Poet Susan Wharton Gates begins her poem “The Spirit in the Oyster Shell” with a reference to Jesus’ description of a merchant willing to sell all he had to possess “a pearl of great value.” Following on the previous verse’s image of a treasure buried in a field, the pearl itself is often understood as an image for the Kingdom of God—something so dear that we should, likewise, give all we have to claim it for ourselves. But as the text actually names the merchant as the subject, it can also be taken as a reminder that the Kingdom consists of not just the treasure, but the One (and after Him, the community) who searches for what is of value—sometimes in unlikely places.
Having grown up spending time on the boundary of the Chesapeake Bay on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, seeing watermen making their living from the often hidden bounty of that fertile estuary and its many inlets, Gates acquired a more prosaic and ecological context for pearls than the crowns of kings or the necks of ladies. And as she was acquainted with the oyster long before she was acquainted with the treasure that it sometimes contains, in this poem Gates touches on the Biblical image of the pearl, but grounds that image and her spiritual ruminations in the life of the oyster.
Gates recalls hearing her mother say that “the first person to have opened an oyster must have been pretty hungry,” but that culinary pioneer must also have been both observant and curious in order to notice and extract the shell from the muddy bottom or the jagged oyster reefs in which they grow. As for the mollusk itself, its outward appearance would not immediately signal that something good, much less something beautiful, was inside. Moreover, the rough, irregular exterior requires a lot of work to get into. There are oyster-shucking contests not because prying the halves of the shell apart is easy, but because it is hard and can even be dangerous to one’s fingers. And yet, for the imaginative (who ask “what might be in there?”), the persistent, and—above all—the desperate, there is the reward of sustenance and the possibility of something more.
That something nourishing resides hidden away in the most unexpected and unglamorous of places speaks to the paradoxical hiddenness of God. It speaks to the way God’s presence in the world—not to mention His revelation of Himself— is not always perfectly obvious, but instead, mysterious. Seeking Him, therefore, requires discipline and perseverance in looking in places one might not “reasonably” expect to find Him, a fact that says more about our expectations than about God’s character. This is true of looking for the Lord in human character and relationships, but no less in looking for Him in the midst of His creation. Thus, scientific endeavor informed by Christian faith can be seen as the practice of seeking the Lord in the oyster, not just the pearl, of looking in the muddy places for the dirty things and still expecting to find God in the midst. It is not always in the spectacle of clarity that God reveals Himself, but in the murkiness of our fallen world.
But what of the pearl, itself? Despite the advent of modern techniques to “culture” them, it is helpful to think of the pearl as a costly gift rather than a product or commodity—costly to the oyster more than to us. A pearl does not come about because the oyster “wants” to make it, but on account of an irritant, a wound. As beautiful as we find its translucent, iridescent layers, the pearl is the treasure of suffering, made by the oyster’s bathing a foreign object in the substance of its own shell, lavishing itself on the intruding body, the very thing that gives it hurt. This treasure’s maker does not just ignore the damaging foreign body but, instead, transforms and redeems it. And when we remember that the oyster must die to surrender the pearl to our waiting hands, realize that we adorn ourselves with the beauty of its suffering at the cost of its life while consuming its very flesh in the bargain, the pearl becomes an even more apt symbol for God’s grace extended to us in Jesus.
Taking the oyster and pearl together, then, gives us a dual analogy for the way the Lord reveals himself in both the world and in the Word—a symbol for the relationship between general revelation in the Creation and special revelation of Jesus through the scriptures and the ongoing work of the Spirit. First, in all its unglamorous bivalve-ness, the oyster is like the way that God’s agency and sustaining presence is “evident” in nature: it is there for all to explore and examine, but to do so requires that we have the perseverance to pry open what may not seem particularly promising or appetizing (much less lovely) at first glance. If we do persist, though, we will be rewarded with something good and nourishing, even though still surprising: an awareness and appreciation of the created order, an appetite for discovery of the unheralded beauty of the “ordinary” materials and ways of the Creator. By the same token, the way God has spoken to us through the scriptures, pointing us always to the person of Christ, may be likened to the pearl itself, that treasure hidden within the shell, unseen at first, but undeniably beautiful when revealed, removed from its humble package, and turned over and over in the hand.
It is true that one can go through a lifetime of oysters without encountering a pearl in the shell. Conversely, one can possess a pearl without ever having shucked an oyster. But if you have both seen a pearl and know how they come to be, then each unopened oyster on the plate holds more than the promise of bodily sustenance, it holds the possibility of discovery, of beauty, of delight. A careful and scientific exploration of the natural world does not lead directly to Christ anymore than meeting Jesus requires an intimate knowledge of biology or physics. But it is surely the case that seeking the Lord in both the oyster and the pearl develops in us a taste for the surprising ways He is bringing in His kingdom, the unexpected places He is revealing His grace.
Gates has a somewhat light tone about the oyster, seeming to laugh as much as marvel that God should make something both so unassuming and so superficially off-putting, and that we should respond with so much curiosity and determination to get at what’s within. Rockefellers aside, the oyster seems a “beatitudes” sort of meal, rather than a feast for princes. But the better punch-line still is that for those who seek diligently and make themselves acquainted with the “mournful, craggy shell,” God has another, greater surprise in store—not just life, but treasure.
In her last lines on the almost surreptitious discovery of the pearl itself, Gates echoes the upside-down spiritual economy that Jesus proclaimed when he told the religious leaders of His day that heaven rejoices more over one sinner turned to the Lord than over many who deny their need for salvation. The oyster and the pearl it contains, she says, is for the downtrodden, those who are not looking for treasure but only for something. It is in and through such unexpected gifts, placed for the “undeserving” to find, that God greets us and all mankind, treasure which Heaven thrills for us claim as our own.
“Spirit in the Oyster Shell”
by Susan Wharton Gates
in black river mud
by the maker
who longs to greet the few
thirsty enough to
fish it up and
pry apart the
mournful, craggy shell—
is God’s humblest vessel.
A seemingly uninspired afterthought
pieced from nature’s scrap,
it is (admittedly) a hard sell.
But tucked inside
like the prize in crackerjack
is the pearl.
Heaven thrills when
someone picks and
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