China and its Discontents

Forms of Prayer to be Used at Sea

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Below is a recent article I published on Earth & Altar, an online magazine committed to inclusive orthodoxy.

“They that go down to the sea in ships and occupy their business in great waters,

these men see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.” Psalm 107:23-4

It is difficult to maintain devotional practices on a warship at sea. The environment seems naturally hostile to contemplation—always loud and often hot, with plentiful opportunities to injure oneself, constant distractions, frustrations small and large littered throughout the day, and a relentless schedule. Warships are exemplars of the concept of entropy; they are in a constant state of degradation and disrepair. The operational necessity to repair the ship creates a steady stream of anxiety, and if there is any emotion more inimical to the religious life, it is anxiety.

Admiral James Stavridis, in his memoirs of serving as commanding officer of USS Barry—my most-recent ship—claimed that a ship at sea was akin to a monastery:

There is little here but work, work, work. A few minor amusements—not dissimilar to the books and quiet games of a modern monastery—but in the end, life on a ship is about devotion to work, conducted for the common good, with an agreed upon construct of rank, structure, order, and purpose. And good shipmates, if it is a good and lucky ship.

To sail in a modern ship of war is not unlike walking into a desert with a few companions. Everywhere around you is nothing but the sky and the distant horizon. There is a little outside input and an endless cycle of work and sleep.

From all of that comes—in some—a contemplation that is not, at the end of the day, unlike the meditations of medieval monks. For others, it is inchoate, unrealized—but it is a rare Sailor indeed who does not find himself or herself at least once a day standing at the rails of the ship, watching the hopeful gentle rise and swell of the ocean, and staring, staring, staring…at what?

At the realization that the sea and the sky roll on forever, unmoved and unmoving for all their motion. It helps keep the day-to-day concerns and frustrations a little bit in perspective, I suspect. (1)

The incongruity here, however, lies in the fact that contemplation and work in a monastic environment has a purpose—it points to something outside of itself, namely God. Work on a warship points to nothing except itself. Yes, warships are maintained so that they can accomplish some larger mission, but I think there are few who would credibly argue that mission has much, if anything, to do with God.

And yet, there is some grace to be found at sea. I find it largely above deck, standing watch on the bridge, often at sunrise or sunset, or on nights where there is at least some illumination from the moon or bioluminescent creatures below the water. When sunlight in varying shades of red, orange, yellow, and purple breaks through tufts of cumulus clouds on the horizon. When the churning ocean crashes over the bow of the ship, dense white streaks of frothy foam and spray are whipped up onto the bridge’s windshields, the ship pitches and rolls, and my hands grip the steel wire above my head that traverses the width of the bridge. Conversely, when the sea is like glass, and even the movement of small flying insects is visible breaking the surface of the ocean. At times like these, Baron Gottfried van Swieten’s quotation of Psalm 19 in the libretto of Haydn’s oratorio, The Creation, comes to mind:

The heavens are telling the glory of God. 

The wonder of his works displays the firmament. 

To day, that is coming, speaks it the day; 

the night, that is gone, to following night. 

In all the land resounds the word, 

never unperceived, ever understood. (2)

Nature does strike me as truly awe-some in those rare, fleeting moments. And contemplation, even some measure of devotion, does ensue.

Natural beauty is not the only motivator of devotional practices at sea. Properly understood, the ocean is a terrifying and dangerous place. Even today, with extensive safeguards and training, shipboard accidents, collisions, and groundings occur frequently among both warships and merchant ships. People die. Mariners of previous generations had an even keener awareness of the dangers of the sea, and more readily connected their safe navigation upon the sea to God’s providential action.

I currently keep three prayer books onboard my ship—the Episcopal Church’s 1979 Book of Common Prayer and 2008 A Prayer Book for the Armed Services, and IVP’s International Edition of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer—but I find myself turning to the 1662 BCP most often. In no small part this is because I am naturally attracted to the archaic vernacular. (3) It is also true that the 1662 BCP provides resources peculiar to my profession not found in the 1979 BCP, or even the 1928 BCP. Towards the back of the 1662 BCP is a section entitled, “Forms of Prayer to be Used at Sea.” The prayers, which supplement Morning and Evening Prayer, recognize the inherent danger of going out to sea, which was all the more dangerous in the seventeenth century at the time these prayers were written. 

