Hawaii & the Poetry of Christ

For the flowers are great blessings.
For the flowers are great blessings.
For the flowers have their angels,
Even the words of God’s creation.
For the flower glorifies God
And the root parries the adversary.
For there is a language of flowers.
For the flowers are peculiarly
The poetry of Christ.

         —Christopher Smart (1722-1771), Rejoice in the Lamb

I’ve been thinking about a trip I took last summer to the island of Oahu, to visit my sister who was at the time living with her husband, a sergeant in the USMC, on Kane’ohe Bay Marine Corps Base in Ohau.  It is situated on the windward or northeast side of the island, on a penninsula where it rains frequently but not always for very long, on the far side of the Nu’uanu Pali mountain range, which the native Hawaiians took to be sacred (this was why there was, according to my sister, so much opposition to the building of a highway through it in the late 70’s, early 80’s–H3 I think).  There, the mountains are a bright green, and their white tops are perpetually enveloped in a mist of clouds.  This is a picture I took as me and my sister were travelling through them:

Along the old Highway 61 or Pali Highway there is a small cliff (the word “pali” in Hawaiian means “cliff”) which is called Pali Lookout and is a popular place for tourists like myself to take pictures of the valley below.  In this picture which I took there, you can see why the native Hawaiians thought the place was sacred:

I recall not being very excited about going to see Hawaii, though I had long since learned to enjoy the company of my sister, so I was looking forward to that sincerely enough.  But not Hawaii:  I have spent most of my life in Florida, where it is lush and green year round, and I have realized how much natural beauty my native country contains only by contrast, such as the time when I came back from a trip to Provence in southern France, when I realized perhaps for the first time how verdant Florida really is, coming back from a place like Provence, whose landscape is more reddish, clay-like in appearance.  No, I had seen a luxuriant, tropical paradise before.  What was another touristy, sunny place with green shores to me?  At least it was a chance to go to the beach again after having moved to the midwest.

When I arrived at the airport, I received my first inkling of how very different Hawaii is from the mainland.  Stopping at the luggage carousel to get my one big piece of luggage, and I bent down to place my small bag on the gournd, only to find something striking me square in the butt. I quickly turned around to find a middle aged Japanese man standing directly behind me, who had not moved an inch and did not seem to even acknowledge my presence; I stood there for a few seconds, incredulous, as I then moved myself and my bags further away from the man.  I don’t think I apprehended it consciously, but that moment crystallized for me something I realized later:  I had never been on an island before.  The Japanese man was used to living in confined spaces, and so bumping into people was not a big deal to him, as offensive as it was to me.  (I later found out how to solve the problem of avoiding bumping into Japanese people in crowds.  Being about 6’2″ and 210lbs, I starting imitating them, and not moving when I came into contact with one of them.  After the first couple of Japanese bounced off of me rather harshly, they quickly adapted and soon learned to give me my space.)

The next suprise was when I went to the beach the next day in Kailua, a town not far from Kane’ohe, where the television series “Lost” is filmed, according to my sister. 

We only spent an hour or so out there sunbathing, but by the time we made it back to the base and her apartment, I now had a much greater appreciation for the strength of the sun’s rays in the Pacific Ocean as opposed to the Atlantic or say the Gulf of Mexico, as the crown of my head was burned red (aided considerably, I might add, by my receding hairline, eroding just a bit faster than the shores in Florida are at this moment.)  One good thing did come out of this unfortunate event, however:  my sister bought me a hat from the Marine exchange which says “USMC Kane’ohe Bay” on the front, and wearing it I could feel, if only by proxy, like I was a member of the Corps, and forget I was such a twit that I got the top of my head sunburned on my first full day in Hawaii.  This wasn’t the half of it, either.  I soon found out why my sister and brother in law insisted on going to bed so early every night (by ten at least, sometimes much earlier).  The sun rises around six every morning in Oahu, and for someone like myself, who has a tendency to rise a couple of hours before sunrise, this meant waking up at four or four thrity in the morning most of the time, and I never did have enough time to adjust to the difference after such a long flight out there. 

In any case, it was going to and from the beach that day that I first noticed the mountains of the Nu’uanu valley, and started taking pictures of them, mesmerized by them.  I simply could not stop looking at them, such fascination did they hold for me.  It is cliched, but there is no other way to describe the faces of the mountains which had been sheered by rivulets of raining puriing down them, since mountains, at least these mountains, are living, organic things, things which have grown up over millions of years:  they looked like the faces of old man, rinkled with age and wear. 

From the first time I saw them, I was struck by them and struck by how I was struck by them, for the first thing they suggested to me was the bible.  I instantly thought of Sinai, the cloud guiding the Israelites by day, the cloud that covered Sinai when Moses went up, the cloud that enveloped Jesus and the Apostles at the Transfiguration.  Seeing those mountains, probably not  a mile or two from these paradisial beaches, with clouds draped over them like the mantle of a king…the only word I can use to describe it is, well, “spiritual,”  a word I usually snicker at these days, what with its New Age, Oprah Winfrey like connotations.  But I do not think I have ever been moved by the sight of natural beauty like that before, or if I did I lacked the means to express it.  Or rather I like to think I lacked the belief capable of expressing it, of making sense of that beauty.

