“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”*
This is a paraphrase of something written by 20th century French author, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Best known for ‘The Little Prince’, Saint-Exupery was an aviation pioneer with a taste for adventure.
I’ve been thinking about this quote in light the Gospel passage which we just heard and the old diocesan motto, “In Altum” – Into the Deep. We are called to “Put out into the deep water.” We who are leaders are charged with inspiring others to put out into the deep.
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” It might serve as a description of good preaching and teaching. The Church needs preachers and teachers, lay as well as ordained, (and, yes, bishops) who are soaked and smell of salt water and look like they have faced into the Wind and the Sun, who sound like they have put out into the deep of the vast and endless sea and returned to share the wonder of it.
I say that. And, then, I wonder how much of my preaching and teaching over the years has been more about drumming up people to gather wood, dividing the work, and giving orders rather than inspiring them to yearn for the vast and endless sea of God. But, that is what I need to be about. It is what we need to be about for the sake of the Church. It is what the Church needs to be about for the sake of the world. I can only do that if I – we can only do it if we – put out into the deep of God.
I just finished reading the story of an old Irish saint who literally put out into the deep. Brendan had already founded several monasteries when he was visited by another old monk visited him and told of journey to the Island of Delight where there was a community of monks. They sent him on to another island – the Promised land of the Saints. On that island there were trees that bore tasty fruit all year long. There was no night and it was always comfortably warm because Christ was its Light. It was as it were, the day God just beyond the horizon waiting for the Day when God would unfurl it everywhere and his will would be done on all the earth as in Heaven. The old monk asked Brendan, “Do you not smell the fragrance of heaven that we carry on us?”
So, yearning for the sea and for the vast expanse of God and the Promised Land, Brendan, along with some of his monks , built a ship and sailed west. They had many adventures, so the story goes, including taking their rest on an island that turned out to be the back of a resting whale. They stopped at the Island of Delight on their way to the Promised Land which they found just as they had heard. They returned in wonder, rejoicing in the Lord.
Brendan was part of larger movement of wild Irish monks who put out into the deep in search God. Some sailed to islands where they founded monasteries like Iona and Lindisfarne. Or more remote and wilder islands like Skellig Michael which was featured in the last Star Wars movie. But others did something even wilder – mad even. There is an account of three monks who wash up on the southern coast of England in a small boat made of wood and leather, a coracle. They had no oars or sail. They had just set out into the deep, vast and endless sea, trusting that the wild Spirit of God would guide and protect them on the wild sea as they dedicated themselves to prayer.
Crazy. But, I have to wonder, what wild vision of God had so captured their imagination as to provoke those monks, Brendan, and the others? And can we recapture it?
We are not likely to literally set out into the deep like they did. But, we don’t have to. We can recommit ourselves to setting out in the coracle of our hearts in prayer, yearning for that vast and endless sea of God. Perhaps you already have some experience with that. Have you felt the grace of God splash over you, soaking you to the bone with his forgiving, healing, transforming love? Have you tasted the saltiness of God’s mercy and delight? Have you been bedazzled by the awesome splendor of God? Have you seen a vision of your own self and others in the glory of that splendor? Have you seen what glorious and beautiful beings we are meant and destined to be? Have you also dared to face into the stormy, surging waves of your spirit and to acknowledge the dead weight of sin that holds you back threatening to swamp the boat of your heart – Pride, Envy, Anger, Sloth, Greed, Gluttony, and Lust? If our hearts are full of those, there will be no room for the Fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Have you gotten a glimpse of the approaching kingdom of God just beyond the horizon? The kingdom of love and joy and peace where swords and spears and guns are beaten into plowshares and pruning hooks? Where all divisions cease and there is no stranger or enemy? Where there is no more violence or war? Where death is swallowed up and all that is left is abundant and eternal life?
Set out in the coracle of your heart into the deep waters of God. That is where our nets will catch the goodness God desires for us. And do it frequently and long. Go further and further. Otherwise however grace-soaked we have been we will dry. And our bedazzled eyes will adjust again to the mundane selfish fear and violent ways of this world. I urge you, as we renew our vows today, to make that your first priority. I commit myself to doing the same. We just might begin to take on the fragrance of the Promised Land. And we will be able to inspire others to yearn for the vast and endless sea of God.
The Church has long been likened to the ark, a boat, or a ship. That is why the area where the congregation worships is called a “nave” which comes from the same word as navy. Look up. It looks like you are sitting under a large upturned boat. Like Brendan and his companion monks, each congregation is a band of pilgrims called to set out into the deep. Let’s set out together on the adventure of seeking the vast expanse of God’s mercy and delight. Let’s open ourselves to being transformed by the by God’s grace such that we bear the fragrance of heaven. And let’s dare to set out into the deep of the communities around us bearing witness to the gospel of life and peace, justice and truth. And serving with them to do what we can to make the world rhyme a bit more with the kingdom of God in anticipation of the Day when God’s will will be done on earth as in Heaven.
Let us teach the world to yearn for the vast expanse of God and invite them to join us as we set out into the deep. In Altum.
* The actual passage that gave rise to the quote above is probably, "One will weave the canvas; another will fell a tree by the light of his ax. Yet another will forge nails, and there will be others who observe the stars to learn how to navigate. And yet all will be as one. Building a boat isn’t about weaving canvas, forging nails, or reading the sky. It’s about giving a shared taste for the sea, by the light of which you will see nothing contradictory but rather a community of love."
– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wisdom of the Sands