Once upon a time, or so legend says, a great thinker and writer named Augustine was walking along a seashore, thinking about God. Ever since he had become a Christian while reading Paul’s letter to the Romans in a garden (an excellent choice of both reading material and location, as conversions go), Augustine thought about God often. He dedicated his mouth and his hands to saying and writing things that were true—that is, things that match what God says. A statement that matches what someone else says is a together-saying, or a con-fession. Augustine wrote a whole book of them.
While walking along the shore, Augustine was considering the nature of the Trinity. He had always been a strong defender of God’s existing as three distinct Persons in one united Godhead, but to believe that something is true and to understand it are two different things. So he walked and thought and tried to understand. After some time, he saw a young boy running back and forth from the edge of the water to a spot farther up the beach and back again, over and over. When he got closer, he saw that the boy was carrying a large seashell, filling it with water from the ocean, running up the sand, and pouring it out into a small hole, only to run back again.
“What are you doing, boy?” he asked in the austere voice of a man who would one day be a long-dead but widely read theologian.
The boy reported, “I’m going to empty the ocean into this hole.”
Augustine was a teacher, and he would not pass up the opportunity to enlighten a young mind about the intersection of logic and spacial relations. “My boy,” he explained, “the ocean is far too vast, and your shell and that hole in the sand are far too small.”
And at that moment, Augustine recognized the irony of his statement and realized how foolish he had been to think that something so vast as the nature of God could be emptied into something so small as his mind. The boy then vanished, for he was an angel.
The moral of the story is that theologians are not always good with children and that there are many good ways to have an enjoyable time at the beach, most of which are metaphors for life. Sometimes we run back and forth, performing tasks that will need to be re-performed before long. Sometimes we sit and contemplate. Regardless, a close examination shows that whatever we do is ultimately meaningless unless life is breathed into it by something above us, something ultimately ineffable and yet imminently personal.
Life draws God’s children closer to Him. As we discover more about what He does and says, we do and say things that agree. While we cannot empty the ocean, even the attempt is instructive. As we try, we learn and confess.