I have a deep love for the ocean. Although I was born a few miles from it, we moved to Alberta before I was a year old, so I remember being fascinated by it each time we would fly east to visit family (a regular occurrence as I was growing up). On my last trip to Nova Scotia in June 2011 for a friends wedding, I made a point of jumping on the Dartmouth-Halifax ferry – a trip I made hundreds of times as a kid – to get a good look at the harbour, seeing warships, freighters, sail boats, and even Theodore Tugboat. There’s something magnificent and awe inspiring about some of these ships, particularly the older ones like the Bluenose II, a replica of the 1920’s racing/fishing schooner which can often be seen in the Halifax harbor.
The image of a sailing ship like the Bluenose is an important one for the Church, which is at times referred to as the Barque of St. Peter. Pope Benedict XVI recalled this during his last general audience on February 27, 2013:
I have felt like St. Peter with the Apostles in the boat on the Sea of Galilee: the Lord has given us many days of sunshine and gentle breeze, days in which the catch has been abundant; [then] there have been times when the seas were rough and the wind against us, as in the whole history of the Church it has ever been – and the Lord seemed to sleep. Nevertheless, I always knew that the Lord is in the barque, that the barque of the Church is not mine, not ours, but His – and He shall not let her sink. It is He, who steers her: to be sure, he does so also through men of His choosing, for He desired that it be so. This was and is a certainty that nothing can tarnish. It is for this reason, that today my heart is filled with gratitude to God, for never did He leave me or the Church without His consolation, His light, His love.”
For our journey of faith, the image of a sailing ship has a lot to offer. Think about it: a trip on a sailing ship is going to include many of the same experiences… breathtaking sights, incredible highs, moments you wonder whether you’re going to survive, and a vision of a final destination that helps you persevere through the darkness. There’s a few lessons that can be easily gleaned from this image:
1. At some point, you need to leave the harbor.
A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” -William Shedd
Every great adventure begins by first step. Whether it’s Bilbo Baggins leaving Bag-end to join a company of dwarves on their quest against Smaug (the Dragon) in The Hobbit, Luke Skywalker venturing out with the Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, or Katniss Everdeen volunteering to take her sister’s place in The Hunger Games, each of these stories begins with the decision of a hero to embrace the unknown. In The Lord of the Rings, Sam Gamgee declares that “It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish...” – in other words, you’ve got to head out into the unknown. And as with any great journey, you make your best preparations and then take the first step.
If you’re going to live the Christian life, at some point you need to take a first step. You need to be willing to accept the offer of advent-ure which Jesus offers when He speaks to you: follow me (cf Matthew 4:18-20). There will be unexpected twists and turns, the sea will get rough, but if you want to know who you are and what your life could be, you’ve got to take that first step.
2. Standing still isn’t really an option when you’re out at sea.
In the spiritual life one must always go on pushing ahead and never go backwards; if not, the same thing happens as to a boat which when it loses headway gets blown backwards with the wind. -(St) Padre Pio
The moments in scripture where Jesus is hardest on us are moments where we get lethargic. One of the clearest examples of this is found in Revelation 3:16, where He threatens to “spit us out of [His] mouth” for being lukewarm in our faith. Being a Christian necessarily involves progress and, regardless of the image you use to describe it, the end goal is union with Christ. If we’re going to explore the full depths of our adventure of faith, we need to constantly be moving forward, not looking back to the way things were, but rather, in the words of Saint Paul, to “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phillipians 3:14).
To stop running or to backslide in our faith means we fall short of this destiny. Remember, Christ always invites, always calls us to be something more.
3. You’re stuck with everyone else whose on board.
It’s not by accident that one of the conditions Christ puts on our salvation is the way we treat others: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). We live a life in community with others, and it’s often by interacting with others that we discover a true road to sanctity to the end goal of our faith. The sad truth for most of us is that while we REALLY love certain people, there are always others we find it more difficult to love. It’s especially in Church – the community of believers – that we find ourselves surrounded by people who may drive us a little crazy: people who are hurting, needy, and unable to care for themselves. And even when we may not have the means to solve all the world’s problems, we can each be a part of the solution by providing support to those who do (which is why in stewardship homilies you’ll often hear a call out for the gift of your time, your talent, and your treasure).
The crux of the matter is this: whatever community you find yourself in be it your family, your school, your workplace, or your Church, there are people who are going to drive you crazy. Often, what frustrates us most in others is the way they remind us of our own weaknesses. But much like the boat that sets out to sea, you can’t just abandon those who surround you… you need to do all you can to love them. Christ has identified Himself with these people: the poor, the broken, the forsaken.
“While it is quite true that the essential vocation and mission of the lay faithful is to strive that earthly realities and all human activity may be transformed by the Gospel, none of us can think we are exempt from concern for the poor and for social justice.” –Pope Francis
4. In the end, you’re not really in control.
My father-in-law spent most of his life as a farmer, and one of the things he impressed most clearly on my wife was the need as a farmer to have faith. As a farmer, he planted crops and did all he could to care for them, and in the end was at the mercy of the weather. Whether he would have a bumper crop or a meager one was often far beyond his control. Setting sail is much the same experience: You can train for years to learn all there is to know about sailing, you can memorize the maps and charts, and you can even build a ship that “God himself couldn’t sink” – one that was a marvel of technological innovation, and on April 15, 1912, an iceberg would sink it. The dynamic of being at sea is a recognition that you are now at the mercy of the sea and the elements.
Christian living reflects this clearly. Many of us have been living it from our Baptism – as infants. You can study theology and memorize your prayers… but ultimately, what it comes down to is recognizing that our whole lives – our very being – are to be placed in God’s hands. It is the safest and surest way of reaching our destination.
“Few souls understand what God would accomplish in them if they were to abandon themselves unreservedly to Him and if they were to allow His grace to mold them accordingly.” — St. Ignatius of Loyola