I have been through a time of sadness and anxiety, which I have shared with my father and my Bishop. Discretion demands that I should not give any details in this public blog, but rather to seek positive meanings in these moments. Work has kept me housebound for the last month or so with only occasional outings in the car for necessary things like shopping.
It is at times like this that we ask the same question of what it all means. How do I relate to the Parable of the Talents? The two servants who were entrusted respectively with five and two units of money doubled their lord’s investment. The one who hid the talent and did not invest it judged himself out of his own mouth. It is one of the most terrifying utterances of Christ recorded in the Gospels. However, clearly, it does not support the “work ethic” by which people are “worth their money”. Christ also preached the Beatitudes in favour of the poor and suffering, the so-called “losers”. We now talk of talents as things we are made to do. Bach, Mozart, Mendelssohn and Beethoven were made to be composers and were prodigious in their genius. It was the same with artists, poets, writers and also with scientists, doctors, lawyers, great statesmen and benefactors of mankind. There are also the hidden talents of those whose vocations were not of this world. These are the monks, hermits and mystics – but also explorers, sailors and astronauts.
I have been reading a little more about Bernard Moitessier, about whom I have already written in my blog. His monastic desert was the sea, the great Southern Ocean with its wild climate and monstrous waves that daunt the greatest ships that have sailed them. One of his books was The Long Way, which I intend shortly to buy and read. The web page BERNARD MOITESSIER: Sailing Mysticism and The Long Way gives the gist of what such radical isolation does to a man. He either goes mad as did Donald Crowhurst (see Temptation on the High Seas), his competitor in the Golden Globe, or he discovers a whole new level of oneness with the One and the All. Moitessier apparently did not particularly identify with any particular religion. Like many of his generation, the tendency was to select notions from the eastern religions and combine them with New Age and pantheism. I am given to believe that the actual experience of purgation would have brought him beyond many of the superficialities of commercialised mysticism of the 1960’s.
It would seem that Moitessier did not weigh anchor and put to sea in order to have a spiritual experience, but it came about over the months and years he spent at sea. As I have read in Joshua Slocum’s story, Moitessier’s narrative is quite prosaic. The combination of the boat and the sea is a complex piece of mechanism which requires constant attention and understanding of its principles. There isn’t much time to have one’s head in the clouds! Being alone on a boat takes away all our inhibitions that society imposes on us, and which we feel duty-bound to respect. There are no conventions. It all depends on the person setting sail: the voyage leads to insanity or illumination. I have read as much of men joining the Carthusians and facing themselves in solitude. What kind of guys are we to face ourselves? We will quickly discover the meaning of sin and redemption!
Moitessier practiced Yoga, and there is a photo of him in the lotus position for meditation.
I have never tried it myself. Physically, it must be torture to cross your legs like that! It takes a high degree of physical fitness and discipline of mind. I admire people who do Yoga, because there must be great benefits from it as from any spiritual discipline of any tradition. Thomas Merton sought riches from the east to enrich western monastic spirituality. Many judged him for syncretism and infidelity to the truth of Christianity. Not I. We need to find what is good everywhere since Christ’s mission is universal and the full realisation of all archetypes.
He found peace at sea like nowhere else. He sensed it as a living creature, with the world and the entire universe. The sea sings and communicates with us. I have had something of this experience whilst sailing a ten-foot dinghy from Loctudy to the Glénans archipelago in southern Brittany, though my voyage only lasted a few hours (a bit longer on the way back in a weakening wind). What Moitessier experienced on the Southern Ocean can only be imagined! The sea brings us to absolute humility, yet enables us to discover the spark of divinity within us.
Sailing in these waters, if man is crushed by his feeling of insignificance, he is borne up and protected by that of his greatness. It is here, in the immense desert of the Southern Ocean, that I feel most strongly how much man is both atom and god.
I definitely feel the world to be alive, not merely an inanimate object to be exploited by man. I had something of the same experience at Triors Abbey in the early months of 1997, when I sought the first signs of spring, the sap returning to twigs on bushes, the first caterpillars that would become butterflies through that wonderful process of metamorphosis. There were also the smells of the earth as the frost thawed and the days became gradually longer. When the dawn could be seen through the church window as the monks sang the Benedictus at the end of Lauds, this was already a miracle.
I don’t have the boat or navigational skills to sail on blue water (usually defined as beyond six leagues from the coast), though I have my eyes on the various sites of boats for sale. It is not the time to aspire to anything beyond my present twelve-foot dinghy that sails along coastlines and requiring no more than a bearing compass, a Portland plotter and a chart. I do most of my inshore navigation by eye and intuition, and I am rarely far wrong in reckoning with currents and drift. I am at one with vast expanses of water and can confidently perceive their geometry and character as something alive. We all to some extent experience what Moitessier found.
Still, I have the persisting idea of a Hurley 22, a boat on the small side but with a stout hull and a long keel, used many decades ago for training new recruits in the Royal Navy. They can be found for as little as a couple of thousand pounds with everything in good condition. They have been known to cross the Atlantic and prove to be highly seaworthy vessels.
Psychologists often try to find a rational explanation, but often on the false premiss that the brain is the cause of consciousness, instead of consciousness being a “guest” of the brain but which can survive in some way as a “soul” or “spirit”. The “spontaneous religious sentiment” was known to Freud in those who found a bond with the world. The earth is truly a mother, something we experience at sea, walking in high mountains or what astronauts experience on seeing the earth from space. I do find it encouraging that science is ‘catching up” and discovering consciousness instead of dismissing it because it is not material.
I am a loner, something that is utterly incompatible with marriage, and this is something of my present search. As things are, it is important to live and love the little things of life, everything that is familiar at home, the sight of two wintered boats in the back yard, my chapel , the little routines of life and my priestly existence.
The important thing about this posting is to say that there is always light at the end of the tunnel, in spite of life’s crises and storms, there is always a way through, just like on a boat at sea. Perhaps one message from Moitessier, as from the hermit in his cell, is the gratuity of life. Purpose of life is not always utilitarian or even humanitarian. It can be simply a matter of taking the helm, sheeting in the sails and keeping an eye on the compass. At sea, we are at the same time gods and atoms.
To return to the Parable of the Talents, I don’t believe that Christ meant material things like investments and money, but something that the holy bishop, the nurse in Africa, the lone sailor and the hermit have in common. Our calling and our destiny are mysteries, even to ourselves, and many die with regrets as hospice nurses and chaplains often testify. We are all in need of Christ’s love and mercy that both transcend the law of Karma and tit-for-tat justice.
The boat may be laid up on hard standing as we rope-pullers call it, but we have Advent and all those wonderful prophecies of Isaiah to read in anticipation of the Mystery of Christ.