“[The preacher] handled his text in all kinds of ways, and twisted it into all manner of shapes; but always ingeniously, and with a rude eloquence, well adapted to the comprehension of his [seafaring] hearers. Indeed if I be not mistaken, he studied their sympathies and understandings much more than the display of his own powers. His imagery was all drawn from the sea, and from the incidents of a seaman’s life; and was often remarkably good.”
~ Charles Dickens, 1842, American Notes
The Seaman’s Bethel chapel on Johnnycake Hill didn’t really feature a prow-shaped pulpit, but Moby Dick had otherwise described it exactly, down to the cenotaphs already accumulating on its walls. Only nine years extant, it had already become a traditional stop for whalers before they headed out to sea. As immoral and wild as the seamen might seem to the townspeople they outnumbered, they still wanted a blessing. Superstition in some cases, a matter of “hedging bets” in some, and no doubt indicative of real (if often uncultured) spirituality in others.
Father Mudge didn’t know Obadiah by name, and I wondered if he ever really got to know the individual members of his constantly fluctuating congregation. So many of them made the Bethel a single stop before shipping out—and even “regular” attendees would only be present for a handful of his services every few years.
It struck me that he probably knew the women of his congregation better, the wives and widows who stayed behind and came here to pray for their husbands, or to mourn them under the bodyless tombstones of men killed and lost at sea. “…after fastening to a whale, carried overboard by the line and drowned…” “…lost from his boat while in pursuit of a whale…” “…who fell from aloft off Cape Horn…” “…fell overboard…” “…drowned…”
If you didn’t come into the place feeling like praying, those reminders might just motivate you.
Perhaps because his female constituency was the more continuous presence—or perhaps because a whaling captain, even name unremembered, was more of a known quantity—Mr. Mudge focused his interviewing attention on me. Was I Christian, or did I need to be baptized as well as wed? Well, I didn’t have any catechisms to recite, and I didn’t really go to churches, but as a kid I’d been baptized in a little church on the island. (I kept to myself that I was more familiar with kahunas’ blessings than Christian ones, thanks to my grandmother.) Did I have family here? No, my parents died before I reached my teens, and I had only very distant relations in New England. (And by “distant” of course I meant some six or seven generations removed.) Did I have any reason, aside from the imminent departure of Mr. Starbuck’s ship, for hastening this marriage? (I fought down the wicked impulse to repay his insultingly intrusive question with menstrual detail to confirm I wasn’t with child. Once again, not the hill to die on.)
Apparently I passed muster, being neither pagan nor pregnant—he agreed to marry us when we had the license in hand.
And apparently that was the extent of our pre-marital counseling.
He had the rest of his flock to tend to, and soon after climbed into the disappointingly plain pulpit to deliver his sermon. Not the “yarn” of Jonah, but nautically themed nonetheless—a dissection of the Apostle Paul’s shipwreck.
“Luke was no mariner, but he was an observant man who recorded what he saw, and thus we have the action-book of Acts. In this twenty-seventh chapter, Paul has been arrested and tried on charges brought against him by the Jews, and he has appealed to take his case to Rome and Caesar. The centurion Julius has the responsibility of getting him there, though it’s late in the year for sailing—past the Day of Atonement, Luke notes, which puts us in late October ‘when sailing was now dangerous.’ Lying in the lee of Crete, ‘the wind not suffering us,’ it’s time to assess whether to continue.
“Paul is no mariner, any more than Luke, but he has the Lord’s ear and warns Julius against weighing anchor and continuing on. ‘I perceive that this voyage will be with hurt and much damage, not only of the lading and ship, but also of our lives.’ Julius, however, takes the counsel of the pilot and ship’s owner, who both insist the voyage can be made. He naively trusts to their nautical knowledge, not taking into account their motivation—the bonuses they stood to gain if their grain ship reached Rome before winter.
“We recognize their greed because we see it in ourselves. Why else does a whaleman brave the Horn, or engage in battle with leviathan from the seat of a small boat? If Paul came aboard your ship with the Lord’s word and warned against your undertakings on a promising day, would you listen? Would you tamely watch a sperm whale pass close by, on the advice of a mere passenger, or would you calculate your records of success against the potential risk, and lower boats after him? Most of us might argue that we have no voice-of-God, no Paul, aboard our ships. But does not God speak to each of us in our hearts?
“Well, we know what this captain chose, and we know the results. ‘There arose against us a tempestuous wind, called Euroquilo.’ The very name of the wind tells us what Paul’s ship faced—Greek and Latin combined, the words for ‘east’ and ‘north’—a nor’easter. For fourteen days and nights they ‘strake sail, and so were driven’ before the storm, ultimately swimming to shore from their ship as the waves dashed it to pieces from underneath them. This storm marks the point where they bowed to God’s will, having no other recourse. Sometimes it takes a tempest for us to realize God’s plans for us are incontrovertible. We imagine ourselves at the helm and in control, when in truth our only power is to trim our sails in response to God’s winds.
