This article was originally published in the San Marino Tribune on for April 21, 2017.
When I lived in Santa Barbara, I had a friend with a handsome sailboat. The boat required an inordinate amount of his time to maintain…it seemed to me more obsession than pleasure craft. Though, when I was aboard for one of his sails out to the Channel Islands, I understood, at least for the duration of the journey, why he found his hobby so compelling. There is nothing simple about maneuvering a sailboat, and much satisfaction in mastering a wind-blown craft.
Take charting a course. Even with islands in view, the captain needs to know where North is. I always assumed this entailed glancing at a compass, but my friend taught me otherwise. There are three things to be considered when trying to steer your boat ‘North.’
First is determining the location of True North…North as defined by the actual North pole of the earth. I had thought that there was only one North, until I was instructed that one must also chart Magnetic North…North as defined by the magnetic pole, someplace in Greenland.
Furthermore, in order to chart an acceptable course, it is necessary to take into account deviating factors such as the peculiarity of your own boat, inaccuracies in your own compass, and features unique to the waters you are traversing. If you are near mountains with a large deposit of iron, it may affect your magnetic readings, and successful navigation requires that sailors remain alert to such influence.
If you are boating in Florida and attempting to locate ‘North,’ you will discover there is no deviation between True North and Magnetic North. Both are on the same longitude. If, however, you are sailing in the Great Lakes, there will be a 90 degree angle between True North and Magnetic North, and this will affect calculations.
Then there is the wind, called “the Fetch” by sailors, and the tide, called “the Drift.” If you are sailing at 10 knots an hour, but the current is against you at 8 knots, you’re only going to gain 2 knots in 60 minutes. That’s velocity made good.
Parallels between sailing and the spiritual life were not lost on a young priest, and occasional trips to the Channel Islands with my parishioner served as helpful allegory then, and inform me yet. To chart a course in the world we want to determine where we are in relationship to God, the elusive True North for all humankind. Ascertaining this requires an understanding of the resources provided by a Faith Tradition, our cultural influences, and the ebb and flow of tide and circumstance. Matters can be certain in Florida which appear much different on the Great Lakes, and will have changed again off the coast of California. It isn’t enough to look at the chart only once. We have to keep on plotting the course, accounting for a variety of factors, and adapting with reference to current circumstance.
Embedded at the head of the aisle in the Nave of St. Edmund’s is a mosaic Compass Rose, a 2001 gift from Millie and Alan Steinbrecher. There is a Cross in the center of the compass, and encircling the Cross is a quote from St. John’s Gospel, chapter 8, verse 32, in the original Greek…“the Truth shall make you free.”
I take comfort this Eastertide that the first followers of the challenging rabbi Jesus, dispersed following his Roman execution, came to a recommitment to his teachings in distinct and varying ways…the beloved disciple when he entered the empty tomb, Magdalene when the Christ spoke her name, Thomas when invited to thrust his hands into the Lord’s wounds, and travelers to Emmaus at dinner, in the breaking of the bread. Individual personalities and experiences provided Fetch and Drift, and not all were on the same longitude.
This remains so for each one of us, and for the communities of faith which we inhabit. The truth may set us free, but charting the course toward truth is an ongoing endeavor requiring a stout vessel, good comrades, useful maps, and a willingness to adapt.
True North can be fuzzy and abstract, requiring a good deal of interpretation and recalculation. Charity toward all people of good will navigating life’s choppy waters is the right jib for our sails, and the best hope toward a glad flotilla making for the islands. That’s velocity made good, and reason for the inordinate time all our boats require to maintain and keep sea worthy!