modern monks on the beach?
This week I had a few days away on retreat. A delightful feature was the opportunity each morning to run or walk on a long stretch of beach. The weather was changeable, which actually made this even more enjoyable. For the different mixtures of mist and cloud, sun and tide were marvelous accompaniment to the 'seasons of the soul' in reflection.
I was struck by the lovely collection of different people on the beach at an early hour. For some, such as one or two young families, at least on the one much brighter morning, it was an opportunity to enjoy the sun and he strand before they became too over-powering. For others it was simply early morning exercise. In more than a few cases however, there was an element of a deeper sensibility. This could be seen in the faces, bearing and postures of some, whether walking (or running) attentively, or sitting or standing on the beach, swimming or surfing in the water. For there are many ways in which the Australian beach is not merely a playground but also a source and site of renewal, of soul-deepening and, even, of kind of worship. In this sense, many of us on beaches become in part modern monks. Partly this is response to, and participation in, the sheer elemental energy of the sand, sun and sea, not least the rhythm and power of the waves. Perhaps, living inland again, I was particularly aware this week of the sheer sound ('soul-sound'?) of the sea but, even for those surfers who all but live in it, it is always a mystery drawing us in and out of ourselves and our tinier concerns.
This morning was a special treat. It was the least pleasant in weather, with a strongish cool breeze running all along the shoreline and occasional spots of rain. Yet, as a result, it held a wonderful extra quality. The families and early morning holiday-ers were gone, and today's ocean pilgrims were few. Even the fit and weather-tanned old beach-nik had resorted to a t-shirt and the surfers had taken their morning devotions elsewhere. No one was performing yoga stretches on the sand. Yet one young man sat cross-legged, so beautifully still, in natural posture, as I approached from a distance and ran, in quiet admiration, past. Clad in a simple but ordinary tracksuit leggings and black top, he was making no special statement. Something about him however spoke of a gentle and focused presence, like that of a monk, but without any particular religious or other commitment or intent. No force seemed to have drawn him there, held him there, or occupied him there. He just was. As I made my returned journey, I marveled further at this contemporary contemplative, his hood resembling more and more an easy, everyday, cowl. In continued stillness, he now held a guitar, strumming and singing softly. Was he, I wondered, perhaps practicing as a busker for later in the crowded mall? Was he amusing himself on a grey dawn? Was he, after all, some kind of music/hipster/Jesus/or other kind of freak? No. It was all so wholly unaffected, neither earthy nor ethereal. Like him, his guitar just was. His songs, like the waves, just were. Human icon on a windswept beach.
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Jo Inkpin is an Anglican priest serving as Minister of Pitt St Uniting Church in Sydney, a trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.