This all may seem like a bit of romanticism on the part of a flatland tourist (and it is–if I had stayed more than the eight days that I did I doubtless would have gradually become weary even of its beauty).  Hawaii, of course, is remote in both time and space from anything in the bible, but the analogy is not without merit.  Just as the Israelites were in fact an immigrant people, so were Hawaii’s first inhabitants originally from other islands.  Even the gods themselves, at least in the old Hawaiian religion, came from other islands; they were also immigrants and strangers.  And just like the chosen people, the native Hawaiians were far from being some sort of tribe of noble savages, living in perfect harmony with all this beauty of nature.  In 1795 a great battle took place on the Pali Lookout, when King Kamehameha, who had recently united the big island of Hawaii, sought to conquer neighboring Ohau and sent 10000 men to invade it (an enormous number, as Hawaii’s population prior to the arrival of Europeans is estimated never to have been more than 300,000 for the entire group of islands).  Kamehameha’s army was pinned down by the force of the king of Ohau, who cut notches into the sides of the mountains and placed his cannon there, which rained down on Kamehameha’s men (they were both borrowing from Europeans at this time, obviously).  But a group of his soliders managed to climb up behind the main force of the King of Ohau, and pin them down on the lookout and disarm them.  Kamehameha’s men then drove about four hundred of them off the cliffs and to their deaths.  Later, as was the custom, some of the captured Oahuans were sacrificed to Ku, the god of war, by the victorious Kamehameha, perhaps in a heiau or temple, such as the ruins of this one near Waimea valley, on Oahu’s north shore. 

(According to some accounts, some of Captain Cook’s men who made it ashore initially in Hawaii may have been sacrificed in this manner, though it is not clear from the surviving evidence.)  Just as the Christ created all things, as the creed says, so does the Fall affect all men, even in a locale such as Oahu, remote as it is from biblical times and places.

And so, I don’t think it is a stretch to find his beauty in the landmarks of a place such as this, where beauty is so abundant and yet the peoples who inhabit it are all wanderers, exiles, estranged the from the very beauty of creation they see all around them.  The history of the Hawaiian islands, which is actually quite rich, is filled with such stories of exiled peoples, whether they be Polynesian mariners or Christian missionaries or even (at least in myth) Polynesian gods.  And my being a tourist, absent minded as I am wont to be, reading a bit too much specifically biblical images into exotic locales, is no real reason not to see Hana’uma Bay

as being like the Sea of Galilee, even though it is not the Galilee.  It is enough to be universally like it, to be an analogy for all those experiences that are supposed so remote from our own (or at least, so I used to believe or rather disbelieve), and in fact, though we are usually so sodden with sin to see it, permeates the course of our everyday lives, every minute, every second of them.  And the analogy works perfectly even for the non human life on Hawaii, the birds, the flora and fauna, all of it came to those islands blown on the winds or swept there by the ocean currents, or bubbled up out of the ocean floor in the case of the islands themselves—and of course, men were the vehicle for some of this as well, as with all creation.  In an environment like on Oahu I experienced this much more directly than I ever had before.  Viewing a place like Diamond Head Crater

and realizing the enormous oceans of time, the millions of years it took to form this immense chasm which forms the backdrop to the city of Honolulu, is, like those majestic mountains and crystaline waters which filled the volcanic crater that is Hana’uma Bay, I could hardly believe the beauty of this world which is always passing away, ephemeral even as human kind is ephemeral, though far outpacing the lives of individual men and women. 

It would be impossible to tell all that I experienced or felt taking in all of this at the time, but it is not necessary really:  every mountain is a history, every stretch of beach is an epic tale that had already been told countless times before.  These epics and histories though there are merely “natural” stories nonetheless are analagous to our own epics, histories.  Yes, I know:  scientifically speaking this is a load of crap, as they have precisely nothing to do with the existence of us thinking reeds.  But the hard thing is learning that there is more to knowledge than knowledge of the scientific sort, more to experience than merely knowledge, and most simply more to life than mere experience.  There is that moment where you catch a glimpse of the majesty of eternity in the waves that break on Wakiki beach, in the way those clouds hung about the mountains on Oahu.  I wish it didn’t so damn trite! It is not trite, it is the most important thing in the world, or can be.  You just have to be in the right place at the right time, with the mountains in the distance and the ocean lapping against the shore, with sunlight engulfing you on a pristine beach, and fish of many colors scurrying beneath you, and you are listening, and perhaps God is allowing it.  Then you will know all of this is related to the One through whom he creates, and how all of this rests in perfect stillness, singing the praise of the One who created it through Him, and, perhaps, see how the storms and eruptions, the enrusting and erosion, all the strands of this life, are His poetry too. 

June 28, 2008

Memorial of St. Irenaeus

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~ by Alypius on June 28, 2008.

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