The beach as kairos

July 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

Surfers wax their boards with the solemnity of a rite. An infant with doughy arms squirms from a mother smearing sunscreen. Couples kiss and grin and lark on the shoreline, occasionally gliding toes through ruffled blue-green water. A boy builds a city of sand and steps back to behold, his eyes alert with admiration.

Scenes of the beach, the spot where countless people will gather over the next couple months to break from the compulsions of citizenship and career. As I recollect these vignettes, memories from a 4th of July getaway, one of the things that most amazes me is how many people love the beach. Thousands and thousands come each day, and will continue to come throughout the summer. People long for it. And I think that is due to practical reasons of beauty and pleasure which point to additional reasons more profound: the whole event bears many features of a religious experience.

The Sabbath is a day of rest. We are to use our free time to praise and worship our Creator. Part of the significance of resting, of not working, is that normal power relations are temporarily suspended. Vertical gives way to horizontal. The boss sits in the same pew as the employee, the banker prays next to the bartender and the teacher sings with his student. On the Sabbath, we are (ideally) not supposed to do anything that highlights imbalances in wealth or social standing.

The Sabbath, our church-going, also assembles people of diverse social and ethnic backgrounds. In our everyday duties, we tend to associate within the same networks and with people like ourselves. Our routes to work and home rarely deviate. At church, though, we speak and shake hands with those outside our self-imposed borders.

The same intermingling occurs at the beach. As we submerge our feet into the cushy sand, we observe that we are in the company of men and women of all income levels, all races, all religions and all lifestyles. Even more so than church, the beach dissolves the sense of financial disparity. For the most part, expensive jewelry and designer clothes are avoided in favor of a bathing suit whose price no one cares to know. At the beach, we don’t know what kind of car people drive or how big their house is. We don’t see a blue collar or white collar, cuff links or ties. We see piles of towels, bags, and tipped-over sunscreen. We see our common curves and flesh, birthmarks and sprouts of hair.

Though the beach is a place to compare and to gawk, and often to judge, it is also paradoxically a place of freedom and acceptance. Where our bodies are most on display there seems to be the least self-concern. We’re all in it together. Everybody’s vulnerable.

Trips to the beach provide a condensed view of things cherished in common. Dads set up barbecues, moms prep babies for sun. Footballs and frisbees jockey with birds; bodies lie in heaps of sleep, tangled fleshy shrines to a life without hurry. The community is effortless, and we direct our energy to a simple set of essentials, things like family, leisure, conversation, and play. In doing so, we abandon our obsession with time. We enjoy the luxury of not knowing when we arrived or when we will leave. It foreshadows kairos.

Connected to nature, to an interface that cannot be swiped or minimized, we have time to contemplate. We return to the mental state most suitable for prayer. Time spent on the beach is time to brood, to enter that “sweet mood,” as Wordsworth says, “when pleasant thoughts / Bring sad thoughts to the mind.” We reflect upon decisions that have to be made, plans we hope to achieve, the God we strive to worship. “Have I done it right?” The kids are a year older. Tuition is higher. We’re not getting any younger. The doctor will call with the results. 

Like all true religious experiences, the beach offers an avenue out of the “I,” out of the orbit of self-regard. When people spot the ocean, they usually release a breath of awe, a word of wonder. Arriving at the ocean is like entering a great cathedral. A breeze of transcendence sways our nerves. Our soul detects a reality grand and mysterious, even slightly terrifying. It is most precisely numinous, simultaneously sacramental. The endless vastness of water and sky evidence the magnificence of original creation, the mesmerizing, daunting physical splendor that inspired the first chapters of Genesis. Watching the waves collapse and reform, observing the tide drift back and forth, seeing the sun complete its arc, we know, we feel, that we are witnesses to something that can only be adored. We realize we are creatures, participants in a teeming, superabundant vitality. We are guests only. There is a cosmic machinery with which we can’t tinker, a plan we cannot control. We can only entrust ourselves to it and, like Noah, listen, be taught to navigate its awesome powers.

Of course, the comparison has its limits. The beach is not Eden. No sooner are we lost in adoration than we are scolded for kicking up sand or blocking another’s view. But those moments are trivial compared to the majesty that surrounds us, to the artistry that left me hearing St. Augustine: “Great art Thou, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is Thy power, and Thy wisdom infinite.”


Posted by Matt Emerson.


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