Today we are again blessed with calm seas and a sun that has warmed us and our immediate world to the point where Dear Diane and I can sit comfortably on our cozy balcony up here on deck 9 on the port side of the Celebrity Infinity -- a balmy day indeed.
"Infinity" -- an odd but interesting name for a ship, one that the cruise line likely chose because of its connotation. As ships go, ours is certainly not the largest, but neither is it small. And yet that's exactly why its name seems so very odd, because in relation to its environment it becomes almost infinitely tiny. But I doubt this was on the mind of the one who gave it its name. As I sit here on the edge of this ship, looking out over the expanse of the Atlantic, I feel so very small.
The old seagoing habits die hard and instinctively my eyes scan the horizon, searching for signs of others, for the superstructures that first appear over the edge of that fine line marking the division of sea and sky. Late yesterday I spotted another ship, a tanker steaming eastward. At first only a bump along that line, a mere speck, it eventually came within a half-dozen miles of us as it passed by heading probably for the Mediterranean. Like our own vessel, it too was a large ship, but before long it had been swallowed by the curve of the earth and simply disappeared. Infinity indeed! Only sea and sky can claim such a name; certainly not a ship made by such finite creatures as men. Perhaps, though, our nameless namer had that in mind. Perhaps he too had spent such moments and had christened this vessel as a tribute to the seas on which it would sail. Perhaps...but not very likely in a world in which such humble thoughts are rare indeed.
My life, however, has been littered with humbling experiences. Being in the presence of another possessed of remarkable talent can certainly be humbling. So too are those moments when my foolish mistakes are brought into the open for all to see. But true humility is more likely experienced alone, during those rare moments when I encounter myself as I actually am.
Years ago, as a young naval officer aboard a U. S. Navy ship in the South Pacific, I took advantage of a Sunday "swim call", an opportunity to take a dip in the ocean. It was a hot day, the sea was truly glassy, as calm as one ever sees it, and a swim seemed a nice way to cool off. So I donned my swimsuit, joined several dozen others, and jumped into the sea which was nearly as warm as the air. The depth of the water at this particular mid-ocean spot could more easily be measured in miles than in feet or fathoms. It was very deep.
At one point, after swimming about for a while, I ducked my head under water and looked down into the depths. There in the South Pacific, not far from the equator, the noonday sun was almost directly overhead and the resulting visual effect was so striking I couldn't turn away but stared down transfixed by the awesome sight. My bare legs dangled in the center of a funnel of light, a brilliant sunlit vortex that pierced the darkness and stretched seemingly forever into the depths of the ocean. Those legs of mine looked tiny indeed, as if they had been pasted, paper doll-like, onto the almost surreal scene that world, sea and sun had presented to me. It was a fearful scene, one that said, "Do you see how small you are? Do you grasp how great is God's creation? Do you see these depths, these darknesses that will forever remain hidden from you? Can you accept your relationship with Me, the I Am that brought you into existence so you can share in mine?"
These questions and more forced their way into my thoughts during that brief moment of revelation. Eventually I raised my head to the surface and gasped for air, confused and awed by what I had encountered there in the sea. I had been humbled by the sea, by the world, by creation, by my Creator. I was truly afraid, not physically afraid, but terrified by what I had learned about myself. Hoping to escape, I swam to the ship and quickly climbed out of the water, but then realized there was no escape. Even aboard a warship, one is dwarfed by the sea, where the expanse of creation is most evident.
How can one be at sea and not be humbled by the experience? Yes, we have climbed into space aboard rockets and have seen the world small, but once we return, when we once again take our proper place on the planet we've been given, we are forced to accept the truth of our relationship with the earth. It is a vast and varied home, this gift to humanity, and our lifetimes are far too short to see it all, to understand it all, to grasp the changes that both nature and human history have wrought. Indeed, it is only at sea where these changes disappear. For today I look out on an ocean that is no different from that which confronted a Phonecian sailor three millennia ago. Humanity may alter the landscape in a thousand ways that hide its past, but the sea is virtually changeless, and it is here that I feel most closely connected with my ancestors...and my descendants.
In a sense this is an antidote to our physical mortality, to that which seems so unjust about life. We all wish we could continue. We wish we could see the world as it was a century ago or as it will be two centuries hence. But we know it cannot be. We are mortal. We must die. And yet, we need only look out over the sea, confident that what we see now will be seen by those who come long after us, just as it was seen by those a thousand years ago.
(Just a note: I took the above photo as we departed Lisbon.)