Spirit Spout oil painting by Henry Niese: moonlit night, whaling boat, spout

"Spirit Spout," oil painting by Henry Niese

By Chelsea Langston Bombino

Lit up by the moon, it looked celestial; seemed some plumed and glittering god uprising from the sea.

The 51st chapter of Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick is called “Spirit Spout.”

“Spirit Spout,” the chapter, describes a series of dark nights at sea where several members of the crew of a whaling ship see a burst birthed from the still waters, which they believe to be the spout of the whale they are pursuing:

It was while gliding through these latter waters that one serene and moonlight night, when all the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver; and, by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude; on such a silent night a silvery jet was seen far in advance of the white bubbles at the bow.

Captain Ahab, throughout Moby Dick, has a singular and vengeful purpose which ultimately costs him his life: to find and kill Moby Dick. Upon catching sight of the spirit spout, Ahab assigns this fluid, mysterious plume a concrete meaning. It could be nothing but the object of Ahab’s wrath—Moby Dick himself. He leads his ship and crew from calm waters into treacherous conditions that overwhelm the vessel in pursuit of the spirit spout.

“Spirit spout” serves as a microcosm of unfolding themes of spiritual symbolism present on every page of Melville’s literary allegory. In a 1963 Christianity Today article, D. Bruce Lockerbie states of Moby Dick: “The acts and rites of the Church, the dual responsibilities of man-to-God and man-to-man: Herman Melville has given them all, yet wholly and artistically in the language and lore of whaling and the sea.”

Ahab lives in a season of unending, yet distorted Advent. His very way of being is centered on an unceasing posture of anticipation and preparation for a false, perverse hope. He puts his hope in revenge. In darkness. In death. Ahab’s soul yearns for resolution he believes can be found by penetrating the beast in the physical waters beneath the vessel. In All Creation Waits: The Advent Mystery of New Beginnings, Gayle Boss describes how leaders in the early history of the Church spoke of Advent as a means for “the bared soul [to] recall what it knows beneath its fear of the dark...that there is One who is the source of all life.”

“Spirit spout” beckons the reader to open the enigma God. Is the spirit spout simply the gush of a sea creature? The natural foam of the sea? Is it an earthly phenomenon? A creaturely occurrence?

Or does the spirit spout speak to a sacred mystery? Our moral imaginations point us to the truth that, while he is fixated on the beast in the water, Ahab’s soul-longing can only be quenched by a spiritual source—by the Living Water itself. And humans themselves, creatures made in the image of their Creator, have a primordial, transcendent relationship with water. As Joseph Campbell told Bill Moyers, every human child, to come into the world, has made the sacred journey from a “water creature…in a realm of the amniotic fluid...to becoming an air-breathing mammal.”

Spirit spout. A painting of the same name, completed almost exactly a century after Moby Dick was published in 1851, hangs as the solitary artwork in our sparse living room. A gift from my husband’s aunt in 2016 after the death of his uncle, Henry Niese. Niese was an artist whose work hangs still in the Whitney, the Corcoran and the Smithsonian. Niese found success with his craft, winning the Pulitzer in 1954, when there was still a category for art. Niese’s Spirit Spout inhabited the four walls of his studio, a converted chicken coup, for decades. For years, my husband Josh would ask Niese if he would consider selling this piece to him and the answer was always the same. Niese couldn’t part with it. Spirit Spout represented something to Niese that, like the Melville literary version, defied easy definitions. It is true Spirit Spout was the last painting Niese did in that particular style, integrating elements of cubism, before he moved forward down a different stylistic path. It is also true that Niese’s own spirituality was on the precipice of a major awakening when he painted Spirit Spout. In Niese’s 2002 book, The Man Who Knew the Medicine, he details his relationship with a Lakota medicine man in South Dakota in the 1970s. Niese writes: “It was there that I began to learn the relatedness of all things, and the mystery and sacredness of those relationships.” This was certainly true. But perhaps, for Niese, there were whisperings of these transcendent truths—of the presence of the sacred in all things—decades before he ever traversed to South Dakota. Present in white, rough brushstrokes, distinguishing themselves from globs of blue-green battered onto canvas. Present is the creation of his own Spirit Spout. Rendered in paint, canvas and brush—the materials of his craft.

I recently joined the Fetzer Institute as a program officer, a foundation with a mission to help build the spiritual foundation for a more loving world. I was overwhelmed with the bigness of this decision. Joining the Institute meant my family would need to move over 600 miles. It meant leaving a meaningful job that provided purpose and community. It meant my husband and I would both leave behind some of our closest friends, the first home we ever purchased, and our faith communities. My husband encouraged me unconditionally. In the midst of one of the most challenging years of my life, when I least expected it, I began seeing and feeling spurts of spiritual beckoning to a new vocational path.

