assateague island

assateague island

“Aztec Island?”

“No,” Ruth answered, “Assateague.” 

“There are wild horses there.” she informed me. On a gray, drizzly Friday, Ruth and I were discussing how to spend our day off. A visit to an unknown island sounded promising, especially one populated by wild horses. We checked the map: Assateague Island is located on a long barrier island which stretches like a strand of spun sugar from Ocean City MD to Chincoteague VA. In summer Bethany Beach usually beckons, but not today, so we jumped in the car and drove south. 

Our route took us via Ocean City, where we stopped for a game of pirate mini-golf before continuing our journey until we reached Berlin. By chance we found St Paul’s Episcopal Church, a large white painted brick building. Fortunately a parishioner was leaving the building as we arrived, and she kindly unlocked the church and invited us inside. The church has beautiful stained glass windows, and I noticed the smell of incense. Last Sunday was their first time back since Covid and twenty people had come. It was a beginning for them, as it is for us after this long period away. We thanked our host for showing us around and we continued on our journey. 

We finally arrived at Assateague Island and drove across the bridge as, serendipitously, the radio played “Wild Horses” by the Rolling Stones. The actual wild horses were standing in a group by the side of the road, where a line of cars had pulled up. Human hands reached out to feed and stroke the horses, not far from the road sign expressly forbidding human-horse fraternization. I guess people need that kind of thing, and the horses aren’t going to turn down an offer of food. We continued driving until we reached Oceanside South Beach. That’s as far as the road goes, unless you want to reduce the air in your tires and drive further along in the sand (for which you need a special permit.)

We parked in the car park and got out of the car. At the time it was raining, and the wind was blowing hard. We made our way across the sand to the water’s edge, where the incoming tide covered our feet. A few gulls stood bracing themselves against the wind, and sandpipers darted in and out from the encroaching foam. As the waves rose and fell in the rough sea, we noticed there was no one swimming. In fact, there was hardly anyone there at all. 

After a while the rain stopped, and we walked along the water’s edge, leaving deep footprints in the sand. With the wind blowing and the sound of waves crashing, it was easy to lose yourself in the present moment. After about a quarter of a mile, we turned back and retraced our earlier footsteps, whose impressions remained in the sand. It was like meeting yourself again moments earlier – like inhabiting two time zones at once. 

Then, all of a sudden, the footprints ceased. The incoming tide had washed them away, leaving no trace. Normally, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it, but instead I had the strange sensation of having disappeared. One minute I was walking and the next minute I wasn’t. I felt as though I had been plucked out of the present moment and carried away to – where, exactly? It felt like a death experience, but one which came at the same moment as feeling very alive walking with Ruth in that wild landscape. 

It was humbling too, to think of having left no trace, although I knew that wasn’t quite true – all of us are connected in some way or another and our influence, for good or bad, lives on after we die, in the lives of those we have touched. 

If death teaches us anything, it is that life is a precious gift from God, and the best kind of life is one lived with God at its center. Our model for godly living is Jesus Christ, who regularly encountered death in his own life, whether in the demons which took possession of others, or in the attempts on his own life, or in the deaths of his friends such as John the Baptist and Lazarus. That’s why Jesus spoke vividly about life, and the importance of living a good life, because death was never far away. 

What does a godly life look like? Jesus summed it up in these two commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39). Learning to live a godly life takes away the fear of death, and leads us into that divine life which is God’s gift to us.

With peace and blessings,

Father David

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