Last weekend Meg and I spent hours walking along the Assateague National Seashore, listening to and looking at the ocean and its waves, the primordial poetry of seas and seashores everywhere.
As is my wont, I kept looking for the perfect shell. For years I have searched, and some come very close, but most are visibly broken. Some are more whole than not, and a few seem so very beautiful, with colors and shapes that are beyond our best artful imaginations.
But they aren’t perfect.
Which is, of course, like life. At least it is like love, which runs through everyone’s life. We want to be loved, and we want to love—I don’t think there is a longing that is deeper. But wounded people as we are, living in a wounded world as we do, we never ever experience perfect love. And sometimes, with great heartache, our experience is awful and horrible, leaving us more full of sorrow than satisfaction.
I think about this a lot, and have over many years. How can I not, human being that I am? The first time I mused over the meaning of “beautiful but not perfect” shells was nearly 20 years ago, walking along the same Assateague beach. Early one morning Meg and I were walking its length, and I was pondering the universe… but particularly was thinking about the wedding homily I was preparing for later that day. What would I say? How would I say it? I am not ever the pastor, and so don’t marry anyone, but often over the years I have been asked, professor that I am, to reflect on the meaning of marriage for young friends, usually former students that I have loved.
And each time I have invited the young couple into a vision of married love that can be wonderfully beautiful, but will never be perfect. Just like the shells on the seashore.
There are few days of my life that I am not drawn into one more conversation with someone somewhere about the proximate character of life in this now-but-not-world. “Proximate” is a good word, in fact a very important word, as it gives us eyes to see things that are real, and true, and right, honestly so. Another way to say it is that “proximate” is a word making flesh of what can be, of what might be, even if it is not what ought to be or someday will be. As a word it is a grace to us as frail human beings, allowing us to live amidst the ruins of our lives and the world around us.
Believing in goodness, and beauty, and truth, as we must… but knowing ourselves well enough to know that we stumble, and in this life, will always stumble, falling short of what we long for, of what our world needs, and of what will be for our flourishing. And yet, the vocation common to all is to keep at it, giving our hearts away for things that matter. In the public square, we can see proximate justice done, and in our marriages we can experience proximate happiness. Proximate justice, like proximate happiness, is real, and is honest. We can see it, and touch it, and feel it—because it is true, and that matters.
Across the whole of life, from the most personal relationships to the most public responsibilities, we keep on keeping on, remembering as we must that even the best shells are still broken, somehow, somewhere. There is always a nick, always a crack, and we sigh… seeing that the shell is not perfect– and yet, it is still beautiful.
Just like life, just like love.