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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

On Death, Grief, and Redemptive Suffering

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Below is a recent article I published on Covenant, the blog of the magazine The Living Church.

My mother died of pancreatic cancer at age fifty-six; I was fifteen. For ten months, she endured chemotherapy and radiation treatment, until she collapsed and was hospitalized. She spent two weeks in the hospital, in and out of consciousness, until she was moved to a hospice facility, where she died.

It is difficult to remember the day-in, day-out experience of her illness — it was all a blur of family coming and going, of waking up to go to school but not really being present there. But I remember the day of her death clearly, as if it had been branded onto my memory with a white-hot poker. I was visiting my aunt for the weekend, and she dropped me off at home before returning to the hospice facility. My father hadn’t returned from running errands when she called. By the time we had arrived at the hospice facility, a white sheet had been laid over her body. Our parish priest came, and we prayed from the Book of Common Prayer.

When we stepped outside, we faced a torrent of rain. It felt as if each drop of rain hit the ground with such force as to indent the pavement; perhaps, collectively, the drops of rain would dissolve the scene in front of us, carrying us away with it. Or perhaps God was crying, too.

I don’t know why, but I wasn’t carrying an umbrella. Or else, the umbrella I was carrying did very little good, because I was soaking wet by the time we ended up at the burger joint across the street. A burger joint — how absurd. The absurd jumbled together with the tragic.

I think about this day often. The memories never “soften” over time — my mother died fourteen years ago and yet she is just as present with me today as she was then. There are no “stages” of grief. I was once asked at an interment whether I felt “closure.” Again, the absurd jumbled together with the tragic.

Modern culture doesn’t just fear death. It smothers grief. Fear of death, after all, is age-old. Our refusal to grieve properly is new. I hear so often of “celebrations of life.” What life is there to celebrate? Similarly, we blunt death’s impact with shallow euphemisms like “passed on” and “at rest.” Passed on to where? Is the person sleeping?

Our culture enforces grief-avoidance like a diktat. Death, and grief especially, are generally ignored by the popular culture; when not ignored they are sensationalized and trivialized, as in crime procedurals and horror movies. Our addiction to screens makes it harder to read books; but it also numbs our emotions, including both joy and grief. Most young people I know who don’t go to church don’t generally socialize with many older people. As a result, they rarely encounter death. This is one way in which church is unique in human society: it is a community which encompasses people of all ages, at all stages of life, from birth, to marriage and child-rearing, to death, and beyond.

Maybe we felt death more keenly when more people died young, when plagues or wars wiped out every other family member. Then again, that is a large price to pay just to remind us of our mortality. Perhaps we moderns have made a worthy trade-off. Or perhaps we’ve merely substituted earthly death for spiritual death.

I can’t help but think that this cultural phenomenon is in part to blame for our easy acceptance of euthanasia. We are told that euthanasia is “death with dignity.” What is a dignified death? What is a dignified life, for that matter? We don’t ask these questions much anymore, except occasionally in freshman seminars at small liberal arts colleges.

It seems to me that “death with dignity” in this context is generically defined as “death without suffering.” Is suffering to be avoided at all costs? Does that then mean that “life with dignity” is the pursuit of pleasure at all costs?

The Christian tradition has its own way of seeing death. As Fleming Rutledge points out,

Christianity does not recommend suffering for its own sake, and it is part of a Christian’s task in the world to alleviate the suffering of others. By no stretch of the imagination, however, could Christianity ever be said to recommend avoidance of suffering in the cause of love and justice. Perhaps the clearest way to sum this up is to say that Christian faith, when anchored in the preaching of the cross, recognizes and accepts the place of suffering in the world for the sake of the kingdom of God. (The Crucifixion, 50)

History and the popular imagination are filled with images of redemptive suffering: the martyr nailed to a cross, or tied to a wheel or stake; the soldier on the field of battle; the heroes of the civil rights movement, though many were bombed and shot and lynched, persisted in bringing about a measure of justice. In each case, suffering is transmuted into some greater ideal, the greatest of which is love. It is Jesus’ death on the cross, though, that truly allows us to see how and why suffering can be redemptive.

The greatest challenge to the idea of redemptive suffering is the absurdity and nihilism implicit in death. There is more than a note of despair and desolation in all tragedies, none more so than the great tragedies of the 20th century — the concentration camps, the gulags, the killing fields, and the people’s communes. What could possibly be redemptive about suffering on so monstrous a scale? The line that “one death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic,” may be misattributed to Stalin — but what could be more true of Stalin’s character, or of our own human nature? I lived in China for two years, and while there, tried to expose myself to the horrors of Maoist China as much as any Westerner could be exposed, and yet I cannot possibly comprehend a million deaths, never mind tens of millions. This is the eternal problem of evil, against which any formal theodicy rings hollow. The only answer I am left with is the Christian demand to have courage in the face of — not in spite of — evil, despair, and suffering.

And, indeed, the way of the cross does not avoid this absurdity. In Matthew and Mark, Christ dies with his plea to God unanswered.

The lesser challenge — but the challenge we more often face in the culture today — is that of shallow pieties, Enlightenment utopianisms, or just plain mindlessness, which can be crudely summarized by the “death with dignity equals the avoidance of suffering/life with dignity equals the pursuit of pleasure” formula. Whether conscious or not, this dichotomy too often characterizes the most naïve forms of secular progressivism and liberal Christianity.

Christians are, of course, called upon to help the distressed and relieve their suffering, but all too often this imperative is twisted such that we ignore our sinfulness, God’s judgment, and the eschatological hope for the Kingdom of God. We reduce suffering and its alleviation to a purely political problem, to be resolved with better policy and technique. But if all the church has to offer is yet another political program, then we are offering thin gruel, indeed.

In the end, this brand of liberal Christianity is worse than thin gruel, because it actually impedes meaningful action in the cause of justice. Without the cross, what is the point? The cross leads us to take real and substantive action for justice, because it recognizes the true depths of our problem.

I started with my mother. What does this have to do with her? Shortly before she was moved to the hospice facility, my father made the difficult decision to remove parenteral (intravenous) nutrition. While even the Roman Catholic Church recognizes the licitness of removing the nutrition of a patient who is close to death, I still have to reckon with the fact that she survived sixteen more days without nutrition, her pain palliated only by a tremendous amount of morphine.

In situations like these, most academic or theological discussions of end-of-life care or euthanasia fall flat. It is easy to say generically that all life has inherent dignity and that euthanasia violates that inherent dignity. But it is harder to see why pain in specific situations becomes morally necessary — after all, at a certain point, any additional morphine stands a chance of accidentally killing the patient.

As before, I am left with only one recourse: Jesus’ passion, death, resurrection, and ascension, in which Jesus both identifies with and participates in our suffering, and inaugurates our common Christian hope.

In dying, my Mom showed me how to live. Her death was a sacrifice in the pure sense of the term. And I think this is generally true of those we love. Grief constitutes immense suffering, and yet without it, are we even human? When we insulate and immunize ourselves against death and its effects, we make death cheap and life a commodity. This warps not only how we view death, but ultimately, how we live.

Written by Will

April 16th, 2020 at 9:18 pm

Posted in Uncategorized