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Renouf - The Message And Ministry Of The Sea

( Originally Published 1902 )


AMONG modern artists none that I know have treated the sea more sympathetically and truthfully than Renouf. His " Pilot " is a noble study of one of the most difficult themes in nature. It might better have been called " The Rescue," for it vividly suggests life-boatmen struggling with the waters to reach a ship in distress. The strange, swift, backward and forward movement of the ocean in a storm is depicted with startling fidelity and power. The whole mass, "boundless, endless, and sublime," seems in motion. The blowing foam breaking into blinding mist mingles with the driving rain. The clouds and the waters seem to meet and to become one at the horizon's rim. In the distance the dim outline of a ship is seen through the foam and rain, while in the foreground in a small boat five hardy heroes are battling with the storm. But the pilot-boat, and the distant ship, are only incidents in the painting. There is, in reality, but one object on the canvas and that is the mass of rolling, heaving, scudding, flying waters. Like a thing alive, too vast for thought, too majestic for description, something to be afraid of and never to be trifled with, Renouf in his sub-lime painting has represented the sea. With its swift rush and gurgle and multitudinous foam the wave that sweeps from under the keel of the pilot-boat fairly makes one dizzy, so realistic is the artist's work, and yet it but faintly suggests the awful tumult and grandeur of the storm. This is the mood which the artist, with Saxon strength and French accuracy of detail, has chosen for his picture. And yet this is but one of the infinite variety of moods of the ocean, which now seems like a surface of crystal in which the silent stars are mirrored, again like a giant asleep, and once more like the whole world alive, angry, furious, hurling mountainous masses as children toss aside their playthings. I have not chosen this picture for an interpretation so much as for a point of departure. Those " deep-sea meadows all-purple to the stars," what messages do they speak to those who have ears to hear 2

The first is the vastness of the ocean and the variety of its moods. Fully three-quarters of the surface of the globe is water. The oceans could swallow the continents and leave not a vestige behind. After all our scepticism a universal flood is not in-credible, and, I sometimes think, not entirely improbable. Figures convey no impression of such spaces. They must be traversed to be appreciated. Think of going from New York to Queenstown, in the densest track of the world's commerce, and sighting but two or three ships of any kind in all that distance ! Think of the solitude of those who venture outside the routes of travel, where one may go from the old world to the new without the sight of any form of life except the Mother Carey chickens that never grow weary, an errant gull, occasional porpoises, or perhaps the spouting of a whale !

Who can describe the vastness of the Pacific as it appears to one going from Honolulu to Yokohama, eleven days with-out any sight of steamer or sail ! The sun rises from the blue waste, and the sun sinks in splendors of orange, saffron, dragon's blood, into the desolation which seems ablaze with supernal glory, and the experience, in many instances, is continued for a fortnight at a time. The ice-floes of the north and the ice-fields of the south rest on a shifting basis of salt-sea waves. Who has not wondered why there is so much water and so little land ? If we had been creating things no doubt most of the oceans would have been left off the map, but the result would have been a globe of dry land unfit for human habitation. Large as the oceans are, they are none too large for the ministries they have to render.

The vastness of the sea is no more striking than the variety of its moods. Now it is smooth and fair as burnished silver, and in an hour it is rising and rolling in liquid mountains. One moment it is like a mirror, reflecting the splendors of the sky, and the next " with sullen perpetual roar " it seems to threaten destruction to whatever opposes its wrath. In one place it is the bearer of coolness and the promoter of rest, and else-where it strikes with remorseless madness the flanks of a continent and wipes whole cities from existence. And yet is the sea itself ever a horrible monster eager to be fed with human bodies? The author of the " Princess of Thule " makes his heroine say that the ocean is never cruel or mad; that when left to itself it is always beneficent and friendly. She insists that not the sea but the storms are terrible, and, but for outside forces, it would always be the friend and servant of man.

Are not mountain and cataract, sea and sky, instinct with life and individuality, even as persons in humanity? and do they not have like passions with ourselves? A smooth sea suggests a calm spirit, and a wild waste of waters suggests a man in his wrath.

A study of the ministries of the sea is full of interest. The oceans are none too large for the work that they have to do. Water is necessary to life, and the ocean is the in-exhaustible fountain of moisture. Every drop of rain that falls on the mountains, and every drop of dew that rests on the meadows, has first to be pumped by the sun from the sea. Do you say, No, the waters come from rivers, and rivers come from springs in the hills? Even so, but all the springs in the hills are kept full by the water which comes from the sea. The rivers do not fill the ocean, but the ocean fills the fountains of all the streams. There is a double movement, viz., that of the visible streams running toward the sea, and that of the invisible rivers in the air which are constantly rising from the ocean to the springs in the hills. The water that is used to irrigate the deserts of Utah and Africa is first drawn from the sea. " If all the rivers in the sky were brought into one channel they would make a stream more than fifty times as large as the Mississippi or the Amazon. How many rivers are there in the sky ? Just as many as there are on the earth. . . It is computed that the water which falls from the clouds every year would cover the whole earth to the depth of five feet ; that is, if the earth were a level plain it would spread over it an ocean of water reaching around the whole globe. The sky is not only a river of water but a whole ocean of it. . . . If the ocean were not sending into the air precisely as much as it receives from the rivers, it would be continually rising on its shores, and would finally overthrow all the lands."