Attendant to that danger, “Forms of Prayer to be Used at Sea” echoes many of the themes found in Psalm 107 in emphasizing the contingency and frailty of life, and recognizing God’s providential action upon the sea:

O most powerful and glorious Lord God, at whose command the winds blow, and lift up the waves of the sea, and who stillest the rage thereof; We thy creatures, but miserable sinners, do in this our great distress cry unto thee for help: Save, Lord, or else we perish. We confess, when we have been safe, and seen all things quiet about us, we have forgot thee our God, and refused to hearken to the still voice of thy Word, and to obey thy Commandments: But now we see, how terrible thou art in all thy works of wonder; the great God to be feared above all: And therefore we adore thy Divine Majesty, acknowledging thy power, and imploring thy goodness. Help, Lord, and save us for thy mercy’s sake in Jesus Christ thy Son, our Lord. Amen. (4)

In an age of ever-increasing material comfort for many of us in the developed world, too often we blanket ourselves in that false sense of safety as described by the author of this prayer. We attribute our wealth and success to our own efforts. Some techno-utopians even believe that humanity can save itself and defeat death. Not even a pandemic that has killed millions of people can rid us of these illusions. It is difficult for us to accept that “none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself. For if we live, we live unto the Lord; and if we die, we die unto the Lord. Whether we live, therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s.” (5)

There is another way in which the danger inherent in getting underway and going out to sea can offer a point of reflection on the Christian faith and devotional practices at sea. In the 2020 film Greyhound—one of the best films ever made about life underway on a warship—Tom Hanks plays the beleaguered commanding officer of a destroyer escorting a merchant convoy across the Atlantic Ocean during the Battle of the Atlantic in World War II, defending the convoy from relentless attacks by Nazi U-boats. During one such attack, three members of the crew, including the captain’s steward, Mess Attendant George Cleveland, dies, and Tom Hanks’ character performs a burial at sea.

The scene  is a brief but profound example of prayerbook spirituality portrayed in popular media. Astonishingly, Tom Hanks’ character reads verbatim “At the Burial of the Dead at Sea,” found in “The Order for the Burial of the Dead” from the 1789 and 1892 editions of the Book of Common Prayer, the text of which echoes Paul in his Letter to the Philippians: (6)

We therefore commit his body to the deep, looking for the general Resurrection in the last day, and the life of the world to come, through our Lord Jesus Christ; at whose second coming in glorious majesty to judge the world, the sea shall give up her dead; and the corruptible bodies of those who sleep in him shall be changed, and made like unto his glorious body; according to the mighty working where by he is able to subdue all things unto himself. (7)

Even in our deepest grief, our common Christian faith gives us hope in the general resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. The character of George Cleveland, who as a black man in a still-racially-segregated military, is serving in one of the few jobs open to him as the equivalent of a servant, dies a painful and violent death, his body mutilated. But not only will George Cleveland be raised from the dead,  his corruptible body will be made like Jesus’ glorious body.

Taken together, life underway at sea, which at first glance seems a godless enterprise, does provide several narratives or images that can help both sailors and non-sailors alike in their devotional practice and to see God in new ways, either reflected in His glorious creation, or as a providential actor in history, or in the person of Jesus outside of history at the eschaton, transformed and transforming us in return. Contra one interpretation, the sea is not “unmoved and unmoving for all [its] motion,” (8) but rather, to paraphrase Paul, moved by the one in whom everything lives and moves and has their being. (9)

  1.  James Stavridis, Destroyer Captain: Lessons of a First Command (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2008), 108-109.
  2. “The Creation (Joseph Haydn),” Choral Public Domain Library, accessed October 17, 2022,
  3.  See Ben Crosby, “In defense of the archaic vernacular in public worship,” Draw Near With Faith (Substack), November 15, 2021,
  4. Samuel L. Bray and Drew Nathaniel Keane, eds., The 1662 Book of Common Prayer: International Edition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2021), 563.
  5. Rom. 14:7-9 (Authorized Version)
  6. Phil. 3:20-21 (AV)
  7.  “1789 U. S. Book of Common Prayer: The Order for the Burial of the Dead,” The Society of Archbishop Justus, accessed October 17, 2022,  Of note: this text is different from that found in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, and different still from a similar prayer found in “Forms of Prayer to be Used at Sea” in the 1662, 1789, and 1892 editions of the Book of Common Prayer. In using the 1892 prayerbook in a film set in 1942, Tom Hanks’ character appears to be something of a liturgical antiquarian of his day.
  8. James Stavridis, Destroyer Captain: Lessons of a First Command (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2008), 109.
  9.  Acts 17:28 (AV)

Written by Will

December 21st, 2022 at 8:38 am

Posted in Uncategorized