I am not a beach person, and I prefer to take my long walks along rocky coastlines or in the mountains, where I am free from the distractions of beach towels, beach umbrellas, beach volleyball, sunscreen, sunglasses, and sun worshippers. If I go to the beach, it will be in late winter or early spring, perhaps in Florida, perhaps in the south of France, where I will fly kites or gather pebbles from the sand and collect foreign coins. But although I am not, as I say, a beach person, I think I know what the beach means. If the ocean is the primordial chaos, the beach is our earthly paradise. It is a Garden of Eden, and an angel stands over it with a burning sword. Dante thought of heaven, and he saw a mystic rose with the company of saints enthroned upon the petals, illuminated by the light of God. When we think of paradise we see palm trees and sand and the company of tourists enthroned upon beach chairs, illuminated by the tropical sun.
I suppose we’re no longer encouraged to think of heaven in anything but earthly terms, and that is why the first explorers of the South Sea islands believed that they had stumbled upon an earthly paradise, and projected upon its inhabitants the corresponding state of primeval innocence. Who was more surprised: the islanders to find out that they were innocent, or the explorers to find out that they were not? Even Dante placed the terrestrial paradise in the southern ocean, but he understood well enough to know that it could be found only by winning to the summit of the mountain of Purgatory. Are we wrong to think that the beach is a symbol of paradise? No, but we forget that it is only a symbol of paradise, and to enter paradise itself may call for devotion, purity of heart, and a clarity of mind not always found among beachgoers.
If you disbelieve in Heaven because you cannot imagine it, or because you can imagine only an eternity of clouds, harps, and music, and are not thereby filled with longing for the courts of the house of our God, then you might be listening to the wrong music. There is a story that St. Augustine, trying to understand the mystery of the Trinity, was reproved by the example of a boy trying to empty the sea with a shell. And there was once a king of England who placed his throne upon the seashore to show his flatterers that he was not the master of the tides. The beach is not the least of the places where wisdom may be found, if you know where to look.
Pity the peoples of the South Pacific islands, not because they have been misunderstood, but because they themselves know nothing of autumn and of winter, of the remarkable evergreens that never change their color, of the remarkable maple trees that do, of the snowfall whiter than the finest sand and the sea that freezes over. Untaught by the discipline of the seasons, they do not know that the blazing noondays and swift sunsets of their perpetual summer are not an eternal and universal possession but a gift that others dearly buy and slowly earn. Pity the islanders, for they have had their reward. Pity the beachgoers, for they have theirs. Pity the Australians, and all who must celebrate Christmas in the summer, and who miss the symbolic interruption of summer in winter, of day into night, the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness that comprehendeth it not.
I am not a summer person, but I think I know what summer means. Summer is a reward in proportion to what we have earned. Summer is also a symbol of heaven, as all the poets agree, and heaven too is a reward in proportion to our capacity to enjoy it. I spent several of the past few summers in graduate school. I won’t say that graduate school is heaven, but when I recall the hours of reading Dante in the classroom, eavesdropping on a rehearsal of a Bach aria in the great hall, glimpsing the rings of Saturn from the observatory telescope, or demonstrating geometrical propositions on the blackboard, I’m inclined to compare it favorably with the beach. I know that school is not nearly so popular as the beach, probably because it takes more practice to enjoy it. But I also suspect that school has a higher graduation rate. The rules are clear for both: you take out what you carry in. But you can always find something new: a shell, a metaphor, a message in a bottle. Keep looking.