In his recent piece, SOS, my colleague Dominic Bouck, O.P., argued that the Church is much like a ship plying the ocean currents en route to her heavenly destination. I was particularly struck by a lengthy quote from Tertullian describing the apostles in their storm-tossed boat:
That little ship did present a figure of the Church, in that she is disquiet in the sea, that is, in the world, by the waves, that is, by persecutions and temptations; the Lord, through patience, sleeping as it were, until, roused in their last extremities by the prayers of the saints, He checks the world, and restores tranquility to His own.
Thanks to the maritime analogies drawn by Br. Dominic and Tertullian, I was in a providentially receptive mindset on Sunday, when Brandon Watts, pastor of Epiphany Church Brooklyn, called my attention to the following historical tidbit.
In 1487, King John II of Portugal appointed Bartolomeu Dias, a well-known Portuguese sea captain, to lead an expedition seeking a trade route to India. A second goal was to establish contact with a legendary Christian nation led by the fabled ruler Prestor John. A few months later, Dias and his crew piloted the ship São Cristóvão around the Southern tip of Africa. Dias’s expedition encountered violent weather, and eventually turned back to Portugal. Due to their struggles, Dias ominously christened the Southern tip of Africa Cabo das Tormentas—or the “Cape of Storms.” Later, King John II renamed it Cabo da Boa Esperança—the Cape of Good Hope.
Bartolomeu Dias was intimidated by the trials that surrounded him. Given the severity of the Cape’s weather—Dias died some years later in a storm off of the Cape—most would say that his fear was justified. King John II, however, saw the dangers of the Cape, but chose instead to memorialize the hope of discovering a trade route to India and establishing contact with the Nestorian kingdom of Prestor John. Of course, it was easy for King John II to dismiss the dangers of the journey from the safety of his court. Yet John was not entirely unacquainted with danger: Prior to his coronation, he participated in military campaigns in North Africa. Furthermore, as king, John was responsible for shaping the vision for an entire empire. John’s choice to rename the Cape of Storms was not a callous dismissal of its dangers, but a decision to look past the obstacles to the destination.
I’m partial to the metaphor of the church as a ship. As our ship sails on, we will encounter fierce winds and choppy seas. We will find ourselves in dire straits, like the apostles in Mark 4: “And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling.” Yet, even in those dark moments, we have a choice. We may despair and turn back for fear of the waves, or we can acknowledge the trials we face and take bold hope in our final destination beyond death.
Matthew H. Young is a summer intern at First Things. His writing has been published in Civitas Review, Carolina Journal, The University Bookman, and other publications.