MONTERREY, Calif. — We listened to the preliminaries while still outside the sacred space, the sanctuary. About 35 people ranging in age from 8 to mid-70s had shown up. Groups of two to four had slowly gathered, but did not enter into conversation with others.
After an introduction, we were given a quick briefing of behavioral expectations, including an admonition to respect what I termed “the three-point doctrinal stance,” as this would provide for us needed stability in the mysterious time to come. Which, by the way, would be on a boat, on the ocean, and we had better be prepared to hang on with two feet on the deck and one hand on the rail, i.e., the three-point stance.
At this point, we were invited to board and find a comfortable place. Silently, we moved, single-file, still not speaking, uncertainty abounding. Finally, as we settled in, the more adventurous ones near the very front, the less comfortable ones at the back, a little nervous conversation began.
There were physical challenges — not enough seats, no climate control, completely inadequate and nearly unusable plumbing. But under the skillful instruction and guidance of the leaders, the hope of transcendent adventure began to permeate this unlikely and often discomfited congregation.
People began to participate actively, offering their own backgrounds and experiences, encouraging those who still couldn’t quite catch it to look at things differently, try a different perspective, be aware of things materially different from our normal world. Periodically, silence would settle over all as we experienced a collective sense of awe for four hours in a world not previously known to most this morning.
And thus I am describing the “Church of the Whale Watcher,” which took place for me this past Sunday morning, off the coast of Monterrey, California, on a small boat owned by a company indeed called Sanctuary Cruises.
And yes, that sanctuary offered us hours of holy moments — and the deep disconnect that comes from taking an intentional journey into a place that is foreign to most, the life of the whale living in its natural habitat.
Under the skillful hands and guidance of the pastor (pilot) and liturgist (marine wildlife expert), this group of strangers, each in their own way, experienced the Creator in the creation on this day. There was little easy about it, much unsettling and demanding, and rapidly growing awareness of how little we know about those intelligent, family-oriented, air-breathing water mammals who occupy this planet with us.
As the morning progressed, more and more silence permeated this congregation as we simply watched a world at play and work, and life utterly independent of this tiny bit of humanity.
As a group, we also became aware that, should several whales wish to hurt us, all they had to do was surface en mass under that pretty small craft heaving with the waves under our feet. But not only did that not happen, many solo kayakers suffered no mishap while paddling within feet of whales that had gathered close to the harbor.
The close-in whales were from the humpback variety, but we pushed out about 10 miles into the ocean, and there we were treated to the sight of several other whale family pods — these are known as “killer whales” and for good reason. They have no natural enemies — and could have had a feast with us, but also left us alone.
While we were in the midst of waiting for the killer whales to surface, the boat floated freely on the swelling waves. I had weathered without problems from the very front of the boat the wild bouncy ride out. Suddenly, with the engine off, my inner balance went to the birds. This land creature could no longer deal with the deep, ever-changing rocking motion.
A word to the “liturgist” lead to a device strapped on a pressure point at my wrist and aromatic lavender oil dabbed behind my ears. I had been anointed with oil, was gratefully receptive to the healing touch and hope, and soon recovered my ability to enter into the worship of the Creator through the glory of creation.
After returning to land, we headed to a mountain retreat known as the “Land of Medicine Buddha.” Immediately upon stepping out of the car, we were enveloped by silence. Deep, peaceful, penetrating silence that permitted thoughts to flow and swirl away and eventually leave just simple Presence.
We took a three-mile hike in the redwood-forested mountains, meeting others, greeting without speaking, stopping at meditation spots set up around the trails, enjoying the holy peace.
And so, after this day of worshiping in the Church of Whale and Redwood, I say, with deep gratefulness, that I am gloriously small and unimportant in this giant universe — and that silence and awe are doorways to moments of transcendence.
THE REV. CHRISTY THOMAS can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her blog is at www.christy thomas.com.