Monday, February 28, 2011

The Lights along the Shore

The Victoria made several voyages to Scotland.  She carried military cargoes between the naval base in North Charleston, South Carolina, and the submarine facility in Holy Loch and the James Watt Dock in Greenock.  Holy Loch was not actually a place, but a body of water, an arm of the Clyde River downstream from Glasgow.  In Holy Loch, the Victoria moored alongside another ship, a submarine tender that was semi-permanently anchored a short distance offshore from the small village of Sandbank.  Greenock, a busier and more populous coastal town, lay more or less diagonally across the Clyde from Holy Loch.  The nature of the Victoria’s work required her to stop in both places for loading and discharging of different types of cargo.

Much of this cargo handling was done at night.  When finished in one spot, the ship would shift berths, that is, move across the water to the other spot.  Day or night, the west coast of Scotland is a magnificently beautiful place.  By day, rugged, craggy mountains rise up from the dark blue water and pierce the gray sky with their rocky peaks and austere foliage.  By night, these same mountains seem less rugged as they take the form of black masses rising from a black surface into a black canopy.  All would be black, but different shades of black and therefore subtly distinguishable.  Along the southern shore of the Clyde runs a motor road.  This would be invisible at night from the water except for a string of yellowish lights that ran alongside it.  These lights punctured the blackness, but they punctuated it, too.  The off-yellow lights shone forth as immovable route guides in the darkness; they also added something to the darkness that surrounded them, but whether by contrast or by complement I could not tell.  Many times I stood on the deck of the Victoria as she shifted between Holy Loch and Greenock and looked upon this string of lights.  It did not run straight, as the coastline was curved.  Nor did it run level, as the route was hilly.  It undulated, so to speak, like the waves of the sea, although in this sheltered area the water was always fairly calm.  Sometimes these lights would show their reflections in the water close along the shore.  Many times they would inspire me to contemplate the theological significance of light.

Such were the lights along the shore of the Clyde River on the west coast of Scotland.  Of course, they were installed to guide automobile traffic on land, but the traffic on the water used them as route markers, too.  Aboard ship, one uses all available aids to navigation.  Lights along the shore are perhaps the oldest form of navigational beacons, and they are no less important today than they were in centuries past.  To a seaman, these lights that shine in the darkness offer the one blessing desired above all others: safe passage.  Even more than the proverbial fair winds and following seas, a safe passage culminating in a safe arrival is what every seafarer wants.  Lighthouses exist because the approach to land is often the most hazardous part of a voyage.  At all times, but especially at night, invisible or only partially visible dangers lurking along a coastline— rocky outcroppings, sand bars, sunken wrecks—could easily destroy a vessel that chanced upon them.  Dangers such as these are marked by lights to warn ships away.  Safe routes along a shore and in and out of ports are also illuminated, but to show the way.  Both lights that warn of danger and lights that show the way offer safe passage to the navigator who heeds them.  After a long voyage, and especially after a rough crossing, these lights along the shore are a very welcome sight.

The metaphorical value of the navigational lights becomes clear in my favorite hymn:

Brightly beams our Father’s mercy
From his lighthouse ever more.
But to us he gives the keeping
Of the lights along the shore.1

The importance of the lighthouse keeper’s job has long been recognized as a position of very serious responsibility.  Too many lives have long depended on his faithfulness in maintaining the light for incompetence or laziness to be tolerated.  A glance through the history of light-keeping reveals the esteem in which these men and women have been held.

Dark the night of sin has settled;
Loud the angry billows roar.
Eager eyes are watching, longing,
For the lights along the shore.2

My eyes, too, have watched for and longed to finally see the light in the critical spot on the shore.  Enroute to Holy Loch aboard the Victoria, Inishtrahull was the first major light we would see on the north side of Ireland.

Trim your feeble lamp, my brother;
Some poor sailor, tempest-tossed,
Trying now to make the harbor,
In the darkness may be lost.3

There were always plenty of angry billows and no shortage of tempest, either, to make the typical North Atlantic crossing a rough one.  After a week or more of such weather, Inishtrahull was a very welcome sight.

Let the lower lights be burning;    
Send a gleam across the wave.
Some poor fainting, struggling seaman
You may rescue, you may save.4

After a rough crossing, it was always a relief to see that bright gleam reaching toward us across the waves.  Soon afterwards, the Victoria would reach the calmer water between Ireland and Scotland and then pick up the pilot who would direct her up the Clyde to Holy Loch.  Not that this was an easy job in the rain and fog of Britain, but we felt the unique sense of satisfaction mingled with anticipation that comes at the threshold of completing a long and tempestuous voyage.

“I am the light of the world,” the Lord tells us.  “He that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12).  To a mariner emerging shoreward from the dark expanses of the sea, the lights along the coast are very much “the light of the world” in a strictly physical sense.  They provide safe passage as he follows them to his destination   In times of danger, they become lights of life.  There is no question of this, for ships have been wrecked and seamen have perished because of the absence of such lights.  But the Lord speaks to us on the cosmic level.  If we consider life as a voyage from the premortal to the postmortal ports, then the aptness of the metaphor becomes clear.  Just as the light shining in the darkness of a seacoast stands to guide seamen on a safe passage, so the Light of the World stands to guide all men on a safe passage to the ultimate seaport of Heaven.

With this destination on our sailing schedule, we can then in faith echo the beautiful prayer of John Henry Newman:

Lead, kindly Light, amid th’encircling gloom;
Lead thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home;
Lead thou me on!5

Philip Paul Bliss, “Brightly Beams Our Father’s Mercy,” in Hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985, p. 335.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 John Henry Newman, “Lead, Kindly Light,” op. cit., p. 97.

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