Jellyfish and Prayer

The following article was first published in the May 2021 issue of Roqueta, Menorca’s English-language magazine.

Two recent occurrences brought jellyfish, or medusas, into focus. First, the shores of Menorca were inundated by thousands of specimens that appear to be the heavyweight cousins of the more common, regular visitors. Then I stumbled across an article in which the writer reflected upon the nature of jellyfish (more specifically, the velella, the little blue sailing jellies that occasionally appear in Menorca, that resemble and are related to the Portugese man o’war) and their relationship to prayer.

I hear a puzzled, “What?” repeating my wife’s reaction to the intermingling of those two apparently incongruous subjects: medusas and prayer.

My own relationship with the medusas of Menorca has been rather less to appreciate their natural beauty, and rather more to do all I can to keep a wide berth. Stung more than half a dozen times in our first few years on the island, I discovered that swimming with goggles at least offers a decent chance of seeing the translucent torsos before ploughing into the tentacles. The stings, which remind me of a strong nettle, abate fairly quickly, but the persistent, intermittent itching can be annoying. I have been motivated to do a little research, discovering that the tentacles are populated with tiny barbed organisms called nematocysts, which are attached – almost injected – into the flesh, which is why the stings persist. Our regular Austrian visitor left one year with what resembled a perfect tattoo of an entire jelly, tentacles and all, along her arm. I am now nervous that these newly-arrived hefty creatures will linger, lurking and waiting for me to enter the water, to teach me that they can carry something decidedly more painful than a nettle sting. Paranoia? Someone once said to me, “Even paranoid people can have enemies.”

So what has this to do with prayer? Well, not necessarily the idea that God sends such trials to fortify our prayer life: “Please, God, let me swim without meeting a medusa today!”

Creatures that live like the medusas of the Mediterranean include species whose home is the interface between water and air. They live on a boundary: tied to the water for nutrients and reproduction, and reliant on winds to move and disperse, especially in the case of velella.

Jellyfish descended from corals and anemones tethered to the sea floor. Eventually, a tiny medusa discovered it could drift, unrooted and unhindered, to colonise the surface of the sea. Over millennia, these creatures developed other adaptations such as a partnership with photosynthetic algae to harness sugars from the sun. And so natural selection formed a creature whose very body is a conduit, a channel through which the air exchanges molecules with the sea.

Jellyfish pose something of a biological quandary. Do they consist of one organism or several? The larger jellyfish can be more easily classified as single organisms, but colonial hydrozoans such as velella, have millions of specialised cells (“polyps”) that are independent entities cooperating to keep the group alive. A medusa is a single individual, whose cells do different jobs but function as a coherent whole. These enigmatic creatures are not easy to classify. A microscopic examination reveals different types of cell that might be regarded either as different cellular organisms, clinging together, or as parts of a single creature.

This is a very basic question that transcends biology and strays into sociology. When does sharedness dissolve into oneness? When do the ties between millions of membrane-bound bodies – tethered by nerve networks, signal cascades, shared digestive canals – invite an act of surrender, the emptying of one’s separate self for the fullness of a whole? It does not take much of an imagination to see this playing out in terms of human existence. Can we function as single, isolated individuals, or does the way in which we depend upon one another tie us together as an organism? Are we individual humans, or collective humanity?

There is no absolute answer to such a question, of course. Like it or not, we are held in a web of connection – and not just to other human beings, although that is an important part of the nature of human belonging to a collective species. Each human action, from breathing to composing plays and symphonies, is fuelled by the fission of sun rays, the metabolism of plants, the dissolved bodies of millions of selves who are part of our whole. Whether we choose to admit it or not, we belong. We belong to a species, we belong to a global created order, and we belong to a spiritual dimension that remains a mystery.

What connects all of this to prayer is that a place of prayer becomes sacred when the line between inside and outside, ordinary and holy, personal and collective, is crossed and traversed in continuous living flux, in a similar way to the medusa’s existence on the boundary between water and air.

The author of the article on jellyfish and prayer wrote of her experience of God, “who was She or They, Black or White – a God who moved through the sway of curved hips, the vibration of guitar strings, the breath between stanzas of a poem.”

In holding hands and breaking bread, in picturing the molecules contained in each mouthful, harvested from solar energy and plant tissue and hewn into loaves by gentle hands, in the feeling of each bite dissolving and assimilating into muscles and bones and blood and chromosomes, in the absorption of the material from outside into the architecture of self, in that moment, the author wrote, “It felt impossible to be lonely.” Prayer is the whispered, sung, or shouted network of connection to the rest of the created order through its creator.

I have often written and spoken about the essence of human beings as communal creatures whose very existence is founded upon interdependence. But our belonging to the world – to the universe – that we inhabit is greater even than that. We belong to a created order of which we are an intrinsic part. Like the individual elements of the medusa, we might well be able to survive for a while as autonomous entities. But in the end our belonging to humanity means that our individual nature is inevitably subsumed within the collective whole. And because we are spiritual beings, we are also enveloped within a divine consciousness that will always be a mystery that challenges our understanding, but that listens to our feeble efforts to communicate, and binds us together. This is prayer.

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