Shipmates

By H. Boone Porter

Last week attention was called to that vast span of the human story when our ancestors lived as hunters in a cold, lonely, and frightening world. Perhaps some may feel that the hardship of primeval life was overstressed. After all, did not ancient man really live in a warm climate, under palm trees, where tropical fruit was plentiful? Perhaps life was stern in the frozen North, but was it not peaceful and sunny in those lands to which mankind is really indigenous?

I am glad someone asked that question. Where are those happy and blessed lands? We originated in Eden, but where has it gone? You can’t get there from here, nor could you get there from the places where our ancestors lived for untold thousands of years. We have no map, nor did they, on which Eden appears. As Thomas Traherne said of the cross, “It is not by going with the feet, but by journeys of the soul, that we travel thither” (Centuries, I, 56).

Our bodies are not naked because we evolved on the beach of a tropical lagoon, but because we lived for so long in the frigid shadow of glaciers and had to muffle ourselves with the skins of animals. Our teeth and fingernails are not so small because we lived on peaches and bananas, but because we learned to roast our meat over bonfires … Even to this day we love the flavor of smoke! We did not first learn to talk because we had so much leisure, but more likely because we had to call and give directions to each other in the strenuous and cooperative effort for survival. What we are and who we are is irreversibly marked by the paths we have traversed.

But what of the islands of the South Seas? There surely our ancestors basked in peace.

Did they? To what South Sea island is the human race really native? The golden sands and blue waters of the Pacific are not to be despised … nor were they easily won. Those islands are either the result of volcanic uprisings, or of the slow growth of coral. Most of them were never part of any continent. Birds flew in, and in some cases bats did too. For man it was no easy trip.

The primitive hunters who stood up against a mammoth were no braver than the first bands of men and women who got into little vessels on the shores of Asia, with a few bundles of food and some crude pots of water, and set their faces to the rising sun. Imagine traveling over 2,000 miles of water, to some tiny dot of unknown land. And whatever made them think that they could do it in the first place? Perhaps it was a demented chieftain, or a shaman who said that the spirits commanded it, or a priest who required it for expiation. Why they did it, and how they succeeded in doing it, exceeds my wildest speculations. Surely these unknown mariners rank, together with the voyagers to the moon, among the greatest explorers in the annals of this planet.

Staggering as was such a feat of seamanship, it was no less a feat of leadership a well. Only the strongest men, Columbuses, Magellans, or Captain Blighs, can drive men on, day after day, starving and thirsty, to battle their way across an unknown ocean. What must it have been in a mere canoe or raft, with the most meager provisions, and the faintest of hopes? How many acts of mutiny, murder, rape, cannibalism, and suicide bloodied the waves of those untracked oceans? It was in spite of all probability that those glorious islands were finally reached. Once there, people enjoyed a thousand years or so of protection from natural enemies, until they were “discovered” in modern times. The inhabitants of those islands were a prey only to one another, and only suffered from purely human afflictions: headhunting, cannibalism, war, human sacrifice, and slavery.

To be in a boat for a long period, to endure the crisis of human confidence and leadership which it entails, is one of the most revealing experiences which human kind knows. At the same time, to cross the waters in hope is one of our greatest historical expressions of aspiration, or yearning for a future and a new start. How many peoples, all over the world, have crossed a body of water, for better or for worse, to attain their destiny! The Flood, the Red Sea, the Jordan, the Atlantic, the Bering Sea, the Pacific, these are no empty or idle symbols for the human family. T.S. Eliot wrote movingly of the tragic aspect of the seas in a prayer to Mary:

Lady, whose shrine stands on the

promontory,

Pray for all those who are in ships, …

Also pray for those who were in ships,

and

Ended their voyage on the sand, in the

sea’s lips

Or in the dark throat which will not

reject them

Or wherever cannot reach them the

sound of the sea bell’s

Perpetual angelus.

(The Dry Salvages, IV)

These many ordeals and trials by water are a part of what is being gathered up and celebrated when, a month from now, we inaugurate the Easter feast by baptizing in water newly acclaimed brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, enrolling them as companions and shipmates in the journey to that heavenly country where the only water will be that which flows in the river of life.

The Rev. Dr. H. Boone Porter was editor of The Living Church from 1977 to 1990. This article was published in our February 26, 1978 issue.

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