Lessons From an Underwater Monastery

Lessons From an Underwater Monastery

Miles Hardacre/Pexels

“Each morning I threw on a wetsuit and plunged into a life-filled, underwater monastery.”

“IF YOU LEAVE this earth before me, I’m becoming a monk,” I once told my husband, staring over the impossibly high-cliffed walls of Greece’s Meteora monasteries.

Luckily, Sean has became accustomed to my many declarations after sacred-space crashing. And so, when I recently exclaimed, “How do you feel about selling our house and moving to an underwater monastery?” he responded, “Hmmm … tell me more.”

I grinned, standing dripping wet with snorkel in hand, staring out at the islands of the Galápagos. “Our monastery’s walls will be volcanic rock faces and coral reefs. Our prayer time will require snorkels and our sacred songs will be comprised of bubbles rising from our finned feet. Each day we will enter the silence of the natural world, aloneish among an awe-inspiring 450 species of fish. Passing sea lions and penguins will offer thought-provoking, wordless homilies.”

I think I’ve almost convinced him to take vows. Yet, when explaining my vision to another person on the scuba expedition, I received a blank stare. The Galápagos archipelago is known for science rather than spirituality. Throughout our trip, I heard Charles Darwin’s name uttered as often as Jesus’s name is invoked in a Christian church or Lord Rama’s is during kirtan.

Lamentably, Darwin is best remembered for “survival of the fittest,” a phrase that he didn’t even coin, and an overly reductionist synopsis of his hefty book On the Origin of Species. Even more regrettably, Darwin’s discoveries came from lifeless specimens he took home for study. And his Glutton Club membership meant he ate many along the voyage.

In contrast, each morning I threw on a wetsuit and plunged into a life-filled, underwater monastery. Then, upon resurfacing, I skipped the seafood buffet in favor of delicious plant-based ceviche. Each day, the ocean brought a new lesson.

Lesson 1: Resist Polarizing

Disclosing that I am “always spiritual and sometimes religious” was uncomfortable on this zoologically based vacation because I encountered people who told me that “science” negated “religion.”

I reminded them that Darwin studied theology at Cambridge. He wrote that science could not answer all questions and suggested, “Theology and science should each run its own course and … I am not responsible if their meeting point should still be far off.” Darwin considered himself agnostic, not an atheist, and was reluctant to engage publicly in science-versus-religion debates.

It’s easy for me to understand Darwin’s reticence. As he observed more of the world, he questioned the interplay of divinity and materiality. He contemplated. He fluctuated. He … evolved.

I think we should too. Science is not the discovery of unchanging facts. It’s an agreed-upon collection of methods we use to define—and then later expand and redefine—what we observe and experience. Likewise, religion is not synonymous with dogma. It’s a name for an extensive cross-cultural assemblage of stories, practices, and meanings. Religion explicates what people value and defines their guidelines for living together.

Both science and religion can be beautiful, empathy-inducing, and useful. Both can also be harmful, prejudicial, and incomplete. They are not opposites but rather different languages.

Reflection: Where am I stuck in polarized thinking? What do I need to evolve?

Lesson 2: Don’t Forget to Play

After my third day of snorkeling, I contemplated the possibility of “survival of the fun-est.” Staring down at an astonishing array of fish shapes, sizes, colors, and swimming styles, I saw a large shadow appear on my right. Rolling in that direction, I came face to face with the long whiskers of a sea lion. Oh my!

Watching the sea lion’s acrobatics, a sense of play invaded my entire body. With it came joy and delight. I recalled that Darwin’s later work stressed cooperation, symbiosis, and reciprocity. Accordingly, today’s zoologists often describe an evolutionary biology of interdependency. They observe that group play builds bonds that help individuals and communities thrive.

Reflection: How often do I make time to play with others?

Lesson 3: Court Your Lover

While many traditional monks take vows of celibacy, my underwater monastery overflows with intimacy and sexual activity. More than 9,000 species are doing it all over the Galápagos in ingenious ways.

On jutting rocks, male blue-footed boobies court mates by raising their massive bright blue feet high with excessive strides—like a drawn-out ballet—before getting down to business.

Down in the water, pairs of flightless cormorants swim, their long necks entwined, before moving on to land together to build a squishy seaweed nest. The male will bring back flotsam gifts, like rope bits and bottle caps, for his beloved. And he’ll also share eggsitting duties when the time comes.

Some Humbolt penguins will opt for same-sex lovers, and plentiful fish will gender-bend, spending part of their life seeming to fit one of our gender labels and then switching to another later in life.

Sex in other species is fascinating, creative beyond what Darwin and early biologists could imagine from their cisgender, heterosexist, humancentric world. Our planet is brimming with not only monogamous but also bigamous and polyamorous relationships that reveal more than merely a drive to reproduce! And gender is way more fluid than we were taught in biology classes.

Reflection: How can I take more time for languid and saucy lovemaking? And how can I help unravel falsehoods about sex and gender in the entire animal kingdom?

Lesson 4: Become a Monastic

It’s easy to forget that early monastics sought not only inner peace and a connection with God but also led lives of service. They created medical centers and universities. They fed the hungry.

My Galápagos expedition made me more keenly aware that ocean dwellers are deeply affected by the decisions we humans make. I realized retiring there might even endanger them. While I might be able to justify visiting this habitat carefully, it definitively is not mine to claim. So, instead, I wondered: What might happen if I viewed the whole world as a monastery?

Reflection: How can I make my home a haven for deep contemplation? And, further, am I ready to be monk-ish for a habitat near me?

Snorkeling underwater

Enjoying this content?

Get this article and many more delivered straight to your inbox weekly.