In the midst of a global pandemic. In a season of ongoing grief for our firstborn child who died from SIDS. In a season of postpartum anxiety following the birth of our second son, born prematurely. In a season of isolation from family. Here, in a season of living underwater, of waiting and preparing to be reborn, individually and societally, into that which we do not know. I stepped outside of my own imagination. Out of a womb of familiarity. Into uncharted waters. Committing, in body and spirit, to following the luminous, fluid call of the sacred Spirit. Whose name, for me, is the Holy Spirit. Bubbling up with hope not yet seen. Hope. Whom I understand to be a triune, mystery God—Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Living Water.

In contemplation and prayer leading up to my family's decision to step into the depths and possibilities of the unknown, I came across a transcript from a little known interview with John Fetzer, founder of the Fetzer Institute. Reflective words from over 30 years ago have poignant relevance for our current moment:

JF: And about that time, 1918, the first flu epidemic (Spanish Influenza) came through the country... And people were dying everywhere. I came down with the influenza. I remember the doctor came to see me and said, “you’ll not live ‘til morning.”...[I survived the night.] But it was during that period of time that I made a promise to the higher order that if I succeeded in living, I would do something significant on behalf of the Spirit before I died... And it probably led to what I'm doing now [with the Institute].

Mr. Fetzer looked back at this season of his life in which he inhabited the liminal space beneath the waves—between life and death—as a formative experience. By his own account, without his experience in the 1918 pandemic, the Fetzer Institute might not exist. Mr. Fetzer’s spiritual and professional paths might not have unfolded the way they did.

For those who believe in Christ, according to Gayle Boss: “The practice of Advent has always been about helping us to grasp the mystery of a new beginning out of what looks like death…[to] take in the threat of dark and cold, and…shape themselves to life as it is given.” Mr. Fetzer’s own journey led him to spiritual and theological truth claims that are different from my own. In real ways. Yet, Mr. Fetzer, over 100 years ago, occupied a similar season of waiting. He embraced the darkness of his external circumstances with a posture of hopeful anticipation and self-formation. And in the depth of bodily weakness, he engaged in a labor of his mind and soul. As documented by Brian Wilson in John E. Fetzer and the Quest for a New Age, John Fetzer said of that season: “I made a commitment at the time that if I were permitted to live, I would devote my life to the spiritual work of the Creator.”

And, as I—like we all—continue to be tossed in the harsh waters of the COVID-19 pandemic, I look to Mr. Fetzer’s own lived experience, through a lens of common grace. He embodied the still obscurity of pandemic life as an opportunity for spiritual renewal and personal development. In preparation for external labor and innovation that would be needed when his public life began again.

Advent spirituality, for Christians, is a singular and incomparable orientation. Hopeful longing for the One, whose name is Christ. And yet, the spiritual posture required in a pandemic is, I believe, a similar kind of hopeful longing. Darkness that is not barren. Darkness necessary for the cultivation of new life, still hidden beneath the waves. Indecipherable depths that provide an opportunity for the inner work we need to emerge from a watery unknown into a world remade.

As I struggled for the words to finish this piece, a headline caught my eye: “New Whale Species Discovered.” Peter Hammarstedt, director of campaigns for Sea Shepherd, commented: “The discovery of a new…whale proves how much mystery there is left to discover in the oceans.” Hidden life within the depth. Obscured in the vastness of the sea itself. December 9, 2020. An advent gift. Hope. A fruit of the Spirit: “Praise the Lord from the earth, you great sea creatures and all the deeps,” Psalm 148:7.

I return often to Spirit Spout. The painting. The one that hangs, as a visual reminder, above a cheap couch that we regret purchasing. The commingling of the sacred and the mundane. The artwork our young son, at 13 months, reaches to touch, to press his face to, to put his mouth on. As he tries to understand what it is. Not only the physical painting before him. But what it means to be human. I tell him, though he doesn’t yet understand, that he will be preparing himself, waiting, groaning, to make concrete the meaning of spirit spout. For all the days he lives. He doesn’t yet understand. That life itself is a prolonged season of Advent. A groaning for a soul-knowing that will never fully reveal itself to us in our human state. And still. We hope.

Through the dark
Through the gloom
Suspends our hope
In light of moon

The spouter’s spray
Salt sweet plume
Incense our hopes
Forbear our doom

The ghostly shape
Draws us soon
Through fear to hope
We’ll abide with You

—Poem by Joshua Bombino

Chelsea Langston Bombino is a program officer at the Fetzer Institute.