Friday, April 22, 2011

The Temple of the Sea

The ferry Joseph and Clara Smallwood departed from her berth in North Sydney, Nova Scotia, at precisely 6:00am on Monday, June 21. 2004.  There was no noise and no commotion.  Her lines were let go, and then gently—almost imperceptibly, at first—she slid away from the dock and into the stream.  Suddenly, the whistle sounded, almost as an afterthought.  The three short blasts announced that the ship’s engines were going astern.  To anyone who had not already noticed the apparent motion of the pier, the whistle was the clarion call: we are now going to sea.  Ahead lay a fourteen and one half hours’ voyage beyond sight of land and across the open ocean to Argentia, Newfoundland.

No mere ferryboat, the Joseph and Clara Smallwood was a great ship: 587 feet long, 82 feet wide, with two vehicle decks and a capacity for 370 automobiles or 77 tractor-trailers and 1200 passengers, powered by four eight-cylinder diesel engines developing 7,000 horsepower each, and driven by twin propellers at a maximum speed of 22 knots.1  This was my kind of ship!  For “a seaman in exile from the sea,”2 boarding the Joseph and Clara was like going home again.  The shackles of the shore were broken.  The open ocean beckoned.  With a thrill the old familiar sensations of the wind in one’s hair and the vibration under one’s feet and the gentle undulating motion of the ship through the water returned.  The mountains of Nova Scotia receded and disappeared below the horizon.  Then, after nineteen years, I was home.  As Joseph Conrad so succinctly put it, I knew once again “the magic monotony of existence between sky and water.”3

The sky that morning was cloudy, the water gray.  A slight swell came from the north, the wind from the east.  Soon the sky would clear except for a few tufts of altocumulus, and the water would turn blue in the sun.  The ocean has many moods, and today’s was one of its gentlest: a fair wind and a following sea.   A canopy of blue sky and white clouds formed a dome over the floor of the water, a rotunda, as it were, with “the black speck of the moving hull remaining everlastingly in its centre.”4

In this great limitless rotunda of sea and sky there is and always has been something ineffable.  Some would call it a spiritual presence; others a glimpse of eternity; still others perceive it but cannot describe it.  I say they are all right.  It is ethereal and supernatural, beyond the scientific scope of oceanography and meteorology.  It is strictly ordered and logical, but beyond the impersonal mathematical calculations of the navigator.  In all the voyages of my youth, I perceived this great ineffability. As a Christian, I attributed it to the Spirit of the Lord keeping watch over the deep.  With good reason, too, for I never felt alone despite being alone on the bridge wing of the ship, whether in broad daylight or on the blackest night.  Often the heavens seemed so close I felt I could almost reach out and touch them, that the sun and moon and stars were just out of reach, just slightly beyond arm’s length.  And in addition to these mute bodies there was an unseen but unmistakably present Being who spoke, as it were, through these heavenly bodies, through the sun and clouds, through the sky and water.  I now know that this was the “still small voice” (1 Nephi 17:45).

Some have called the sea a trackless void.   They could not be more wrong.  The sea and its realm are the quintessential majesty of creation, the pinnacle of the six days’ work.  Except for the ship intruding itself into this pristine world, all that surrounds one are the elements of creation: water, sky, clouds, sun, moon, stars.  It is through these elements in this pure and natural realm that the still small voice speaks so silently and yet so majestically.  Without using human words, the still small voice makes the presence of the Lord’s Spirit felt and perceived and understood by the human mind.  One cannot help but gaze seaward from the ship and reverently acknowledge the Creator in his creation.

On a long voyage one experiences this for many days.  It does not grow tiresome.  On the contrary, it beckons one to something higher and greater.  There somehow seems to be an increased knowledge of divinity hiding just beyond the horizon, a greater glimpse of eternity slightly beyond one’s line of sight.  But although the vessel constantly moves forward, the sea and sky and the horizon separating them do not change.  No increased knowledge is found.  No greater glimpse of eternity is grasped.  At the voyage’s end, landfall comes almost as a disappointment, a settling for something lesser in place of the greater that was sought.  Despite this letdown, one knows that there is more, and the yearning for it remains.

Just as a ship both brings people together and takes them away, so does life.  Death removes those to whom we are born and later removes us from those born next.  As seafarers bidding farewell to families on the pier, we sail through life hoping—even expecting—to see again those left behind. At the voyage’s end, the travelers return to their families, whether back at the pier in this life or through the veil in the next life.  We know this much, at least, for the still small voice that comes over the sea silently asserts that there is a greater place where nothing is temporary, where the quintessence of the majesty of creation is with us always, where the voyage never ends.  Still, something more remains.

