For more than thirty years, I spent at least part of almost every summer in the Canadian province of New Brunswick. I would stay at a log cabin overlooking Passamaquoddy Bay, about ten miles from the town of St. Andrews. When I was still at University, my stay could last as long as six weeks. But, after graduation, when I took a job, the time shrank to, at most, two weeks, but more often only one. Regardless of the length of my visit, I would swim in the bay at high tide every day.
The Bay of Fundy has the highest tides in the world. A string of small islands sits between Passamaquoddy Bay and the Bay of Fundy. The water I swam in was always cold, even at the height of summer, for it never stayed in one place long enough to heat up. Over time, I developed a ritual for entering the water that could sometimes take as long as half an hour. But once in, the feeling was otherworldly. I would immediately turn on my back and gaze up at the sky above me.
I swam in the bay in all kinds of weather. My favorite weather, however, counter-intuitive perhaps, was gray, cloudy, overcast days, even rainy. For some reason, the water always seemed warmer on those days. The only condition in which I would not swim was in a thunderstorm with lightning.
As I floated on my back, the sea would rock me and splash against my ears. I would imagine all of the other creatures in the water around me; I would feel as if I were one of them. It was easy to believe that life originated in the ocean. I couldn’t have been happier. I would offer simple prayers to God, prayers of gratitude for creating the sky, the water, the creatures around me, and me.
I am reading a collection of poetry by the great medieval Jewish poet, Solomon Ibn Gabirol. The book is titled Vulture in a Cage. It contains the most extensive selection of Gabirol’s poetry in English. Raymond P. Scheindlin translated the poems from their original Hebrew. Professor Scheindlin, a specialist in pre-modern Hebrew poetry, also provides an introduction to the book. One of Gabirol’s devotional poems that Scheindlin discusses is “Three Things.” Here is his English translation:
THREE THINGS there are, together in my eyeGabirol, Solomon Ibn. Vulture in a Cage . Steerforth Press.
that keep the thought of You forever nigh.
I think about Your Great and Holy Name
whenever I look up and see the sky.
My thoughts are roused to know how I was made,
seeing the earth’s expanse, where I abide.
The musings of my mind, when I look inside—
At all times, “O my soul, bless Adonai.”
Reading the poem, I could not help but think of my summers swimming in Passamaquoddy Bay. In the water, my mind moved from the sky to the sea, to me, and ended with my prayers. Professor Scheindlin’s comments on “Three Things” reinforced my understanding of what I had been doing, without thinking of doing so, while swimming.
The speaker’s view begins by observing the distant, inaccessible sky, then moves closer, to observe the earth, then turns inward to the soul in a smooth motion that echoes the process of emanation from the divine to the material world, and ends with the soul pronouncing the Name of God. The act of contemplation unites the cosmos with the divine spark residing inside man, and from this union emerges a spontaneous utterance of joyful praise.Introduction. Vulture in a Cage. Raymond P. Scheindlin.
While it may enhance our understanding of Gabirol’s poem to know something about the philosophy of Neoplatonism and that Gabirol was a Neoplatonist, it is not necessary. The genius of poetry is that it touches on the nature of humanity in a clear, straightforward way, like when we swim in a cold bay or utter a simple prayer of gratitude.
This past September, I visited the bay after a gap of over ten years. I didn’t swim, only walked along the water’s edge. I offered a few prayers. Nothing’s changed, but me. I think that’s a good thing. And for that, I am grateful.