From his vantage point on deck, Rodrigo can see the outlines of the city, like a mirage in the distance. The lines of the buildings are etched on the horizon. As the days drag by, you wonder if your mind is playing games with you. Perhaps the city is in your imagination. How can it be? The magical city, the solid ground is just there on the horizon, but horribly out of reach.
Rodrigo is held captive between the iron walls of the ship. He is desperate for contact. He romanticises about the conversations that he will have with people as he explores the city. He idealises the people that get on with their normal daily tasks on solid ground. The ship turns into a jail and as the dead iron walls close in, it feels sinister and claustrophobic, perhaps closing in to pulverise you. It turns your heart and mind into personal captivity too. The city has been hovering there for two weeks now. It has been two months since the visit to the last harbour, but nine months without solid ground under his feet
Then, in a second, everything becomes too much. There on deck, he feels only the hopelessness of this life. It attacks Rodrigo like a thief in the night. In that moment, stripped from everything, the last straw is a whispered plea, a hardly spoken prayer … ‘God, please give a sign, just a sign… A seagull lands with pomp and precision on deck, just next to him, despite a very strong wind that threatens the Bay. From nowhere the gull looks him in the eyes. This is his sign, his answer. Almost instantaneously he hears the crackles on the radio. An excited voice announces with gusto, ‘Anchors up!' At last they have clearance to enter the harbour.
This is Rodrigo's story that he tells Danie at the dining table. The ship is docked and Danie's visit is another sign. Danie had been sent. He is the answer to a prayer and a plea.
They have a pastoral conversation. It is what Rodrigo needs more than anything. Danie's visit reaches an emotional, tired and overloaded Rodrigo, offering him a moment's rest. Their being together is like an oasis where you can rest after a long journey. It is also a place to prepare for what is to come. In being together, laughing out loud, crying together and sharing a prayer, Rodrigo finds what he needs most.
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Feeling it in your own life is different. Statistics and news headlines are distant. You think you know something of the emotions when you read the reports and know the latest developments relating vaccines and medical journals. You speak freely about things that are under control and that you are strong enough...
However, if death comes like a thief at night and robs you of a friend or family member, another reality creeps in, deep under your skin. It finds corners of your heart that you never knew existed.
The hysterical fear of the officer from the Ukraine is tangible. It is not about news reports read or new statistics he researched. It is about the growing number of friends and family members that succumbed to the virus, victims of the virus that steals lives.
Now he wants Danie to explain about death. He wants to know about finding joy in this life. Death and joy. He searches urgently for a way out of the desert of sadness, hopelessness and fear.
As we do nowadays, he instinctively typed in his fears in the Google search space, hoping to find sensible answers. The result was more fear, more hopelessness, a way deeper into the desert ...
Danie can offer an alternative. It is an opportunity to talk about redemption and life hereafter. It is an opportunity to talk about happiness in a very disturbed world. The man is astonished to see the Bible in Russian that Danie takes from his bag. They page through. Search together. Pray together. These are things that Google cannot do. For the man from the Ukraine, there is comfort in the conversation. He finds a moment of peace.
For him, it is only the beginning of the road. Danie’s visit is not a quick cure to find sunshine and rainbows. It is creating an awareness of what life in God could be. It is a new possibility. It is the possibility of happiness, even in the darkest of moments.
Danie is almost back at his car when the officer catches up with him. Is it possible, he wonders, to have more Bibles for his friends aboard? Perhaps Danie has a few more?
The contrast is enormous. In the shipping world this vessel is the best in its class. It is a modern bastion of technology and progress. Jerome in contrast, works on the lowest level possible in the world of seamen. He has lowest rank, actually he has no rank. He is replaceable. He has to do all the lowly jobs that the rest are too important for.
In spite of the lowly rank, Nico notices immediately that the young man from Mindanao in the Philippines has an unusual attraction. He draws others, also those with rank and decorations, like a light on a mountain. He has an infectious energy, even though he is the least of them.
He quickly finds a way to meet Nico. He is father of two, a son and daughter. He also has, so he says, a muse at home. The muse is the reason for living, he explains with a sparkle in his eyes. But, one can hear a slight change in the tone of his voice. All he loves so much, is far, far away. The world in which he left them is an upside down, mixed-up place.
