11Let the heavens rejoice and the earth be glad; let the sea roar and the fulness of it;
Psalm 96:11 – The Keys of the Kingdom Holy Bible
24Those who sail the sea have tales of its dangers which astonish all of us who hear them; 25in it are strange and wonderful creatures, all kinds of living things and great sea monsters. 26By his own action, his purpose succeeds, and by his word all things are held together.
Ecclesiasticus 43: 24 – 26 – Revised English Bible
26And he said to them, ‘Why are you fearful, you of little faith?’ Then, having risen up, he rebuked the winds and the sea, and a mighty calm descended
Matthew 8: 26 – The Keys of the Kingdom Holy Bible
Regular readers of this blog will know that I hadn’t intended to post any further blogs until late September, as a result of a planned long sailing voyage.
But as they say, the best laid plans……
My voyage lasted only eight days, rather than up to three months, and for several of those eight days, we were gale-bound on the west coast of Scotland. So, I’ve been home for some time, giving thought to the nature of journeys in small boats. The theological reflections that have come to me, mostly not for the first time, underline the effect of being in close contact with nature.
One of the backdrops to my lifetime has been that more and more people lead their entire lives isolated from nature, in a way that our ancestors would have been unable to imagine. There are, of course, big advantages to this; if we study even the nineteenth century, let alone earlier periods, we rapidly become aware that most people were forced into living brutish lives, in conditions that would be unimaginable and unacceptable now. As just one small example, imagine having to harvest crops by hand with a scythe, let alone all the subsequent actions required before the harvest was ‘safely gathered in’.
I think one of the reasons why I love sailing so much is that inevitably it brings me closer to nature, and that nature, in turn, brings me closer to God. Boats have changed massively over my lifetime (I can’t help wondering what my boating-mad Grandfather would have made of GPS). Technology should, and mostly does, make life easier. But inevitably it also means that there’s more that can go wrong. If you’re going to expose yourself to the worst the weather can throw at you, you need to think about how you’ll cope with a serious equipment failure; something on which you normally rely completely for your survival.
You need to understand what technology can and can’t do for you, and how you’ll manage if it fails. A sense of your own vulnerability can be very positive, particularly if it simultaneously teaches you that much-despised Christian virtue, humility.
But humility isn’t much use without calm determination and an ability to think things through very rapidly. Things happen quickly on boats; one moment you can be comfortable under sail, the next, you can be in the middle of an unexpected sharp squall and be ‘on your beam ends’.
Sailing teaches patience. You may be perfectly prepared and know where you want to go. But weather, tide and unexpected challenges mean that you may not be able to get there when you want to. Or even at all.
Sailing teaches respect; respect for the potential ferocity of nature, but also respect for your own limitations. If, like me, most of your sailing days are behind you, it’s no good trying to pretend that you’re as strong, as fast, as reactive and as capable as you were fifty years ago. You may be wiser………or you may not. Being at sea may force you to answer questions that can be left unanswered, if you’re sitting comfortably at home.
Sailing also, I believe, teaches you to be optimistic, hopeful and cheery, maybe even if inside you don’t feel even remotely cheery. You meet complete strangers, on some of whom you may have to depend for help in critical moments. It’s not for nothing that the law of the sea is that you’re legally obliged to go to the aid of others in need; you know only too well that one day, that may be you.
Sailing helps to teach you to be calm in emergencies. If you aren’t, you may well endanger both yourself and others. Which is why it isn’t necessarily for everyone. ‘Know thyself’ is an essential lesson for sailors.
Sailing teaches honesty; you need to be honest about your own capabilities. If you aren’t honest with yourself and others, you may increase risks later on.
Sailing teaches responsibility; your decision may affect the life of someone in your care. If you can’t cope with this, then maybe sailing isn’t for you. And if you’re the skipper, then the level of responsibility rises massively. What are you going to do, when all eyes turn to you for a snap decision and you know that you don’t know what to say, but you also know you can’t afford to raise your crew’s fear?
All of these things are reasons why sailing takes you nearer to God; being at sea may be a form of understanding and living Christianity. In addition to the virtues of humility, decisiveness, optimism, hopefulness, patience, honesty and an acceptance of how small you are in God’s creation, you will also feel the awe and majesty of God more fully than in even the largest and most beautiful Cathedral.
But finally………but finally.
Sailing encourages you to feel deeply grateful for what you have and for the privilege of being there, at that moment, whether it’s a moment of terror, respect, excitement, awe, joy, gratitude……..or even disappointment.
Which is why it’s better to travel hopefully than to arrive.
And it’s why it’s better, if you can be, to be able to draw on Christian values.
And it’s why I’m perfectly happy now to be home.
Heavenly Father, thank you for nature in all its forms and for the privilege of feeling close to you. Teach us gratitude, particularly when events dictate that we have to travel hopefully and not arrive. Amen