As a U2 fan, I was one of three people not complaining about a free album that showed up my iTunes library last year. New music from my favorite band, pro bono? [See what I did there?] Yes, please.
One of the most poignant and heart-breaking tracks from Songs of Innocence received amazing new life through its new acoustic mix. Upon hearing it, I nearly felt like weeping. As a man with abnormally strong tear ducts, it forced me to meditate on what it is about this particular song that haunts me. And so, if you’ll humor me, I’d like to dive into a bit of spiritual exegesis and offer one Catholic fan’s reflection on their track “Every Breaking Wave.”
“Every breaking wave/on the shore/tells the next one they’ll be one more.”
The ocean can give you life. The ocean can also take your life. “Every sailor knows that the sea is a friend made enemy.” You can watch a beautiful sunset one day and have your neck broken by a swell the next. The sea is indiscriminate, a mighty metaphor for the beautiful chaos present now in God’s natural order. The sea is not God, yet is one of God’s mightiest and primordial creations. It makes sense that its lapping waves call out to restless souls on every continent, those men and women with hearts still open to awe and wonder.
“Moving water has a great effect on the human spirit, powerful magic,” Peter Kreeft writes in Angels (And Demons). “It is almost impossible to be an atheist if you grew up near the sea. Steel and concrete produce atheists, but not moving water. We intuitively know this and are drawn to the sea.”
It’s no mystery that one of the most powerful Christian songs of recent years involves “Oceans.”
“And every shipwrecked soul knows what it is/to live without intimacy.” The great loneliness of our generation is a tragic irony. We’re more interconnected and yet more isolated than ever before. We have hundreds of friends but look very few of them in the eye. We prefer screens to human touch, virtual games to real-life sport. We sit through Mass daydreaming about everything but the Lord of the universe on the altar before us. More than a few souls of this era lie “shipwrecked” in lonely isolation. Many numb this longing; others reach out for cheap love that can never satisfy.
Often our own noise and clutter get in God’s way. “I thought I heard the captain’s voice/but it’s hard to listen while you preach.” Especially for those of us in ministry or teaching positions, sometimes the harder option is to shut up and allow the Holy Spirit a chance to speak. Our God is a God of silence, a still small voice beckoning us into true intimacy, as each wave beckons the next one upon the shore.
Nearly every stanza of this song evokes a push and pull, a fear to win, a protective self-sabotage before love can begin its work.
“If you go/ if you go your way and I’ll go mine/are we so/ helpless against the tide?”
This chorus will break your heart. It breaks mine. It makes me remember relationships gone wrong, love lost, family members gone before their time. The strings and swells, the simplicity of the Edge’s piano, and the vulnerability of Bono’s voice…perfection. My melancholic soul rejoices. When the bridge arrives, you can hear him caught up into the wave (into God’s embrace, perhaps) “where drowning is no sin,” still fighting and thrashing and pushing and clinging.
“Are we ready to be swept off our feet/and stop chasing/every breaking wave.”
Here’s the climax as the wave crests at its peak and comes crashing down. Are we willing to allow love to ruin our plans? Will we let go of the safety nets we’re clutching onto? Are we willing to let God write the love story for our lives? Will we let Him sweep us off our feet?
U2 have long been artists of the “ache,” musicians willing to live in the longing of their hearts and let it seep throughout their songs. Bono’s lyrics—from “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” to “With or Without You” to “Magnificent”—continually echo St. Augustine’s restless longing, rest that only satisifed within God Himself. Bono’s particular “brand” of Christianity may be a bit convoluted, but he’s at least a romantic who knows that the Christmas story—the story of ultimate Love and Logic becoming a vulnerable child—is the greatest love story ever told. This song, “Every Breaking Wave,” can be an adequate entry into some fruitful prayer and will, at the very least, force you to tap into the ache of your heart.
I’m going to go listen to this song about 20 more times. I humbly suggest you do the same.