Christmas at sea

“Men in a ship are always looking up, and men ashore are usually looking down.” -John Masefield

Loneliness can be a good antidote to spiritual pride. Perhaps this is why the shepherds were the first to hear the gift of the gospel. If their vocation provided any contentment, their isolation must surely have felt like an ache much of the time. Sure, a man can worship God in solitude; yet it is still dreary to endure separation from community; even harder to go without empathy. How many of these unkempt men, in their rare traipses past the city gates, would catch a haughty glance from some comfortable townsman, not an hour before the townsman sitting down to his mutton dinner?

A casual antipathy is the default state of humankind. Even the best of us are hampered by ignorance and self-absorption to the point where we say and do offensive things without being aware of it. Even when love demands an offense, our reproof is offensive in its imperfection. Our Jeremiads aren’t even that great. This is not to wallow in our lostness, but merely to point out the need for a more satisfying Empath.

This supreme empathy comes in the form of God’s son, when he tells the poor that they are blessed, and tells the despised that they will be rewarded. Of course, this should be understood firstly with spiritual eyes. Yet, with the Kingdom of Heaven spilling weirdly and wonderfully over into the earth the way it is now, and the way it did in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, we see the wonder of salvation informing and transforming everything. Even the lowliness of shepherds. And the lowliness of seamen.

In his revelation (chapter 18) John describes the fall of Babylon the great. She trusted in her riches, and her injustice reeked to high heaven. The merchants of the earth wailed over their commodities rendered worthless. Ship masters and seafaring men also threw dust on their heads and wailed; yet, unlike the merchants–who failed to sense the justice of Babylon’s downfall–the seamen went on to exhort the saints, apostles and prophets to rejoice over her fall. Their cargoes were lost and they were materially undone, but they worshiped God. (Alas, the notes of my reformation study bible grant no special piety to the seamen. They are placed in the same lot with the merchants.)

I allow this is an overly allegorical and picayune reading of the passage, but indulge me for a moment. I only take this route in order to identify with these spiritual characters in a fleshly way. As a mariner myself, I have experienced the kind of casual antipathy which is often bestowed by comfortable townsfolk. I have even endured abject scorn and derision for my vocation. The woman who was my wife used it to justify her cruel infidelity. So, my fleshly experience resonates with John’s spiritual vision in a way which many may not understand.

If for a moment we see John’s seafaring men as real, let us also imagine that they, unlike the merchants, escaped the trap of their filthy lucre, even through grief and loss–as the scripture seems to portray them. Let us imagine them the way they really are in our fleshly world: not fattened merchants, but merely their hired men, earning their master’s fortunes by the heartache of their loneliness and deprivation.

Let us further imagine that their loneliness causes them to groan spiritually on their cots at night. Let us imagine that their hardships thrust sanctifying disappointments upon them. Let us imagine that the awesome fury of the sea strikes a fear of God into their hearts. Let us imagine that, in spite of the hardship, these men feel a hallowed contentment with their vocation, which carries so much material grace to so many people.

Let us finally imagine that the seamen are like the shepherds. They are only men, corrupt as all other men, but their stations in life make them feel an enduring lowliness. They have an emptiness which they long to be fulfilled. They are part and parcel of the unjust system of all their fellowmen, yet they crave a kind of justice which they cannot articulate. Polite society wags their heads at their peculiar weaknesses, which often enslave them (we all know the standard sailor caricatures; if you cannot bring to mind a corresponding shepherd caricature, look to last year’s Hollywood). These seamen have seen their share of God’s justice, and they have seen enough disapprobation. Now, now–they hope to see another side of him; a tender and forgiving side.

Now, in the son of man, they see the end of antipathy. Even casual thoughtlessness is chased away. Now, there is nothing but perfect consolation, nothing but perfect empathy and infinite, thoughtful concern. Loneliness is cured; wagging heads are frozen. God, the true God in the flesh, may be worshiped in spirit and truth. Through the tempest, they have reached the sea buoy; the True Pilot is finally coming aboard, and his skill will preserve them; he will save the ship.

Finally, their fears are silenced, their hopes answered. Yes, when they put back out, there will be loneliness again; there will be adversity. But now, they know it will not be forever, for they have seen the Pilot, he knows them, like nobody else knows them. His spirit sails with them now. When their final voyage takes them back to his City, he will receive them again, and for good this time. When they swallow his anchor it will be sweet indeed.


The sheets were frozen hard, and they cut the naked hand;
The decks were like a slide, where a seaman scarce could stand;
The wind was a nor’-wester, blowing squally off the sea;
And cliffs and spouting breakers were the only things a-lee.

They heard the suff a-roaring before the break of day;
But ’twas only with the peep of light we saw how ill we lay.
We tumbled every hand on deck instanter, with a shout,
And we gave her the maintops’l, and stood by to go about.

All day we tacked and tacked between the South Head and the North;
All day we hauled the frozen sheets, and got no further forth;
All day as cold as charity, in bitter pain and dread,
For very life and nature we tacked from head to head.

We gave the South a wider berth, for there the tide-race roared;
But every tack we made we brought the North Head close aboard.
So’s we saw the cliff and houses and the breakers running high,
And the coastguard in his garden, with his glass against his eye.

The frost was on the village roofs as white as ocean foam;
The good red fires were burning bright in every longshore home;
The windows sparkled clear, and the chimneys volleyed out;
And I vow we sniffed the victuals as the vessel went about.

The bells upon the church were rung with a mighty jovial cheer;
For it’s just that I should tell you how (of all days in the year)
This day of our adversity was blessèd Christmas morn,
And the house above the coastguard’s was the house where I was born.

O well I saw the pleasant room, the pleasant faces there,
My mother’s silver spectacles, my father’s silver hair;
And well I saw the firelight, like a flight of homely elves,
Go dancing round the china plates that stand upon the shelves.

And well I knew the talk they had, the talk that was of me,
Of the shadow on the household and the son that went to sea;
And O the wicked fool I seemed, in every kind of way,
To be here and hauling frozen ropes on blessèd Christmas Day.

They lit the high sea-light, and the dark began to fall.
“All hands to loose topgallant sails,” I heard the captain call.
“By the Lord, she’ll never stand it,” our first mate, Jackson, cried.
. . . .”It’s the one way or the other, Mr. Jackson,” he replied.

She staggered to her bearings, but the sails were new and good,
And the ship smelt up to windward just as though she understood;
As the winter’s day was ending, in the entry of the night,
We cleared the weary headland, and passed below the light.

And they heaved a mighty breath, every soul on board but me,
As they saw her nose again pointing handsome out to sea;
But all that I could think of, in the darkness and the cold,
Was just that I was leaving home and my folks were growing old.

Robert Louis Stevenson


~ by mairnealach on December 22, 2006.

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