When I was growing up, one of my favorite children’s books was called The Alligator and his Uncle Tooth; A Novel of the Sea, by Geoffrey Hayes. Maybe you’ve heard of it? Published in 1977, the book tells the tale of Corduroy, a shy, introverted young alligator who lived “in a house in the hills, full of alligators.” He eventually leaves Alligator House and moves to the seaside to live with his elderly Auntie Hick, a sprightly older alligator who needs some help keeping her stationary shop clean and organized. Even before Corduroy moves to the fishing village, we learn that he wondered about the “mysterious sea; what it looked like and what lay beyond it.” When he beholds the sea for the first time, he is overwhelmed: “The sky loomed over the seashore, as blue as it was endless, and the ocean seemed endless, too - a flat, moving field of green water, crested with white foam.” He even wanted to go down and touch it, just to be sure that it was real.
Not too long after Corduroy comes to live with his aunt, he meets his Uncle Tooth, a retired sea captain who has “sailed the whole world, and then some.” Corduroy asks his Uncle to tell him about life on the sea and is told “It was so lovely it makes my eyes water to recall it.” Corduroy suspects that there is some kind of disgrace hanging about his Uncle, and as the book progresses, we learn about Uncle Tooth’s tale.
We travel with Corduroy through the mists of his Uncle’s memories, hearing how he outsmarted the Sea Lizard and earned a spot on board his first ship. He tells Corduroy all about the feud between the pelicans and the puffins, and the storms and lightning he weathered at sea. But as his old uncle shares his stories, Corduroy learns that no matter how often he set sail or how far and to what exotic lands he traveled, Uncle Tooth carried with him one burning desire - to find the place where the ocean met the sky, that strange and elusive point of intersection between the infinite and the finite, between the divine and the created, the union of the spiritual and the physical. He told Corduroy that at the dusk of every day he watched the sails of the fishing boats “float on their masts like kites, tinged with an edge of gold. Then, wild and red, the sun slipped quietly beyond the water at a place where the ocean met the sky. Did the sun go down beneath the waves and light the ocean floor, or did it turn all flat and lose its glow? And why did it come up again on the other side of the sky in the morning? But no matter how far I traveled on my ship, that place was always a long way off.”
I remembered this story again today as I was reading a short excerpt from Saint Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonica and a monk of Mount Athos in Greece, who died in 1359. The words he wrote describing Mary seemed to be talking about the same impossible union of the ocean and the sky, a paradox of two entirely different realities that yet somehow came together.
Palamas wrote that Mary is the “Mother of the Creator of the universe, who made the human race divine, turned earth into heaven, made God into the Son of man, and men into sons of God.” Through the power of the Holy Spirit she “conceived within herself without seed, and brought forth in a way past telling, the One who brought everything that exists out of nonbeing, and transformed it into something good, who will never let it cease to exist.”
Corduroy and his Uncle Tooth went searching for something they could never find, yet nevertheless, they were determined to spend their lives seeking it. They were looking for Light and Life, even though they, like us, have no power to bring the two together.
The story ends on a hopeful note, the young and the old setting their faces together towards the unknown and the unknowable. “And so they set sail, on a boat called Courage, on that fine bright morning, the old alligator who had seen so much, and the young alligator who was seeing it all for the first time. And they sang as they went, because adventure lay before them. They would discover it together and make poems of their own. They were going to find the place where the ocean meets the sky,” the place where it is on earth as it is in heaven, that mysterious joining that took place once in history, in a small stable in Bethlehem when the Eternal Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And somehow, this same union takes place within the Mass when a common, ordinary piece of bread becomes the Savior of the world. We receive the place where the ocean meets the sky.
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