Inside the Shell

blue crab shell

Image by "Dulciwoman" via Flickr. Photo license: All Rights Reserved

Mark Doty has written a wonderful poem called “A Green Crab’s Shell.” You can read it here. It’s about finding a crab shell and wondering at the beautiful shock of “Giotto blue” found within it — the color of the sky, carried by the crab all life long and yet invisible to all (except God). It took the crab’s death, probably at the beak of some hungry seagull, to reveal this lovely, hidden color. Doty goes on to muse about what kinds of treasures you and I carry, hidden within our skin, that only death (of some sort or another) might reveal.

Isn’t this, at the end of the day, what mysticism is all about — discerning the treasures hidden, often deep within, and then making those treasures known to the world, to your self, to God — even if at the cost of your own life? “To save your life, you must lose it.” If we peel back the shell of our so-called false self, what splendors might be revealed, buried deep within us by the love of God long before we were born, gifts available to us, if only we could discern where to look for them, or what sacrifice must be made to access them?

But wait, it gets better. For mysticism is not merely about what has been hidden within you and me (remember, the word mysticism is related to mystery, both words derived from a Greek root meaning to shut or to close — hence, to hide away). It also beckons us to discover what treasures have been hidden deep within the very heart of God. For Christians, we affirm that God, like our little crustacean friend, has died (on the cross) to unleash the full scope of his beauty, truth, and goodness. The death is no final tragedy, for it is merely the prelude to the resurrection. Yet it is also an unexpected triumph, for in that radical letting go, surrendering, kenosis (see Philippians 2), God’s mystery has now been revealed. God in Christ — and Christ in you and me, the hope of glory.

Giotto's Resurrection: "Noli me tangere"

Contemplatives like Thomas Keating are fond of saying that the original sin is not so much about the metaphorical apple, or even disobedience, but rather stems from the primal mistake of forgetting who we are: children of God, one with God by the bonds of grace and charity. We are created in the image and likeness of God, but we have forgotten this, so profoundly and so existentially that we are all mired in an intractable dynamic of being and behaving in all sorts of not-very-Godlike ways. But now that God has died, and the mystery has been revealed, we are offered — freely, with no strings attached — a way out of the mire. This is the nature of our vocation as Christians, as contemplatives: “Here, take this hand! All you have to do is hold on. I’ll do the heavy lifting.” And so God slowly, lovingly, surely, lifts us out of the muck, to a place where we might remember who we are, and discern the treasures hidden within our shells.

One final twist, though: we’ve been promised a resurrected life, but not an ascended one. Transformed so that the sky blue hidden within our shells shines forth with the radiance of the sun, we are not whisked away to some eternal theme park, but rather left right here, in the world of the muck and the mire. Because it is our calling, not merely to accept the helping hand to recall us to who we truly are, but then to be the hands offered to others: so that the circle of life and hope might continue to grow.

Thanks to Brother Cassian of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit for introducing me to Mark Doty’s wonderful poem.


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