Friday, February 11, 2011

Blessing the Fleet

The Rigel had completed her transatlantic voyage, transited the Strait of Gibraltar, and docked in Malaga, Spain, in early June.  A picturesque medium-sized city, Malaga hosted the Rigel for several days while she discharged and reloaded cargo.  In the leisurely working schedule of Mediterranean Europe, this cargo handling was done only during the daytime, and even this interval was reduced by the obligatory lunch hour and siesta.  The crew, then, had ample time to go ashore and enjoy the various diversions of the city.

The sun set late in the day in Malaga.  Like the rest of Europe, the Spaniards observed “double summer time” and set their clocks two hours ahead to prolong the sunlight well into the evening.  This allowed for outdoor shopping and dining in broad but cool daylight after the town had passed the hottest hours of the afternoon in siesta.  For the day shift aboard the Rigel, this was a great schedule.  When they were finishing their work, all the attractions ashore were coming to life.

I was ashore and wandering around rather aimlessly one evening when I became aware of numerous groups of people striding very purposefully toward the basin that sheltered the local fishing fleet.  Families and friends clustered together, chatted animatedly in Spanish as they walked, and gathered on a wharf that overlooked several rows of docked fishing boats.  Curious as to the nature of this assembly, I followed along.

As this crowd of several hundred people assembled on the wharf, they left a space open at the water’s edge.  The sun was by now going down, and a gradually darkening twilight covered the area.  Presently a clergyman and two assistants arrived, and the assembly fell silent.  The people standing in the center of the crowd cleared an aisle for the priest and his assistants, and they proceeded to the space by the water that had been left open.  From one of the fishing docks a spotlight shone upon them.  The priest in his ecclesiastical vestments was not only easily recognizable, but in the growing dark of the night came to be increasingly symbolic and representative of “the light [that] shineth in darkness” (John 1:5).

The priest had come to bless the fleet.  He led a service in which he prayed for the safety of the fisherman, sprinkled holy water on the fishing boats, and sought the mercy of God on those whose livelihoods depended on the sea.  He prayed in Spanish, which I could understand sufficiently from having studied ecclesiastical Latin.  At the conclusion of the service, the priest turned toward the congregation, blessed them and made the sign of the cross over them, and entrusted them to the care of God.  Then, with the supplications to the Almighty having been made, the assembly quietly dispersed.

The Bible Dictionary informs us that, “The Hebrews were at no period a seafaring people, and usually regarded the sea with vague terror.”1  Through the many centuries since the time of the ancient Hebrews, many peoples have regarded the sea with “vague terror.”  Countries like Spain that are surrounded by water and whose populations depend on the sea have always maintained a healthy respect for its size and strength.  Those who remained ashore worried about their kin who went to sea and longed for their safe return. In the millennia before radio communication, once a vessel passed out of sight of land there was no word from its crew until either it returned safely, it sent a message with a homebound vessel, or its wreckage was discovered.  The old adage that “no news is good news” was never true in the shipping business.  On the contrary, no news was often the worst news.

While the oceans of the world, for some of us, stand as the most sublime and uniquely magnificent of all the beauties of creation, we must still face the unpleasant reality that the sea can be a dangerous place to live and work.  The long history of seafaring attests to this fact.  The last century saw great improvements in shipboard safety, but the laws of physics as they govern wind speed, wave action, buoyancy, and stability remain unchanged.  All vessels, from the humblest fishing boat to the grandest passenger liner, still shudder and tremble when they sail into the teeth of the fury.  The seafaring cultures of the world have long recognized this.  Hence the coming of the priest to the docks to lead the people in prayer for the safety of the fishermen.

Prayers have been offered and hymns have been sung countless times in countless languages for the safety of the seamen.  One such hymn in English, really a poetic prayer set to music, stands out as a literary masterpiece.  “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” was composed by William Whiting in England in 1860.  A year later, the Rev. John B. Dykes, an Anglican clergyman, put it to music.  Its entreaty for divine mercy is reverently and masterfully expressed:

Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

Enumerating as if from a menu such dangers of the deep as “angry tumult,” “wild confusion,” “rock and tempest,” “fire and foe,” and “chaos dark and rude,” the poet begs the Lord’s peace and protection for those at sea and implores repeatedly,

Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

Then he concludes on a note of optimism and gratitude:

            Protect them wheresoe’er they go;
            Thus evermore shall rise to Thee
            Glad hymns of praise from land and sea.

William Whiting has artistically set in verse the plea common to all the seafaring cultures of the world, a plea for a safe voyage and a safe return home.  In a less artistic but more liturgical way, the Spanish priest in Malaga did the same thing for his congregation.  I felt privileged to have chanced upon this service, and I trust that over the years this man’s prayers have aided me in my many voyages aboard the Rigel and subsequent ships.

1 in Holy Bible, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1979, p. 774.

1 comment:

  1. I really like this one, David. It's quaint and profound at the same time. Thanks.