My first spiritual director talked about contemplation as “a long, loving look at the real.” It’s a quotation from the Jesuit Walter Burghardt. It has taken me years to begin to unpack its meaning.
It is in scuba diving that I am truly able to take long loving looks at the real. The picture above is of two nudibranchs, about 3/4s of an inch long. Nudies, as they are fondly referred to, are gastropod mollusks: snails and slugs. These are animals that on terra firma I tend to turn up my nose in disgust, particularly those slugs. Underwater, that’s another story.
Nudies have an interesting body: their gills are outside their bodies. That lovely tangle of tentacles waving in the surge are really the animal’s gills.
Divers I have found are like people on the earth. Most fin their feet as fast as possible to see the next big thing. The bigger, the better. A hammerhead! A school of thousands of silverly jack circling to protect themselves from the white tip reef shark lying in wait for its next meal.! A turtle swimming to the surface for a gulp of air! These are indeed fantastical sights not to be missed. But, in grasping for the huge, divers miss the miraculous tiny.
Nudibranchs are not common. One of their defenses against being eaten is to blend into to the surrounding colorful coral. And they are tiny, rarely larger than an inch in length. Seeing them takes slow swimming, drifting along as slowly as the current will allow, moving as little as possible.
Surprisingly they move. They may raise their heads, the end with the two feelers and stretch their bodies along the surface of the coral head. They have a rear foot which extends, though I’ve never seen exactly how that moves. The frill around their body can flare up and down, to what end mystifies me.
In a cubic meter of coral reef, there is more life and more diversity of life than anywhere else on earth. Microscopic plankton feed the animals, algae inhabit the coral, producing food for the coral and giving it color. Soft corals sway in the current, imitating the plants they are not. Tiny fish dart exhibiting odd behaviors. And of course larger and larger fish swim and eat in that one cubic meter.
All this wonder escapes the diver when she is interested only in the next big thing. Wonder appears when we slow down, breath as easily as possible, hang in the water suspended, and open our eyes to what is in front of us.
On earth as it is in the water.