He is quick to explain that he understands something about happiness. He understands something about each moment vested in God. That is why this moment of being away is being transcended too. It is this joy, this being vested in God, that bubbles out, without thought. That is what draws those with higher ranks toward him. It is because he has something more than what can be obtained with tokens of rank on your sleeve.
Nico asks about the rest of the crew. Far from them, three men talk seriously. Jerome seems to know the story of each man. He does not only know the generic information, he also knows each unique story. He knows who worries about a father or a daughter. He knows where illness is a problem in the family. He knows the feelings of powerlessness. It seems that the man from Mindanao has a gift of listening to hearts. It may be his openness. It may be the willingness to listen to each story that makes him so valuable for fellow crew members.
The more Nico hears, the clearer it becomes that Jerome has a flame of faith in his heart. His happiness is vested in God. In addition, he shares this with others on board. Excitedly he investigates the literature that Nico takes from his backpack. He tries carefully and diligently to take something that he feels would work for the men on board. That would not only give them joy that is deeper than mere feeling good, it will also affect their eternal happiness.
Nico and Jerome say goodbye like old friends. Jerome turns around, carrying a stack of literature and walks toward the bench where three men sit talking. His work is clearly not finished. He brings joy, indeed.
We seem to seek feeling good like crazy – it is the addiction of our time. Our hysterical strive is to find a state of euphoric ecstasy... we crave a life in which one head in the clouds moment is followed by the next, as the only way to find meaning in life.
After all, life is we deserve a little feel-good. Incidentally, this is the narrative of each advertisement on TV in the living room and the bold print shown in all newsprint, all bombarding and steam-rolling us daily.
The multitudes of means to ends: Luxury goods, romantic breakaways, sports that pump adrenalin, what to eat, what to drink, all posing as a different drug to induce good feelings.
Feeling good is the measure. If your body and mind protest against the constant ‘highs’ and other emotions oppose this road to crazy happiness, we plan, we see therapists and swallow pills to return to feeling good.
But, is it enough?
Mostly the means are transitory, instant – nothing more than leaving us gaping for the next fix. Feeling good is an attempt to create permanent joy and happiness. Unfortunately, it is spectacularly unsuccessful, leaving us feeling empty, still searching, still craving ...
It seems life is more than simply feeling good. It is not only about sunshine, rainbows and princesses in tiaras. Life is complex, painful, often broken, a mystery in thousands of different shades. Feeling good is part of it, but life is so much more. Life also involves embracing sadness and heartbreak as an essential part of being alive.
Being happy is different from feeling good. Happiness is not living with your head in the clouds or the absence of suffering. Instead, it is the constant and definite knowing that God is present. Happiness transcends every moment, sunshine or bad weather, knowing that God is present in it. It colours every moment in a God-given way.
Of course, we may feel good. It is good to know what makes us feel good. It is also good to know that which anchors our existence here and now is the deep knowledge that God is present in every hue of our lives. It is good to know that even the incredible tragedy of a Man on the Cross may bring happiness ...
Men working at sea also know life in all its hues. Some days bring sunshine and rainbows, but others stormy weather and sadness. More recently they may have experienced more stormy weather than sunshine. It is described as the worst humanitarian crisis that the shipping industry ever had to survive. As such, each aspect of these men’s lives was under constant threat. Apart from the normal being away from home (that is traumatic by itself ), the world closed its doors to men working at sea. At one stage it was reported that up to 600 000 seamen’s contracts had expired and that they were stuck on ships. Some of the men could not leave the ships for up to sixteen months. This is a severe burden at a high price. There was an exponential increase in suicide. There is a feeling of helplessness upon hearing the news that a mother, father or wife became a Covid victim. Fear grew about the horrific increase in pirate attacks along the African West Coast. All these aspects stack up to create a perfect emotional storm.
Our immediate reaction is: Inhumane! But, the men working at sea, irrespective of the fearless and strong image, remain only people, human beings. They also dream about feel good moments. They build daydreams too. Just like us, they do not crave the fleeting feeling good ideal, but deeper happiness, the deep knowledge that God is present in every hue and emotion of life.
At the CSO, we want to remind them in each situation, irrespective of the hue, that God transcends all. We want to tell them that happiness is not found at the end of the rainbow, but in each moment in which God is present. We can only hope that they find happiness in that. We hope that they will find God in that.