Newfoundland Sermon 1: Midrash with Whales

My family spends summers in Newfoundland, Canada.  If you’ve ever traveled to Newfoundland, you know its natural beauty and the oddness and kindness of its people, but you also know there isn’t much to do there.  When I say my family spends summers there, I really mean that my family communes with whales.   Everyday we travel the 5.2 km from our house to Cape Bonavista—by foot or car—and wait for a puff of breath from some majestic creature feeding on the North Atlantic’s bounty.  We gasp each time one graces us with her presence, every single time.  My partner describes it this way, “You think you know what whale watching is—some tourist activity people do once in their life and think, ‘Cool.’—and then you see the Fleming family whale watch.  Whole different beast.”  It’s true.  We’re like whale connoisseurs; sometimes we visit the cape two, three, four times a day to avoid ever going what my dad calls, “0 for whales.”  Ben has even perfected a whale call-song, which sounds suspiciously like Ellen Degeneres’ Dory from Finding Nemo.

The last whale I saw this year gave my father and I quite a show, slapping his fluke on the water’s surface, spinning his speckled body around so that the fluorescent green algae swirled, and flashing the underside of his white tailfin.  We watched him for a long time, during which I felt my heart race and then calm, race and then calm.

As we watched, I was thinking: I am so often afraid. 

I was thinking: remember in May, Casey, how you had an anxiety attack in Whole Foods.  Swear to Christ.  It started in front of the Honeycrisp apples, reached its apex in the prepared food section, and subsided in the parking lot where I only started to cry once inside the warm cocoon of my car.  I never had an anxiety attack before that, not a real, physical one, and I suspect it had to do with turning 35, which for whatever reason has really thrown me for a few loops.  It scared me. My body went numb, my ears clogged, like being under water except louder.  I almost lay down and curled into a fetal position next to the organic steel-cut oats. 

 Fear and anxiety seem to be a lodestone for modern people.  But they aren’t new.  And certainly I had no real reason to feel afraid in Whole Foods: I mean, talk about a bougie crisis.  Still, the anxiety wasn’t fun.

 What do we do when we’re afraid?  We go to the cliffs and oceans.  We roam the deserts or trek up mountains.  We watch for whales.

 For example, my grandmother requested her deathbed in the sunlight.  Or, after my first, failed engagement, I sought out the ocean day after day, driving to Galveston even when I should have been teaching or writing.  Or, not long before my grandmother’s death, my family gathered in Provincetown, MA where we also watched whales (well, they watched, I puked over the side of the boat).  And after my grandmother’s death, my father, mother, brother and I traveled to the mother country.  In Ireland, we visited the Cliffs of Moher. Ben and I crawled to the edge and peeked our heads over to see the sea 390 feet below us. Even the photograph of this event—our bodies tiny specks against nature’s majesty—induces in me a severe vertigo.  My mother can’t look at the photo. What in the world, she says now, what was I thinking letting my children do something so dangerous?

But something in us seeks out the sublimity of nature in the face of grief, uncertainty, and fear. Alain deBotton writes in his superb essay, “On the Sublime”, that he traveled to the desert of Sinai, “to be made to feel small.”  He brings as his guides the writings of Edmund Burke and the Book of Job.  But I’ll get back to Job.

 Let me start here.  The Gospel of Mark has two different endings—a shorter ending and a longer ending.  The King James Bible includes both endings.  Ancient Greek authorities bring the book to a close at 16:8.  Others include verses 9-20, but mark them as doubtful—the second ending mixes motifs from other gospels, and most likely a later theologian or scholar with some kind of agenda added those last lines in after the fact, a benign or malignant agenda, I cannot say.  The shorter version ends this way:

So they went out and

fled from the tomb, for terror and amaze-

ment had seized them; and they said

nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. 

I like this version.  I like that the story of Jesus’ resurrection ends with the word, afraid.  I like that the “they” in the story refers to three women: Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James, and Salome, who arrived at the empty tomb first.  To women first, God revealed his foremost miracle.

They were afraid.

But I don’t think the author of Mark uses the word afraid in the way we typically define the word, and to prove my theory I’m going to refer to the Hebrew Bible and engage in a modified form of Jewish study called midrash, a method by which one may take seemingly unrelated sentences in the Bible and compare them to find deeper meaning.

I’m going to go back to Israel’s wisdom literature, specifically Proverbs and the Book of Job.  (Who is afraid if not Job?)

Proverbs begins with this sentence, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.”  One could misinterpret this line as a warning against education or secularism, but that would be careless.  The theologian, Marcus J. Borg offers us a better reading of that line.  He says:

 The phrase “fear of the LORD” does not mean “fright”, as one might be frightened of a tyrannical ruler or parent.  Rather, it refers to awe, wonder, and reverence…

If we apply Borg’s definition of “fright” to the last line of the Gospel of Mark, we might read the women’s reaction to Jesus’ empty tomb not as fear so much as a feeling of smallness; like all of us they shuddered a bit to feel their own frailty in the face of the unexplainable.  But Mark states that the women felt both terror and amazement. Inside that final word, afraid, might actually live the cure to fear and anxiety.   The “bigness” of a resurrection, or any witnessed miracle, might relieve us from the error of thinking we have total control over our lives. This strikes me as an important realization for the religious and non-religious alike, a realization that de Botton affirms in “On the Sublime” by explaining that fear make us feel insignificant in a way that shuts us down, while awe makes us feel insignificant in a way that opens us up.

And when Job finally asks God that painful and universal question, “Where were you while I suffered?” God replies by pointing to the sublime, those mysterious creations that beguile us: the stars, the clouds, the desert, the plumage of the ostrich, the wild mane of the horse, the mountains and rivers, and yes, the Leviathan, which some scholars interpret as the “great whale.”

 Anyone in my immediate family will tell you that the first emotion you experience upon spotting a humpback whale 50 yards from the cliffs’ edge or 50 yards from your one-man kayak resembles fear—the enormity of the animal and the shock of its presence stuns you; you want to step or paddle quickly backwards—but if you sit with that feeling, moving outside yourself as you observe the other, bigger creature simply live its life, that first feeling swells in your chest, spreads and diffuses until your blood slows and endorphins rush.  You won’t feel fear at all, but awe and amazement.  You will think you witnessed a miracle.  You will feel small, and you will receive that smallness as a consolation, a momentary remedy to the rows and rows of canned goods and beauty products and baby food and the rainbow array of Tom’s shoes hanging accusingly from their hooks with all their implied restrictions and responsibilities.


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