“What do we know about God’s plans in Paul’s story? Well, we know that Paul had plans for his itinerant ministry—he spoke more than once of bringing his news to Spain, though he never got further north than his cell in Rome. His plans got co-opted by the Roman legal system. And then in the matter of bringing him to trial, the Romans’ plans got trumped by God’s. So what did God have in mind here? He wasn’t ‘rescuing’ Paul from his gaolers—all of them survived, and took ship with him after wintering out their shipwreck. So you might think no purpose was served by the detour. Yet take a closer look. Paul stayed with the island’s chief man, healed his ailing father and many others, and no doubt preached his message. The isle of Malta became one of the earliest converts to Christianity in the Mediterranean. Malta played a vital role in the history of the church and the spreading of the faith.
“We can’t know the mind of the Almighty, but we can look at His works and be assured that He always has a plan. We may be sailing blind without a look at His charts. But never doubt that he has the most detailed charts ever drawn, and that—as Paul himself wrote to his Roman congregation—‘He works all things for our good.’”
Father Mudge continued on from there (for some time, in fact, my backside told me) delving into Romans, but I took leave of attention to consider his “shipwreck message.” What he described—navigating without knowing most of the chart—struck a deep chord with me. He was right, it’s a state that applies to all of us—I was just more aware of it in this time than I’d ever been when I was just living life in my “regular” timeline. Maybe the difference was in knowing some specific outcomes that were “supposed” to happen, but not the details of how to navigate those outcomes.
I hadn’t ever considered whether there was a guiding presence in all this. I wasn’t a person who thought much about “God” (and when I did, it was never without those quotation marks in my head, as if the word might really stand for something else). If he were really around, I hadn’t met him—I saw churches as places of social rituals rather than spiritual ones. But it was strangely comforting to imagine that something bigger than myself did have a plan somewhere in this. It would take some of the weight and responsibility off my shoulders, trying to get things right. If it were true.
I’d never been in a habit of praying, but that morning I sent a silent shout-out to God, trying my best to leave off the mental quotation marks. Please help me just to do the next right thing.
Maybe the “next right thing” isn’t always a complicated decision. Back at the Gull, I washed my hair and my prettiest blouse, and made arrangements for one of Mr. Alford’s girls to iron the shirt for me. I didn’t trust myself with the fire-heated instrument, literally crafted of iron and sure to burn the blouse if I wielded it. In the morning I packed my little carpet bag again, ready to transfer from the inn to the house.
Obadiah wasn’t ashore enough to keep a horse or carriage, but he arranged for a trap to transport me to the church. I insisted I could walk, but he answered gruffly that it “wouldn’t be fitting.” Wouldn’t befit his status, I took that to mean, to have his bride walk to her wedding. So I submitted meekly to the drive, performed by a farmer in his Sunday best, and arrived at the Seamen’s Bethel with my nerves jangling. I’d never been in a church-wedding even in my own time, and there’d been no rehearsal to tell me what to expect.
The sight of Mrs. Vanderhagen waiting on the steps eased my mind immensely. She ushered me into the vestibule, warning me that Obadiah stood within (she insisted we not see each other before the ceremony), and began the work of pinning flowers into my hair.
“There is a person inside,” she informed me with obvious distaste, “who insists on standing with you. This heathen says he’s a cousin of yours?” She waited for me to refute the claim, but got a laugh from me instead.
“Well that would be Obadiah’s—I mean Mr. Starbuck’s—harpooner, Holokai. My grandmother was Hawaiian—a Sandwich Islander, I mean—so he’s sort of adopted me. I know he’s unusual” (though not so unusual in New Bedford that she hadn’t seen his like) “but he is the closest thing l have to friend or family here… Would it upset Oba—Mr. Starbuck if he were to stand?” She sniffed but said she supposed she’d seen stranger things in her life than a cannibal in a Christian wedding, and sure Mr. Starbuck didn’t seem perturbed by him.
And so it happened that my bridesmaid was a tattooed harpooner, and Obadiah’s “best man” (apparently determined to shift the balance of our party toward some semblance of respectability) was a pudgy but dignified housekeeper.
I tried not to fidget with my flowers while Father Mudge sermonized on splicing—the joining together of two pieces of rope by interweaving the strands—and barely paid attention to the words of the vows I repeated. I did note, though, that mine included the word “obey,” and wondered how much wiggle-room that promise left me. I almost turned my cheek when Obadiah leaned in to kiss me—I guess you could call it stage-fright. We hadn’t more than touched hands before this moment, and the brief kiss felt almost indecorous. I gratefully took the support of his offered arm as Father Mudge declared us “spliced” and presented Mr. and Mrs. Starbuck to the empty pews. Mrs. Vanderhagen applauded as her sister’s organ started up and we took our tiny procession back down the aisle to the door and the waiting trap, Holokai capering behind in some variation of a haka dance.
As he handed me up, I found myself wondering what stories Mrs. V could tell, if she’d seen stranger things than that wedding.