“Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:16). That was the verse at the top of the handout.
My dinner group was taking a seaside retreat from our everyday lives. Piling into vehicles, we headed down to a member’s beach house for a Saturday of spiritual focus.
There had been a storm the day before (with flood warnings), which caused a fierce wind that blew fine sand in hair, on food, in shoes — everywhere! Our local resident said she’d never seen wind like this. After a group meeting and some open-ended instruction on how to spend the next five hours, we headed toward the ocean to find our own private spot to commune with God. My first hour was spent fighting the elements and trying to protect myself behind a sheltering dune where I could hunker down with my back to the aggressive wind, yet still feel the sand and sun and hear the ocean.
This private spot left me with a view of tilting, twisting wood slats — wired fencing, tangled with tufted clumps of marsh grass. Surely the fence was originally installed in an organized pattern to hold the sand in place. But it looked like the wind and wild grass were winning the battle, and the little landscape had become delightfully chaotic. Even though I could hear faint, muffled announcements from a nearby amusement park, the little nook I found seemed to qualify as the kind of wild “lonely place” described in Luke’s Gospel. Entering into this space allowed me to experience the beach differently — to let the natural rhythms of creation into my body, mind and heart.
After about an hour, I’d stopped fighting the wind and it felt less like an opponent. My meditation took me to the water’s edge, where I wandered along the wet sand. Walking the beach, my eyes moved randomly around the landscape. At first, nothing caught my attention. Slowly, the image of a small scallop shell I had just seen became clear in my mind’s eye. A few moments later, all the other nearby shells faded from my outward view as the remembered one became stronger. I wished I’d picked it up when I first saw it. If I turned around at this point, was I too far ahead to go back and locate it again? I looked behind me and laughed. My footprints were obvious in the damp sand, so by retracing my steps, they led me right to it — a symmetrical scallop shell with tight gray ridges. A few steps later, a second translucent scallop in reddish tones caught my attention. Even though a few other seaside treasures made their way into my pocket, these scallops were clearly the shells of the day.
At other times in my life, I’ve sought out wilderness quiet to let God’s natural patterns into my mind and seek more guidance for my life. Years ago, I picked up a collection of broken shells that had been tumbled and ground by the waves until the edges were smoothed like sea glass. Yet the curved peachy ridges of the original shells remained. The smallest, thickest one felt comforting as I smoothed it between by thumb and forefinger. I thanked God for this small token of His natural patterns that I could take home to help release my daily worries.
Worries are the prayers I bring to wild places. During one summer’s seaside trip after the jolt of the recession, financial concerns crowded my thoughts. As I child, I had been given a large store-bought sand dollar, more than 4 inches in diameter. They never appeared on the local beaches, so I assumed they came only from some distant exotic shore like so many other shells for sale on the boardwalk. Glancing down at the sand, for the first time in my life, I saw a local sand dollar in its natural state — barely an inch wide. Back home, I placed it in a small dish with a Liberty dollar coin, which was almost the same width. Natural settings will even offer up man-made images of currency if that is what’s needed.
At one point, my greatest concern was a 3-inch cyst that doctors had found in my abdomen. After the ultrasound, one doctor said I needed the certainty of surgery; another said wait and see. An herbalist said she could help it drain naturally. After prayerful consideration, I opted for her method. But it required patience and a multi-dimensional approach to healing, which seemed like the right path, but was a step out in faith. A few months into the treatment, things seemed to be going well, but there was no way to be sure. I wondered how the recovering cyst was doing in the dark recesses of my body. While walking on the beach, I stumbled upon a curved chambered shell, the same size and shape as my cyst, broken open in an odd way to expose the inner lining — clearly revealing a path of drainage that looked natural. Soon the second official ultrasound revealed what I already suspected — the draining was complete and I was healed.
When the dinner group came back together and I told this story, one of the other women asked if I had the image of a shell in my mind first and went looking for it. I said, “No, the image appears as if from my dream-life, and I become attracted to it in the waking world. Sometimes it takes a while to recognize its meaning.”
As we got ready to leave, we all made every effort to brush the sand out of our belongings. Without thinking, I turned my beach bag upside down, and several shells fell down a flight of stairs. One broke with a loud crack, another disappeared into the landscaping, but the two scallop shells remained intact.
After I got home, I set the entire shell collection out in the order I had found them. First the remnants (smooth and peachy colored). Next, the reassuring images of my healing cyst. Then sand dollars found in their natural habitat after the jolt of the recession. And now my mysterious winged scallops, with their tiny precise ridges, whose significance I know will eventually be revealed. I held each one in my hands and thanked God for His continual, remarkably specific attention to my needs.
Just as I was about to toss the rough broken shell in the trash, I looked at its vaguely familiar peach-colored stripes. How long would it take for that shell to be tumbled and smoothed, traveling on the waves back to some other coastline, to inspire the next beach-comber who finds it — now rounded and soothing like my sea-glass fragment. As with life, perhaps my brokenness can become someone else’s treasure. Next time I head down to the shore, I’ll throw it into the tide and let God tumble it any way He likes.
Barbara is a member of the Writing Team.