I have spent so much time – yet never enough time – watching the sea. I grew up by the seaside and saw the sea almost every day for the first 18 years of my life – wet and windy dog-walks on the beach, glimpses of reflected dawn light from the school bus, cycling to the supermarket along the seafront with barely a glance at the sea beside me, an ever-present companion. As a teenager I spent hours staring at the sea. The beach was a natural place to hang out with my mates. But it was also where I went in search of solitude.
Then, when I left home and moved inland, desperate to leave behind our little town, which always seemed on the edge of things metaphorically as well as literally, I realised something was missing. I had left behind that gift which I had taken entirely for granted – the constant presence of the sea in my life. Throughout my landlocked adult life I have made regular trips to see the sea, just to watch it, to hear it and smell it, to be in its presence which never fails to restore me to myself. These journeys have something of the quality of pilgrimage.
It seems unsurprising to me that R.S. Thomas would draw links between sea-watching and watching for the presence of God. Perhaps this has something to do with the church I first went to – as a teenager rebelling against my atheist upbringing. St Saviours stands right on the seafront, across the road from the lifeboat house, and local legend has it that they were built by the same architect – certainly it looks plausible. That very proximity creates connections – sitting on the beach, staring at the dull grey waves stretching to the horizon, and sitting in the pews staring at the shining silver cup and plate – “God’s holy gifts for God’s holy people” – these held for me the same sense of recognition of something far greater than me, greater than I could imagine, and yet near enough to touch and taste.
This year for #AdventBookClub we are reading “Frequencies of God: walking through Advent with R.S. Thomas” by Carys Walsh. Join the conversation on Twitter using #AdventBookClub or on Facebook by searching for the group ‘Advent Book Club’.