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The Beachcombing Spirit

Sometimes I feel like a spiritual beachcomber. This is not necessarily bad, it seems to me, because small gems are there for the finding, if the heart’s eyes are open.

On my bookcase sit the following treasures picked up during a walk along the beach not far from our Cenacle in Lantana, Florida:

  • a piece of shell edged in burgundy
  • something white, curly, and lovely that I don’t recognize
  • a U.S. quarter that has been tossed about by waves for so long it is almost unrecognizable
  • and two pieces of bleached coral (is it a bad sign for the environment, I wonder, that coral is washing ashore?)

Spiritual gifts are as abundant as seashells, begging us to pause for a moment, stoop down, and gather them as we walk through the day. But we must not expect choirs of angels hovering above to point them out to us. If we are not attentive, we risk overlooking them. According to Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises. The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand.

The world is indeed strewn with pennies (and wave-tumbled quarters) for those who have eyes to see.

But then I recall another quotation from Annie Dillard — a caution to those of us inclined to spend our lives combing the spiritual sands. Using the image of the ocean, she asks:

Have we rowed out to the thick darkness, or are we all playing pinochle in the bottom of the boat?” (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)

From the gifts to the Giver
God’s gifts are good and to be received with gratitude. Nevertheless, we are not made for the gifts, but for God. The shells and pennies, literal or spiritual, are cozy gifts, more or less comprehensible to our limited minds. God the Giver of gifts, however, is beyond our human grasp, dwelling “in unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:16) — and the divine light, anything but cozy, can appear to us as darkness.

Are we just “playing pinochle in the bottom of the boat”? Or are we perhaps out of the boat, but gazing at our own feet in the sand of the beach? According to an oft-quoted expression, “We become what we contemplate.” Are the eyes of our heart so focused on God’s gifts that we overlook God? Are we satisfied with becoming the shells and quarters, or do we recognize the deep longing implanted in us for union with the Divine?

So I continue to pick up treasures God leaves for me in the sand of my day—and when I remember, I give thanks. Occasionally I even let myself be reminded by these gifts (or even by their absence) that there is Mystery behind and beyond them – and that it is this Mystery who is my purpose and my destination.

Do not be deceived, my beloved.
Every generous act of giving,
with every perfect gift, is from above,
coming down from the Father of lights,
with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
(James 1:16-17)

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