Dear Donagh…. It occurred to me when I was reading something that we never hear about souls any more. I still remember when it was all about saving our immortal souls. But what I want to ask you is not about souls, it's about change. If saving our souls was so important then why isn’t it now? There are lots of other things too that we never hear about today…. Everything may look the same but it sounds different…. Is our religion changing? I know the pope is always trying to bring people back to the past, but is he succeeding? I’d like to talk to him for half an hour. Is it still the same religion? Could you give me some assurance that we weren’t fooled up to our eyes in the past? – or that we’re not being fooled up to our eyes now? T.O’C.
Dear T., Thanks for your letter. Anyone can be deceived but only a fool can be fooled. No, you were not and are not being fooled: the proof of it is that you have kept your head and you are asking questions.
Yes, the world is changing around us and in us. I'm writing this as I cross by ferry to Fishguard in Wales. Looking out at the sea (it’s very stormy) I ask myself the same questions, and the sea answers me. Yes, everything is changing continually; wave succeeds wave, taking our breath away at times; at times everything seems full of menace but at the same time aimless - the sea is going nowhere. I may think I know where I'm going, but the sea cares nothing about that. If I say that the sea is eternal, that doesn’t do much for me, somehow…. Especially not this afternoon on this boat: the storm is very unsettling. A storm doesn’t only upset the stomach, it upsets the head….
[Later] The engines have stopped! There's silence from below decks. The captain spoke reassuringly a few minutes ago (that's a little scary!), saying very little, but he mentioned stabilisers. We are not far from Tusker rock, where an air disaster happened about 40 years ago…. I said to you that the sea is going nowhere. Now, we are going nowhere too!
[Half an hour later] The captain was back on the air just now, telling us we’ve lost all power from the engines and we are drifting at sea. He said there’s a tug on its way from Rosslare to pull us out of the way of Tusker rock. Never been shipwrecked before…! There’s an odd correspondence between your question and my experience at this moment! The Church was called the barque of Peter, and many think it’s on the rocks! [I couldn’t have invented this!]
[Later] It gets better! There are helicopters hovering overhead to haul us off if necessary, the captain said. I photographed one of them for the top of this page. I phoned my niece, who said, "We're watching it on TV! I hope you're enjoying it!" Shipwreck isn't what it used to be!
[Later] They got one engine up and going again, enough to pull us out of danger of the rock. They're working on the others.
[Later, on land] They eventually got three engines working. It was the engine cooling system that caused the problem. I was disappointed that we didn’t get hauled into the helicopter! It would have seemed very heroic, and my niece would be proud of me! Instead we came very slowly (8 hours instead of 3 and a bit) to harbour, but it had to be a different harbour, Pembroke instead of Fishguard. The passengers were very good-humoured; the announcement about helicopters was greeted with laughter of disbelief and then a chorus of mobile phones! As we disembarked, there was only one person in a nervous mood. But a man with a Dublin accent said to her, "Wouldn’t it be worse if it was a plane!" (We'd have been up there all day, as the story goes.) We were met by a TV crew and dazzling lights!
I'm now in a B&B in Tenby. When I switched on the TV the first thing I saw was the story of our sea adventure! How quickly news travels nowadays: even news about nothing.
I'm sure our adventure is full of analogies with the plight of the Church at the present time. You ask if our religion is changing. Yes and no! It is unchanging in the sense that it has never stopped changing: we are, and always have been, at sea! The Church is not the Kingdom of God, it's a means of conveyance to it. (I don’t mean that the Kingdom is only in the next life.) There has been a lot of play on the image of the Church as rock (the Rock of Peter), but I think it's better to think of it as the Barque of Peter. I'm reminded of a Scriptural passage. "A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But Jesus was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, 'Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?'' He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, 'Peace! Be still!' Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, 'Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?'" (Mark 3:37-40). I'm sure the three gospel-writers who included this story were fully conscious of its application to the early Church. If it ever ceased to be applicable it is highly applicable once again. We have to keep on learning how to sail. People who are terrified of sailing stay on land; people who are terrified of change (In other words, life) cling to a rock. Why do many people ask nothing of God or Christ or the Church but safety? Why, because there has been such play on fear. But look at the words in this story: "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" Fear and faith are contrasted here as opposites. Better to be at sea than to be filled with slavish fear. Quite often in the past when we spoke of saving our souls we meant saving our skin. The Lord is with us, even if he sleeps a lot! St Thérèse of Lisieux took great courage from this image: describing a terrible time in her life she said, "The Lord was asleep in my little boat, as usual."
This reply is already over-long. Thanks for accompanying me on my shipwreck!