Cool Breezes

September 16, 2010

“Then [Elijah] came to a cave, where he took shelter. But the word of the Lord came to him, “Why are you here, Elijah?” He answered: “I have been most zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts, but the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they seek to take my life.” Then the Lord said, “Go outside and stand on the mountain before the Lord; the Lord will be passing by.” A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the Lord — but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake — but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was fire–but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound. When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave and a voice said to him, “Elijah, why are you here?” ”
(I Kings 19:9-13)

Unless you are someone who depended on a good rainfall once in a while like a farmer or a golf course attendant, you have to admit this past summer was probably one of the best ones for sunshine and beautiful days that we’ve had in a long time. It kind of made up for all of the rainy and dreary days of last year. It certainly was a hot one too. As long as the air conditioning was on, there were many days when I didn’t mind having to stay inside and work. As the summer progressed, though, I found myself looking forward to two weeks vacation on the coast of Maine and the possibility of cool ocean breezes.

As many of you know, every August I rent a cottage just down the street from my family cottages where I spend a few weeks with a number of priest friends from all over the country. It’s one of those large old Yankee cottages right on the beach with four upstairs bedrooms and a downstairs day room that can easily be converted for sleeping. The family that owns it keeps the house well maintained with all kinds of exposed wood in the upstairs and fine wainscoating on the ceilings and walls in the first floor rooms. The cottage has a large wrap-around enclosed porch that allows for the possibility of a good breeze and shade without the bother of mosquitoes or “greenheads.” As someone who over the past few days has been told my dermatologist to “stay out of the sun,” I have really come to appreciate the cool haven of the porch.

This summer, the porch was a lot warmer than usual during the day. Normally, the wind at the beach shifts fairly early in the day from a land breeze to an ocean breeze. You can often see this happening out on in the bay itself as the waves and water’s hue turn like a small tsunami of color and current back towards the shore and you find yourself poised in grateful expectation until the ripples hit the shore followed by the refreshing breeze that almost always calls forth an involuntary “ah….” Quickly, the temperature drops from the high 80s and 90s of the day to a comfortable 72-75 degrees, bringing blessed relief from the heat.

Normally there were only maybe one or two days a summer when the day’s breeze didn’t shift and the air stayed hot even at the beach. This year, however, there seemed to be a lot of those days when the only breeze that was felt on the porch was the one from a portable fan. Often on those days, I would find myself looking up every once in a while from my reading to scan the water of the bay, looking for the telltale signs that the wind was about to shift only to know slight disappointment as nothing seemed to be happening. After a while, I would just give up and bury my head in a book and ‘offer it up,’ as they say. One day, though, when the American flag was hanging listlessly on the cottage flagpole and the heat was at its breezeless height, I noticed something different – the sound of the ocean seemed to change. Through the afternoon the crashing of the waves had sounded muted and muffled, almost blanketed by the heat. Now, it sounded so much louder and closer like someone had just turned up not only the volume but also the midrange and the tone. It bore a crisper, cleaner sound. And then along with the change in sound, the air shifted and a marvelous ocean breeze blew through the screens like air through the vents when someone throws the AC on. Delicious. Ah…

I have been coming to the coast of Maine for all my life and I had never noticed this before, how sound shifted along with the breeze. I was intrigued. The rational part of me said, “Well that makes sense. Sound travels in waves, etc. etc,” but another part of me wondered, still puzzling over why I had never noticed this before. As time went on, I couldn’t help but be reminded of that passage from I Kings when Elijah came to know that God was present not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire but in a “tiny whispering sound.” Within Elijah’s tradition, God had appeared to the Israelite people in the burning bush, in the pillar of fire, in the wind and the lighting storms on Mt. Sinai. Now, he was with Elijah in a “tiny whispering sound” – another way of knowing God, another epiphany.

For all those years, I could read the signs of the waves in the bay, the color of the water, and the angle of the canvas on the boats under sail and know that the breeze was going to change. Now, if I closed my eyes and waited I could also know that a change was coming by a change in the sound of the waves in the distant. For many years, I have prayed in different ways and come to know God through the sacraments of the Church, the personal moments of meditative prayer, the repetitive words and actions of devotional prayer, and the presence of God in the Church gathered as one. Now, perhaps, if I close my eyes and wait, I may come to know God in another way that I had not imagined before. Maybe, maybe not, but it’s not a fools goal to try since the blessed reward of God’s presence is a balm to our hearts. Ah …