Joseph Conrad, who wrote so eloquently of the sea and of life, describes this search for the higher and greater in his varied roles of seaman and artist and writer.  He asserts that the literary artist

speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives … to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation—and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspiration, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity—the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.5

Achieving to some degree this “conviction of solidarity,” the ship and life both seek the binding together of all humanity, one through commerce, and the other through a more sublime means.  In the end, life, through death, delivers its passengers to that greater place.  Still, something more remains.

Joseph Conrad somehow understood this principle and succeeded in articulating it, at least in secular terms.  This stands as a remarkable accomplishment, for he was not a religious man.  He had no knowledge of the restored fullness of the Gospel, and no knowledge of the priesthood authority to seal families in the temple.  For that matter, he had no access to a temple.  Yet there it is—“the invincible conviction of solidarity…which binds together all humanity.”  Conrad further asserted as a literary artist:

My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel … to make you see.  If I succeed, you shall find there…that glimpse of truth.6

In the many voyages of my youth, I grasped “that glimpse of truth,” but it was only a glimpse.  I experienced the great ineffability of the sea and sensed the presence of the Master and Chief Engineer of the universe—the Creator watching over his masterpiece.  But it was only a glimpse.  I sensed—I knew—there was more than what I was grasping, but knew not how to attain it.  Then I left the sea.

In the long interval of life ashore, the Truth of the restored fullness of the Gospel found me.  A skeptical recipient at first, I finally had the good fortune of visiting several temples prior to their dedication.  In them, I felt the presence of the Lord’s Spirit and heard the still small voice as I had at sea.  In addition, I found in the temple what had been so elusive at sea, the increased knowledge of divinity that had been hiding beyond the horizon, the greater glimpse of eternity that had been just beyond the line of sight. 

In the Palmyra Temple, I was acutely aware of deceased family members waiting on the other side of a very thin veil that separated them from me.  In the Montreal Temple, I could almost see my immediate family taking its first step in binding the generations together:  the sealing that ultimately took place in the Boston Temple in 2001.  At last, what had been so elusive was grasped.  And I knew what it was:  the eternal existence of the family, indeed of all humanity, on an endless voyage. Conrad was more right than he realized.  In the temple the “invincible conviction of solidarity” becomes absolutely incontrovertible as all humanity—“the dead to the living and the living to the unborn”—is not merely “knit together,” nor even in shipbuilding terms, welded together, but sealed by priesthood authority for time and all eternity.

Interestingly, Joseph Smith uses the shipyard phrasing in discussing the vital first step of vicarious baptisms: 

there is a welding link of some kind or other between the fathers and the children, upon some subject or other—and behold what is that subject?  It is the baptism for the dead (D&C 128:18).

The first links have been welded; more remain to be done.  When all the temple ordinances have been completed, we will have the binding and welding and sealing ultimately of all the generations of our family, an eternal testament of the “invincible conviction of solidarity.” 

With this new knowledge I boarded the Joseph and Clara Smallwood to sail to Newfoundland.  My wife and children accompanied me.  While at sea with my family, it occurred to me that this voyage was somehow different.  I looked at the horizon, but this time I knew exactly what lay beyond it—not just more water, or eventually, another land mass—but what ultimately lay beyond the horizon and, for that matter, what lay beyond the horizon of this life and beyond the horizon of most people’s knowledge and understanding.  We had gained the additional knowledge and understanding, for we had been to the temple.  We had been sealed.  We would remain a family forever, extending beyond the horizon of the sea and into the horizon of eternity.  The still small voice came over the sea again as it had always done.  But this time it had a greater intensity.  It conveyed a greater sense of everything it had conveyed years ago.  On this voyage the Spirit of the Lord confirmed all the experiences of the temple.  It yielded no mere “glimpse of truth” but silently asserted “my voice is Spirit; my Spirit is truth; truth abideth and hath no end” (D&C 88:66).  And likewise, my family hath no end.  No mere glimpse indeed.  The still small voice gave a clear and unmistakable sense of being in the temple while at sea. 

Aboard the Joseph and Clara Smallwood on that beautiful, calm, and sunlit day, the Atlantic Ocean became the greatest celestial room in the world.

1 Information from Marine Atlantic, operator of the ferry lines connecting Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.  For more information visit  
2 Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim, Garden City, New York:  Doubleday and Co., Inc., 1920, p. 2.
3 Ibid., p. 6.
4 Ibid., p. 12.
5 Joseph Conrad, the preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus, in Frank W. Cushwa, An Introduction to Conrad,  New York:  The Odyssey Press, 1933, p. 224.  Despite the problematic title, Conrad’s book about the Narcissus is a classic tale of life aboard a merchant ship in the 19th century.
6 Ibid., p. 225.

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