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A catechism of Nature (4): The sea

What can the sea tell her,

That she does not now know, and know how to bear?

She knows, as the sea, that what came will recur,

And detached in that wisdom, is aware

How grain by slow grain, the last sun heat from sand is expended on night air.

Bare flesh of an old foot knows that much, as she stands there.

—Robert Penn Warren from “Foreign Shore, Old Woman, Slaughter of Octopus


Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote in the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus: “To view the world sub specie aeterni is to view it as a whole — a limited whole. Feeling the world as a limited whole — it is this that is mystical” (6.45). When seen from a sufficient height, human life, human ingenuity, recedes into insignificance. During the Holocene Wet Phase, much of the Sahara was a verdant savannah, teeming with animal and human life. During the Cretaceous Period, Texas was at the bottom of the sea.

When I was in the discernment process for ordination, I recall being asked on a psychological evaluation whether I was afraid of deep water. The question stopped me. On the one hand, I didn’t want to be disqualified due to insanity or irrational phobias; but on the other hand, I had resolved going into the exam to be scrupulously honest. The question conjured images of floating in the open ocean at night, with thousands of feet of dark water and who-knows-what between me and the ocean floor. I answered that Yes, I am afraid of deep water.

Gazing out of the window of an airplane on a recent flight to Bermuda, I thought about deep water. The waters of the open ocean are dark, even in broad sunshine, and incomprehensibly vast. Seen from an airplane, ocean islands and all the human doings that they sustain seem insignificant and fragile surrounded by the limitless blue. Geologically minor jostlings of the earth’s crust can cause immense disruptions to human life, calamities for coastal and island communities, as happened during the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011, which led to the reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Nearly 16,000 people lost their lives. Most of them drowned.

Yet as I stared out the window of another airplane, flying from Texas to Wisconsin last year, I saw the entire middle part of a continent brought under the plow, a checkerboard of farm roads and telltale pivot irrigation. Mankind is small in comparison of Tellus Mater, but we are many (Mark 5:9).


God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Gen. 1:28)

The stewardship of the earth and the seas, and of the resources that come from them, is a matter of obedience. Yet we often seem to be failing, abated in this failure by economic systems that incentivize mere exploitation. Likewise, the exponential growth of the human population over the past century, which shows no signs of slowing, is putting immense pressure on wildlife and other natural resources. Stock assessments of the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery indicated that by 1990 the fishery’s spawning potential was just 2.6 percent of what it would be without any fishing pressure — a ratio insufficient to sustain either the fishery or the human communities that rely on it.

When it comes to the dominion mandate from Genesis, laissez-faire policies are no longer adequate, if they ever were. Creative solutions, across the board, are necessary — solutions that evince due humility in the face of the vastness of earth, sky, and sea, and more particularly solutions that evince due humility before our common Lord. But dominion must also defer to the dignity of work, create, sustain, and reward solidarity between rich and poor, recognize the family as a fundamental economic unit, and foster an ethic of responsible stewardship and simple agency at the most local levels possible.

Perhaps most importantly, new solutions must elicit from man a delight in the primary realities of creation, and not merely habits of exploitative utility. Delight in creation is a facet of our likeness to God (Gen. 1:31), and its abatement therefore is a symptom of sin. Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote (“God’s Grandeur”):

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.


When ancient peoples looked out at the sea, they recognized a vast and ungovernable power, at once life-giving and lethal, a source of food and the abode of dragons. One thinks of Leviathan, Behemoth, Rahab, or Jonah and the whale.

In February of 2007 fishermen in the Ross Sea off of Antarctica caught a squid that weighed over a thousand pounds. It was a colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni), a species affected by an evolutionary phenomenon called abyssal gigantism. Colossal squid can grow over 40 feet long and have the largest eyes of any known animal, sometimes over a foot in diameter. Yet biologists estimate that, due to a very slow metabolism, these enormous creatures require only about an ounce of food per day, suggesting that they spend most of their time lurking in ambush, like the “young lion” of Psalm 17. They have been known to attack sperm whales and, according to maritime legends, even ships.

As I was recently examining a depth chart of Bermuda, I noticed that the Atlantic drops precipitously to over a thousand fathoms (over a mile deep) a short distance from shore, showing Bermuda to be the peak of a steep volcanic mountain. The deepest part of the Atlantic is the Milwaukee Deep, north of Puerto Rico, at over 27,000 feet. “There go the ships: and there is that Leviathan, whom thou hast made to take his pastime therein” (Ps. 104:26). What else lurks in those waters? What of human artifice, what human lives, have been lost in them down the centuries? What lies at the bottom, and why does it lie there?

Yet every morning I read in Psalm 95: “The sea is his, for he made it.” And as the Lord reminded the precocious Job:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements — surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together,
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
Or who shut in the sea with doors,
when it burst forth from the womb;
when I made clouds its garment,
and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed bounds for it,
and set bars and doors,
and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stayed?”
Have you commanded the morning since your days began,
and caused the dawn to know its place … ? (Job 38:4-12)

A certain diffidence behooves us in the face of creation’s mysteries. It is the task of the natural sciences to interrogate creation, but the relation is properly dialogic. Nor are we, priests and kings of creation, exempt from interrogation. Augustine reports (in Book 1 of Confessions) how earth and sky and sea bore witness to him, “by their beauty of order,” of the sovereignty of God — “He made us!” they cried with one voice — and how this led naturally to introspection: “I turned my thoughts into myself and said, ‘Who are you?’”

Who are we, indeed. Who do we now think we are? Creation’s beauty of form, Augustine says, is visible to all “whose senses are unimpaired.”


There are intimations sprinkled throughout the Old Testament that God will subdue the waters of the earth, along with the overwhelming powers of darkness and death that inhabit them in the cosmologies of ancient peoples, seemingly the residue of the watery, primordial chaos of Genesis 1:2. There are intimations too that as often as not mankind has allied himself with the pelagic darkness, that the subdual of the latter will coincide with our judgment.

On August 4 of this year, the National Institutes of Health announced that it would lift a ban on the creation in laboratories of human-animal hybrids, so-called “chimeras,” beings that are part pig and part human, for example. And there is no doubt that these things are to be created only to be killed on the altar of “medical research.” Cures will be promised — just as Moloch promised to water the crops of the sea-faring Carthaginians in exchange for their children’s blood. How this prospect, soon to be a reality, does not inspire widespread revulsion is beyond me. It is like the sight of a drowning shorebird, covered in oil. But much worse.

For behold, the Lord is coming forth out of his place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity, and the earth will disclose the blood shed upon her, and will no more cover her slain. In that day the Lord with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea. (Isa. 26:21–27:1)

Joseph Ratzinger has suggested (in Jesus of Nazareth vol. 1) that this is one facet of Jesus’ descent into the waters at his baptism, the fulfillment of his promise once and for all to subjugate the roving powers of the formless void. And Jesus himself connects his descent into the waters of the earth with his descent into the earth itself, at his death (Mark 10:39). Yet judgment coincides with mercy. The ungovernable powers of the world will be brought into subjection and, in the same motion, the meek of the earth will be delivered.

Thou smotest the heads of Leviathan in pieces: thou gavest him to be meat for the people in the wilderness (Ps. 74:14).


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