Readers of Messages

August 30, 1994|By STEPHEN VICCHIO

When anxious, uneasy and bad thoughts

come,

I go to the sea, and the sea drowns them out

with its great wide sounds, cleanses me with

its noise and imposes a rhythm upon

everything

in me that is bewildered and confused.

--Rainer Maria Rilke

We human beings see things in fire. To gaze

into the glowing heat is to gaze into the light:

the fire is a magic crystal. It helps us to see

visions and to dream dreams.

--Holbrook Jackson

It is late afternoon. Seagulls hang against a scarlet sunset like iridescent crosses. For an instant they offer a silent thanksgiving, a benediction for this day full of sun and grace. Finally, they swoop down to the sand, competing for crumbs dropped by a toddler and his 8-year-old brother.

First there were two, then seven, a moment later 17, until eventually the small boy has 32 hungry seagulls watching his every move. Their wings come precariously near, but they never collide, each bird with its own air-traffic controller buried deep within its tiny skull -- a gift of evolutionary biology and perhaps the hand of God.

The small boy's hands move as if he is conducting an orchestra. For the moment he seems to command the waves, and the birds, and the sand. He stands at the shore waving his arms like a self-confident King Canute. The boy has more than enough time remaining to understand his relationship to the natural world.

The father's heart yearns to find secret messages in all this: in the scent of sea air, the disappearing sun, the curve of his wife's back as she bends to assist the boy, slow advance and retreat of the ocean, its ''great wide sound,'' and in the silences left between the waves. In this place it is not difficult to image why Thales and Anaximander, two ancient Greek philosophers, believed all life, all love, comes from the sea. We are the great readers of messages: We see things in water.

Later in the evening the father is alone. dishes have been washed, sunburns attended to, bedtime stories told. His wife sleeps soundly, a reward of sorts for chasing the little boy all day on the beach. The man stops in the doorway to admire her new freckles. She even sleeps gracefully.

The sea is invisible now. Its sound has changed to a low moan, and the man's thoughts turn to a one-legged seagull seen earlier in the day. He stares at the flame of a citronella candle, wondering if the bird remains in constant flight. He remembers it was Heraclitus, ''the weeping philosopher,'' who believed all has come from fire.

A moment later a moth begins to circle the fire. The moth becomes dizzy, drunk with attraction, and finally dives into the light, losing its wings and legs immediately. Seconds later, the wax rises covering its abdomen and head, and the moth becomes a second wick. The man stares for several minutes at the twin sources of light. He thinks of those medieval mystics who described their love for God as a burning wick in the midst of a divine flame. But the man remembers Buddhist monks in southeast Asia -- defiant, protesting, human wicks, faces contorted in their final act. We are great readers of messages: We see things in fire.

This, of course, the question: what should we see in water or fire? It was raised by Annie Dillard and a self-immolating moth on a wintry island in the Puget Sound: ''Faith would be, in short, that God has willful connection with time whatsoever, and with us.'' Pope's answer was that all Nature is but Art. Wordsworth, in book I of the ''Prelude'' gives the same answer:

Dust as we are, the immortal spirit grows

Like harmony in music, there is a dark

Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles

Discordant elements.

We cannot know. We can only believe. The rest is waiting -- waiting for crumbs dropped by the hand of a caring but sometimes distant God.

Stephen Vicchio teaches philosophy at the College of Notre Dame. His latest collection of essays, ''The Eye of the Beholder,'' will be published next year.

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