Steven Riddle at Flos Carmelli has a post today about Elijah and Mary, speaking of how Carmelite monks and friars have viewed the cloud above the sea as symbolic of Mary, drawn from the story of Elijah in I Kings 18:42-45.
The Catholic Encyclopedia offers some insight here into the early origin of references to the sea in connection with Mary. One of the understandings of the meaning of her name is "bitter sea", arising from something written by St. Jerome that was misunderstood over the centuries:
One of the meanings assigned to the name Mary in Martianay's edition of St. Jerome's works (S. Hier. opp., t. II, Parisiis, 1699, 2°, cols. 109-170, 181-246, 245-270) is pikra thalassa, bitter sea. Owing to the corrupt condition in which St. Jerome found the "Onomastica" of Philo and of Origen, which he in a way re-edited, it is hard to say whether the interpretation "bitter sea" is really due to either of these two authorities; at any rate, it is based on the assumption that the name miryam is composed of the Hebrew words mar (bitter) and yam (sea).
The name "Star of the Sea" for Mary comes from a misunderstanding of St. Jerome's work. Rather than translating the name "Miriam" as "Stella Maris" (Star of the Sea), Jerome actually wrote "Stilla Maris" (drop of the sea). The Catholic Encyclopedia gives the citation to Jerome's translation of the Hebrew at De nomin. hebraic., de Exod., de Matth., P.L., XXIII, col, 789, 842.
The symbolism of the sea seems to be deep within human nature, something nearly everyone can immediately comprehend. It appears in varied forms in Christian spirituality, corresponding to the fact that the ocean itself appears to us in varied forms. It can be symbolic of peace and of the Trinity (the "sea pacific" in the Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena); it can be the unfathomable depths of God's love -- "If the sea were the food of love" -- in the Sayings of St. Catherine of Genoa; it can be the unfathomable complexity of the Trinity in the scallop shell legend of St. Augustine. It can be God in His unfathomable greatness to whom we fly in love, through Christ, as described by St. Paul of the Cross.
St. Augustine feared the sea, as was common for ancient men. St. Jerome probably did too. The Psalmist prayed that God would "deliver me from the many waters" (Psalm 143/144:8). In mentioning that Psalm in one of his Wednesday general audience messages on the Psalms, Pope Benedict XVI interpreted the verse about the ocean as symbolizing "the chaos from which the divine hand saves the king."
One of the most common images of the sea is a metaphor for the world, in the storms of our lives, the threats to the Church, with the Church or our own souls seen as a ship or a boat on the sea of life in this world. One of many metaphoric uses of the sea in that way appears in another letter of St. Paul of the Cross in which he writes of God as holding in His hands "the tiny ship that is your soul". In a letter of St. Basil the Great, in which he counseled a new bishop to steer his "ship" prudently, and to keep his vessel from sinking in the "bitter waves of perverse doctrine". This, again, reflects the ancient concept of the sea as threatening and as symbolic of the Church's plight in this life, protected by God as we encounter the dangers of a journey in the world.
It is the sea as symbolic of the world that is seen in the Carmelite image of Mary as the cloud above the sea, as Steven describes it:
"Mary is the cloud that rises out of the sea. The sea is saltwater, undrinkable, a vast body of water, next to which the kingdom can still thirst and die. The sea is salty, impure, an image of fallen humanity with its admixture of sin. Mary rises out of this sea, pure and perfect, laden with the water of grace that will pour out through her to all humanity--not the source of Grace herself, nevertheless the container into which all is poured until it overflows out to all people, limitless, and life-giving. Not God, but human, Mary rises from the sea, pure and Immaculate in her conception, formed as a vessel of God's grace and a place of refuge for His people."
Although the concept of Mary as represented by the cloud above the water would be fairly recent, coming from the Carmelites, it is probably rooted in these more ancient concepts of the sea as symbolic of the world, symbolic of the threats of heresy and destruction that embattle the ship of the Church, and probably also rooted in the earlier understandings of Mary's name as drawn from images of the sea, taken from misreadings from St. Jerome.
It is about time that I started adding some structure and interpretation to my little collection of "sea" quotes in my blog's "The Sea" category. I am thankful to Steven for mentioning this Carmelite tradition, which I can add to my collection and use as a starting point for bringing them a little more together.