I remember the first video and still images I ever saw of refugee boats, loaded to capacity, pressing out into rough waters searching for hope. The sea is a strange and unstable place, especially in a boat made only for short trips. What kind of demons and darkness make a person willing to risk drowning because it would be a better end than living in their own city, sleeping in their own beds?
While the narrative of refugees may seem unfamiliar to you or I, living in relative safety and comfort in the West, the spare yet insightful book Sea Prayer by best-selling author Khaled Hosseini offers us both an entry point to the journey of refugees and a map for the spiritual journey all human beings take.
Hosseini’s story of Marwan and his refugee family is a story we cannot ourselves tell, but a story into which we can enter because it moves through memories – starting with a beautiful memory, moving into a painful present, and extending into an unseen future. In other words, it is the common tale of our spiritual lives.
A Beautiful Memory
Hosseini draws the reader in with childlike tones. The book has a visual and physical structure that brought to mind picture books that I read to my daughter in her early years. The “father” immediately engages the reader narrating a memory of the city of Homs, the city where he grew up.
He talks of familiar spaces, ones that may bear difficult memories but he only speaks of spaces filled with rich tastes, appealing aromas, and beatific vistas. Our memories are not perfect, of course. They are subject to our senses, our limited and unique perspective, and our own biases. However, they the only raw material we have for understanding and assessing reality.
All human beings operate from memories. Memories form the foundational story and scripts by which we all live our lives. Neuroscientist Eric Kandel says that without our memories our sense of “self” is destroyed. There is no self, and therefore no formation of character, without the memories we have accumulated. The story we bear and the story of the refugee is the story of a soul – the Greek psuche, or “self” knitted by memories.
While we might feel that comparisons between our own spiritual journey and that of a refugee fleeing terror are false and arrogant, it is possible that to refuse to draw Hosseini’s story into our own empathic space (not sympathetic space) hinders our compassion for those who appear only as digital images in our lives. Hosseini gives us names, places, and emotions that dot the memories of refugees throughout the world to which we bring our own names, places, and memories.
Hosseini welcomes us to bring our “selves” – memories and all – and invites us into the “selves” of refugees that are in flight from devastation and the memories that they carry. We live in the white spaces of the book, margins and gaps between the many beautiful illustrations of Homs and the fleeing masses.
A Painful Present
As Hosseini’s narrative turns towards the family’s animating terror, the father introduces a transitional phrase: “I wish you remembered…” In this phrase, the father expresses to Marwan that this life is not the life that could be or should be. The father has a vision that is unfamiliar to the son – the son instead has different memories:
“You know a bomb crater can be made into a swimming hole. You have learned dark blood is better news that bright.”
In the eyes of the father, Marwan’s life is at odds with the story and script of reality that the father knows and loves. The sweet images of Homs have turned to oppression, violence, and spiritual blight. So, the father speaks words of comfort about their refugee voyage saying it will be alright even though he has no guarantee of the future, only an inescapable choice. It is a reality of all spiritual formation and growth: We cannot stay exactly where we are and expect to survive forever.
What the father hopes is that this new place might redeem Marwan’s memories of humanity and display a world of peace. Marwan’s story of the world is formed by what he has seen, felt, and experienced. He will speak and act based on that script. Refuge in a new place is intended to rewrite the script Marwan has been given.
In Jesus’ farewell meal with the disciples, he asks them that when they gather to eat that they “do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19, NRSV). It is a statement of new reality spoken into a painful present; a statement spoken by one who still remembers the strength of God’s reality and redeems the world with a script of God’s sufficiency.
An Unknown Future
Hosseini presents a people waiting on a beach for a morning departure, feeling within their souls the tension between that which they do not know and that to which they cannot return:
All of us impatient for sunrise,
All of us in dread of it.
All of us longing for home.
How odd to say they are waiting for home when the very sand on which they stand is their homeland?
All of formation is longing for a place we know but do not know, a place in which we are at home but a place we have never occupied. Our spiritual homelessness may be manageable for a time, but we still hunger for a place where our wandering ceases. We know of a place like that, but we cannot yet see it ahead of us.
The same is true for Marwan and his family – they do not know where they will end. Their engine is desperation. This is the starving, dehydrated, adrenaline-ridden movement from certain death to hopes of life. It is Moses saying, “…today I have set before you life and death…choose life…” (Deut. 30:19) Choosing life necessarily implies that death is within sniffing distance – whether literal or spiritual.
Perhaps it is in Hosseini’s final scene, the father praying for the grace of the wild sea, that we can both access the memory of our own spiritual movement and we can sympathize with the literal homelessness experienced by those fleeing injustice.
In so doing, we might find the spiritual connection that moves us towards the images we see on our screens – toward the memories we share and the story we cannot tell.
Casey Tygrett is a writer, speaker, and spiritual director living near Chicago, IL. He is the author of Becoming Curious: A Spiritual Practice of Asking Questions and the forthcoming As I Recall: Discovering the Place of Memories in Our Spiritual Lives (April 2019). You can find more about Casey at: caseytygrett.com