All life is dependent on water. Without it the meadows would become brown, the flowers would wither, no grain would grow, the forests would die, everything that feeds man and beast would disappear, and the race itself, the victim of consuming and insatiable thirst, would cease to exist. Not a garden could be cultivated, not a field could produce grain, not a flower would bloom, not a bird would sing, if all the moisture should leave the air; and all the moisture in the air first comes from the sea. It is called "a waste of waters," but it alone prevents the dry land from becoming a desert. Instead of being too large, it is adjusted with absolute nicety to the uses of earth and man.

The ocean is "a perpetual source of health." " The process of death and decay, which is constantly going on in the animal and vegetable kingdoms, would soon make the whole surface of the earth one vast receptacle of corruption, whose stagnant mass would breed pestilence. , . . The winds would not purify it; for having no place to deposit the burden, it would only accumulate in their hands, and, filling their breath with its poisonous effluence, it would make them swift ministers of death, carrying . . . destruction into every part of the world at once.

" The only possible drainage of the world is by water. It is as necessary for the purpose of carrying away the feculence of decay and death as it is for the purpose of bringing in and distributing to their places the positive materials of life. . . . It not only brings what is necessary for growth and sustenance, but it takes away and discharges from the system everything which has accomplished its office, and which, by remaining longer in its place, would be a source of disease and death."

The sea purifies all the winds. When they are weary they turn to it for rest, and re-creation, and go back again to the hills and the valleys replenished with vigor and perfumed with health.

We breathe the ocean, we drink the ocean, our steps are made elastic by the ocean, the ocean cleanses the sewers of the world, and taking into its cavernous depths all the corruptions of the earth, by its unseen chemistry, purifies them and sends them back again to be the servants of humanity.

The ocean is the storehouse of the world's power. Force is always associated with water. Is electricity to be generated? Sooner or later the power must come from the sea. Niagara is being harnessed to do the drudgery of millions of people. It can furnish electricity enough to run all the rail-ways, factories, and mills of the Empire State; but Niagara is only one branch of a mighty river which is constantly flowing from the ocean, by way of the sky, back to the ocean again. Is a factory run by steam ? The steam comes from the ocean. Is it run by electricity? The electricity is generated by sea and sun. Is it run by river or tide ? Still the power is furnished from the same source. Is a mountain to be tunnelled? The sea must drive the drill. Does a train fly across the continent? The invisible hands of the ocean are behind it. Is a steamer carrying a whole city from one continent to another ? It is propelled by the very element which it is traversing.

The sea is largely the architect of the globe. The hills and valleys have not always been as they are now. The rocks have been carved into their present form by a master who has armed the glaciers with might, and who has given to ice and water their strength. One looks upon a dome like St. Paul's and says Sir Christopher Wren reared that. He looks upon the Matterhorn that rises nearly 15,000 feet, almost too steep for snow to cling to it, and he might as truly say that the ocean created that, for it sent rains to beat upon it, winds to blow upon it, glaciers to plough its rock-ribbed sides. Whose hand excavated the canyons of the Yellowstone and the Colorado, with their coloring such as no artist could imitate ? The ocean sent rivers by way of the skies, and they, through the centuries, have wrought the work. Who chiselled the mountains into their fantastic shapes 2 The sun drew up rivers which, falling on the earth, congealed, and, in their movement toward the final home of all rivers, whether of water or ice, they have carved those mountains and scooped out those valleys, and left their wondrous hieroglyphs on those rocks, telling when the work was done. The ocean is the artisan by which all the landscapes have been fashioned, the storehouse of energy by which all the work of the world has been done, the scavenger of the earth which takes the winds ladened with corruption to its secret chambers, relieves them of their burdens, and sends them back to the land with the perfume of the morning on them ; it fills the fountains of all the lakes and rivers, and accomplishes its purposes now by the rain and the dew, and again by the tempest and cyclone.

These are but hints of the part which the ocean plays in the mighty drama which is being enacted on our planet. It also moderates the temperature of the earth, furnishes pathways for commerce and travel and is a treasury of life and a storehouse of food. A desert, it makes gardens possible. It swallows up thousands of lives, but it contributes to the welfare of millions more ; it speaks of the goodness of God as well as of His majesty and might.

