Jesus Sleeps in the Church of the Sea
Previously, in Island Wars… Donovan Graham, a young but ambitious journalist, has been sent to Grand Seal Island to cover the skirmish there between the United States and Canada. He spent a lot of time in the hedonistic Village on the south end of the island, but he’s finding the staid Town on the north less dull and stuffy than it first appeared. Still, the lust of his life lives in the Village, so he still gets down there a lot.Click here to read earlier entries, or read on to see Van's latest update.
I decided last Sunday to visit the Church of the Sea, where the Minots go each Sabbath. It sounded interesting — I imagined that the ends of the pews would be carved like ship’s bows and the cross at the front of the church would be made of narwhal tusks.
It’s the only time in my life I’ve ever guessed anything correctly.
I didn’t know when the service would begin, so I wandered past Cemetery Hill around 9:00 Sunday morning. (I left the Island Car at The Larboard. I’m no fool.) No one joined me on this trek; no throngs of God-fearing Minots were swarming like lemmings toward the church. I figured I was early, but that was fine. Give me a chance to look around a bit. I walked in a slow circle around the building.
The church is quite small, squat with cinderblock walls holding up a shingle roof, and it faces the sea. The end of the building closest to the ocean is made entirely of stained glass, but in the bright glare of the early-morning sunshine I couldn’t tell what the image was. There are smaller windows all around, and the steeple is short and squat, with a little crucifix/lightning rod at the top.
Except for the large stained-glass end, it looks like a World War II government-issue standardized building, church-type. Replace the steeple with a chimney and you’d have a cozy home for a low-income family of three.
The door was unlocked, probably on the theory that anyone escaping onto the ferry with an oversized Bible and a large cross would be stopped and questioned — or possibly worshipped, I suppose — so I went on inside.
The door puts you at the front of the seating area, with the dark wooden pews to your left and the pulpit (or altar, or whatever) on the right. There’s a center aisle down the rack of pews, and each pew seats only four people or so. There are five rows, so maybe forty people could worship here together on Easter or Christmas.
Each pew is solid, hefty, and uncomfortable in that classic pew fashion. I sat in the front row, and I found that the curve of the back was carefully crafted to force me painfully upright. Any attempt at slouching caused the lovingly hand-carved back support to exert a debilitating pressure against my kidneys.
The makers of this church — Minots all, I understand — wasted no opportunity to link God and the sea. The ends of each pew are carved like bowsprits, except that the jutting women are all fully and modestly clothed. The kneeling cushions are made of silvery sealskin, cut and stuffed into subdued rectangular form. The pulpit is shaped like the helm of a sailing ship, minus the steering wheel. And hanging from the walls are fishing nets, lobster floats, and other trappings of the oceanic industries, accented here and there with nautical quotes from the Bible. (“Come with me, and you shall be fishers of men” and things like that.)
The cross hanging behind the pulpit is made from two long, slightly spiraled off-white poles that are vaguely reminiscent of unicorn horns. (I know what I’m talking about. Hang around The Village long enough and you’ll see some unicorns up close and personal.) They were actually narwhal tusks, the long horn-like things that stick out in front of narwhal whales. The narwhal is a close cousin to the beluga, of course, and both can be found in the frigid ocean waters around Baffin Island to the north.
OK — a little brass plaque near the pulpit told me all that. The tusks and the sealskin kneeling pads were a gift from the church in Iqaluit, in Canada’s Nunavut Territory. The two churches had apparently done some kind of exchange program a long time ago.
Even with the sealskin and the narwhal tusks and the bowsprits, though, it is the stained glass that makes the whole church majestic. Crafted from shards of purple, blue, gray, and green glass, the window shows an elaborately rendered scene of a storm at sea. Towering, angry clouds slam down spiteful sheets of rain, and monstrous waves curl and sneer, sucking deep troughs between each other and threatening to smash the world to bits. Staring at that window, with the sun making the scene both radiant and scary, you can feel the slashing gale-force winds and feel the pellets of saltwater sting against your face.
In the midst of the growling storm is one small, tranquil spot of calm water. In that spot is a small boat, and in that boat is Jesus.
He is asleep, and the others in the boat with him look terrified at the prospect of being splintered by water and wind. But Jesus sleeps, content in the knowledge that God will protect him and that He could silence the storm with a casual wave of his hand.
It’s an impressive window, and I sat in a pew trying to imagine the Minot mob worshipping here every Sunday. Most of them spend all day, Monday through Saturday, out on the ocean, trying to drag enough meat from the sea to pay for meat on their tables. They go out in the storms and surging tides of March and the dead calm glare of August days. They hoist lobster pots until their backs bend and twist from the strain, and then they haul up a few more before heading home. They fish when they’re tired, when they’re sick, and when they’re scared.
Then they come to this church on Sunday mornings to align their souls with God — and they spend the hour staring at this colossal scene of stormy chaos. It would take exceptional fortitude to gaze at that maelstrom, knowing that that very scene — with Jesus not appearing quite so visibly — might be the last thing they’ll ever see. And they pray, sing hymns, and give thanks.
I waited until after ten o’clock, but no one showed up. Maybe they worship on alternate Fridays, for all I know. I headed down the hill, past the cemetery and toward the Island Car.
I continued to think about the Minots and the Church of the Sea. Maybe the very act of facing your worst fears while rejoicing in the comfort of worship allows life to make sense. You can’t look at that stained-glass scene without being affected the next time you leave the harbor in your boat. You’d have to be either stubbornly courageous or tiltingly mad to keep on going out to sea.
I decided to go lobstering with Archie after all.
— Donovan Graham, “The Shadowless Writer”
Read previous blog entries in the Island Wars story by clicking here.