Firstly an admission. I made up the title of this post. The oaks at Mamre were terebinths, but I want to connect that evocative name to the she-oaks at the Beach I call my home.
Both types of oaks served as ‘thin place’, a locality where the veil that separates our world from the Mystery we call ‘God’ almost becomes transparent. A she-oak, also known as Casuarina, has needle-like leaves, and often grows in sand on tropical beaches. When a breeze blows, the she-oak doesn’t rustle like a broad-leaf tree, nor rattle like a palm tree. Instead, the sound of the wind through a she-oak is like the silence itself. It is more like a sigh, or peaceful breath. When the wind increases, the breathing of the casuarina changes into exuberant song.
Pera Head (in the photo above) is also a thin place. For the local aboriginal people, it is a spirit place. Many times have I camped under a she-oak, and listened to the story it sang. Later I would anchor our little sailing boat in the lee of the rocky headland. At sunset, my lovely first mate lets herself be gently rocked to sleep in the port bunk by the left-over chop bending around the rocks. The starboard berth remains vacant for much of the night. The skipper will be on deck, listening to the dying song of the she-oaks being taken over by the song of the waves murmuring on the sand. Overhead Scorpion is wheeling from east to west, in the south the kamikaze kite of the Southern Cross is crashing into the headland, to the north the Big Bear is looking for it’s little one below the horizon. This is no time for sleeping, it is time to be in reverent awe of the Mystery in which we live and move and have our being.
Around 3 a.m. the song of the sea on the beach becomes silent. The soft creaking of the anchor chain is a silent witness to the slow swinging of the ship. The tide has changed. The bowsprit points to the land, where the cool morning land breeze has started a languid sigh in the she-oaks. The mighty Orion is low in the eastern sky, always looking for his girl, and followed by his trusty dog. The picaninny dawn wakes up the first birds. Time for the skipper to shake off sleep, clamber on deck and await the Mystery.
Faith is like trusting in an unfathomable abyss. There are no points of reference, nothing to grab hold of.
It is hard work.
The bible is full of stories of people who have encountered the Mystery, and have tried to detect the contours of the Mystery. Adam began with receiving stolen goods. Cain killed his brother, Noah floated his own boat, Abraham had lunch with the Mystery, Moses negotiated a way of life for his people, Mary lent her womb, Jesus negotiated a way of life for all peoples as a Messiah who suffers, Paul made that more acceptable for Greek thinkers.
Modern Christians sometimes detect the contours of the Mystery as Jesus the Christ. They repent of their sins, give their life to Him and invite Him into their heart. And so the need for a conceptual screen of reference to overlay the Mystery drives us to new systems and new ways of living a meaningful life, as expression of and pointing to the Mystery.
So what do I encounter in the darkness of the night, in the shade of singing she-oaks, in the silence of the dawn? Is it a conceptual theological speculation in the form of a way of salvation along the lines of: Jesus died for my sins, therefore etc. etc.? Like one untimely born, I am sadly not as advanced as that.
The experience for me is one of unutterable Mystery, awful yet joyful. Psalm 19 best decribes this:
“Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world”.
For me the Mystery reveals itself as Presence.
And my only response is: And holy is his Name.