sea behind doors
when it burst forth from the womb,
when I made the clouds its garment
and wrapped it in thick darkness,
when I fixed limits for it
and set its doors and bars in place,
when I said, “This far you may come and no farther;
here is where your proud waves halt?”

And:

Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea
or walked in the recesses of the deep?

By concluding his poem with an allusion to the Lord’s Prayer, Neruda invests the sea with spiritual meaning. The sea reminds us that we are small but at the same time invites us to step beyond our utilitarian perspective into a broader appreciation of creation. The “gift of silver” demanded by the fishermen may allude to the Judas payment: we betray Christ and we betray ourselves when set ourselves up as the ultimate measure. Creation offers us much more, but our minds must expand beyond narrow self-interest to see it.

Ode to the Sea

By Pablo Neruda

Surrounding the island
There’s sea.
But what sea?
It’s always overflowing.
Says yes,
Then no,
Then no again,
And no,
Says yes
In blue
In sea spray
Raging,
Says no
And no again.
It can’t be still.
It stammers
My name is sea.

It slaps the rocks
And when they aren’t convinced,
Strokes them
And soaks them
And smothers them with kisses.
With seven green tongues
Of seven green dogs
Or seven green tigers
Or seven green seas,
Beating its chest,
Stammering its name,

Oh Sea,
This is your name.
Oh comrade ocean,
Don’t waste time
Or water
Getting so upset
Help us instead.
We are meager fishermen,
Men from the shore
Who are hungry and cold
And you’re our foe.
Don’t beat so hard,
Don’t shout so loud,
Open your green coffers,
Place gifts of silver in our hands.
Give us this day
our daily fish.

Added note: In church yesterday we sang one of my favorite hymns (#470 in the Episcopal hymnal) which also compares God and the ocean: “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.” This is the sea stroking and smothering with kisses. The hymn goes on to make Neruda’s point (and the God of Job as well): “For the love of God is broader than the measure of the mind.”

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