" The sea is His." If the land, in a certain sense, belongs to man, the ocean still more evidently belongs to God. Man can do many things on the land. He can change water-ways and alter the appearance of the landscape; he can even destroy mountains by the forces which he has discovered; he can build cities, but he can make no impression on the sea. He may cross it a million times, but the remorseless waters close around the keel of his craft and, in an instant, they are as if he had never been there. The mightiest forces which have been discovered may be set loose on the face of the waters, but within an hour there will be no sign of the commotion. The dominion of the sea belongs to God. It may be studied, but its spaces and silences are peculiarly His own. Think of the solitudes of the Pacific which have never been disturbed by man, where the sound of a human voice has never been heard, where from day to day the waves lift up their anthems unto God, who alone hath set for them meets and bounds.

About half-way between Honolulu and Yokohama is a group of islands called the Midways. They seem to be volcanic in origin. Around them the waters perpetually dash. Sometimes they are sky-blue, and again, as in the cone of what seems to be the crater of an extinct volcano, they shine beneath the sun like a wondrous turquoise worn on the bosom of the Pacific. No human habitation was ever reared there. Steamers seldom pass that way. And that is but one of the lonely places of the ocean. Who shall number them? They have no names. They are God's solitudes and sanctuaries. They lend a new meaning to these words, " The sea is His."

More than anything else in Nature, except the sky, the ocean suggests mystery. Thy judgments are a great deep." The mystery of the sea is like the mystery of God. Its surface hides from human sight a world quite as wonderful as that which is open to the day. The waters teem with life. Beneath their surface rise mountains, and between those mountains are valleys. In those " deep sea-meadows" are wondrous growths of variegated plants ; while forests more wonderful than any that we see grow in those dark spaces. The forms of life below the ocean surface are, probably, quite as numerous as those above. There is found the primeval ooze called protoplasm, which is supposed to be " the physical basis of life," animal and human. What transpires in those voiceless depths can be only dimly imagined. In the silences and distances where the foot of man has never trod, and the eye of man has never penetrated, there are no doubt comedies and tragedies, joys and sorrows, defeat and achievement; but all are enveloped in darkness, and no human eye will ever read those mysterious histories. The ocean is the emblem of mystery. After all, everything seen is like the ocean. The visible is but a veil which separates us from the invisible. Human faces reveal much, but they hide more. Every-where the area of discovery is almost infinitesimal when compared with the undiscovered. A scientist on a little ship drops his line here and there, and from what he brings up draws conclusions concerning three-quarters of the globe, most of which has never been touched by plummet. Likewise, be-hind the visible lies the invisible; and much of what we call our knowledge of life is only like the weeds brought up by lines dropped here and there into the Atlantic or the Pacific from some tiny craft on which sail a few puny investigators.

We dwell in the midst of the mysterious. We are like the voyager who without a companion went around the world in a sail-boat. Alone on the limitless waters—above the sky, beneath the depths, around mystery. In our deepest experiences we are alone; no man can tell us whence we came, whither we go, or what fate will befall us. The sense of mystery on the ocean is constant and oppressive ; and yet to those who think, it is the same on the land as on the sea.

John in the Apocalypse speaks of the saints as standing on a sea of glass mingled with fire. The sea not only suggests mystery but, when it is undisturbed by outside forces, it is the symbol of repose and peace. The sea of glass was probably a very real vision to John as he looked from Patmos over the AEgean toward Ephesus, saw the waters like a mirror and, reflected in them, the splendors of a sunset sky. In that vision there appeared to him the final state of the redeemed. What a glorious picture he presents ! The waves no longer roar, dash, and cast up mire and dirt, but are hushed, and not a murmur is heard nor a ripple seen. Such, after the storms of life, shall be the peace of those who have endured to the end in the service of truth and right—every wave of trouble gone, while only quiet, repose, and beauty remain. And yet the sea of glass is mingled with fire ; and fire in the Scriptures always signifies the means by which impurities are destroyed and finer qualities developed. That sea of glass indicates that the saints will reach a time when there will be repose of soul, and rest in God and His providence; and the fire teaches that it will be peace in which the process of purification and growth will be continued, and that without disturbance, but not without effort, the perfecting of the soul shall go on—who can tell for how long ?

In the word of God this is the final mention of the sea, not a wild tumult of waters, but

Peace beginning to be
Deep as the sleep of the sea,
When the stars their faces glass
In its blue tranquillity :
Hearts of men upon earth,
Never once still from their birth,
To rest as the wild waters rest
With the colors of heaven on their breast !

Love which is the sunlight of peace,
Age by age to increase
Till angers and hatreds are dead,
And sorrow and death shall cease :
" Peace on earth and good-will I"
Souls that are gentle and still
Hear the first music of this
Far off infinite bliss.

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