Reflections on a cruise…

Posted by on Jan 19, 2018 in Blog | 6 comments

Together with over 3000 other passengers, Rosemary and I (with daughter Amy and her theologian husband Aaron) recently completed a cruise which visited ports in Italy, France, Spain and Malta. Here are some thoughts… a mixture of the random, theological, ethical, cultural and missiological, which arose during the trip.

Having been on a river cruise a few years ago, I wondered how the two would compare. The benefits of a travelling hotel (no need to constantly unpack and repack, or to worry about finding your next destination) were the same for both, as was the significant over supply of genuinely tempting food, and the interesting array of on shore excursions, but after that the differences started to strike me. The cruise ship was so much larger – more than ten times so. It made it more anonymous, which was further accentuated by the very cosmopolitan array of passengers. English was the mother tongue of about 10% of those on board, with announcements being given in 6 different languages. To be honest, that got a tad tedious. It also meant that efforts to communicate with other passengers were largely unsuccessful, a smile being the most common tool used, though it was often not reciprocated. Given that my usual working schedule involves almost non stop communication, I thought I’d enjoy the break, and found it a bit of a relief to largely ignore those around me – and to be equally ignored in return. This had not been the case on our river cruise, where a common dialect had seen an almost non stop repetition of the same questions (Where are you from? Is this your first cruise? Isn’t the food great!)

Though we didn’t really get to know our fellow passengers much, one or two conversations were striking – like the one with an elderly couple from Russia. Though their English was limited (albeit significantly better than our non existent Russian and German, the two options they could confidently offer) we were able to gather that she was very unwell, probably terminally ill, and that this was perhaps a farewell trip for them. His care of her was tender and striking. I noticed him walking alone on the main walking deck a few times, and wondered if for him this was preparation for the long aloneness that might await him in the future. We smiled each time we passed.

Our conversations with the crew were more fluent, and in their own way deeply challenging. The most cheerful was with our wine steward (no, we didn’t keep him especially busy). From India, he had joined the staff 5 months earlier in the hope of furthering himself and his career prospects. He had just completed a course in safety and security with the company, and was hopeful that this would open up a new world of opportunity for him.

Our waiter, who was exceptional, is from Bali and told us he joined the cruise ship 10 years ago in the hope of earning enough money to start a restaurant in Bali one day. It doesn’t seem as though he has made much progress yet, and when we asked about his children discovered he has a wife and two sons, one 5, the other 13. As his wife also has to work to earn money toward their dream, they are being raised by his brother and sister in law. He gets to see them for 3 months each year during the non cruise season. Though he was still moderately hopeful for his future, it struck me that his children are essentially growing up without him – a high price to pay for a dream that might well never happen. Don’t read that as a criticism of him (for it assuredly is not). It was really a reminder to me of how very difficult some people’s lives are. Why does he do the job he does? Because it is the only way he can see of helping his family to get ahead financially. It comes at a great price, but he is doing it for them.

We felt the most concerned for the man who made up our room each day (and night actually – you get seriously pampered on these trips). We noticed he seemed very down one day – indeed it was clear that he was fighting off tears. He had phoned home – for him a wife, three children and a mother in law – to be told his mother in law needed a heart operation which neither she nor he had any way of affording. He was contemplating which of his meager assets he could sell (“I have a motor bike but my wife needs it to get the children to school”), but realised none would raise the required amount. He told us his fellow staff member had suggested he go and drink his sorrows away with him, but he was worried that if he got drunk, he would lose his job.

The cynical amongst you might wonder if he was hitting us up for a larger tip. Perhaps – but I don’t think so. His distress seemed deep and genuine… and certainly his situation is not unique. He is one of many poor people in the world who have found a way to provide for his family provided that nothing goes wrong. But when something does go wrong, it is just not enough. And again I was struck by how unfairly the world’s resources are distributed, and how outrageous it is that this capable and industrious man is finding that hard though he works, it is simply not enough for a situation like this.

One non conversation also struck me. It was on a day at sea (no port to visit) and Rosemary and I were standing at the back of the ship on the 14th floor, watching the wake of the boat…perhaps that doesn’t sound exciting, but it was magical in its own way. Our attention was caught by an elderly man (I estimated 82) smoking his pipe on the 13th floor deck, and watching the same outlook as us. He was all alone and seemed very deep in thought. We speculated as to what he was thinking about. It seemed serious and reflective. He stood there for a long time, then slowly walked to the other side, remaining just as alone, and thinking as deeply. At one point he put his pipe away, while continuing to stand mesmerised by the ocean. Then he suddenly turned and left the deck. At no point had he spoken to anyone – but he didn’t seem alone… just someone who had a life of solitude and who seemed both used to it and contented with it. Of course, that is just how it looked to us. We never did spot him again or get a chance to talk to him – but he intrigued me and I would have loved to have heard his life story.

As I reread what I’ve written it strikes me that while I found the places we visited fascinating (very beautiful and rich in history), people always interest me the most. Everyone has a story to tell, and we so rarely find the time to listen and to reflect upon each.

Almost all our on shore excursions included a visit to the local cathedral. Europe might be the world’s second most secular continent (after Australia), but you’d never guess it from the cathedrals you see. Most of them seemed to be in excellent heart, and some were very clearly thinking of ways to connect with an ever changing world. Before we set off on our cruise we had visited Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. With around 13 million visitors per year, it sees more business than even the Eiffel Tower. But it was more than that it was a bustling tourist hub. The cathedral seemed to be outwardly focused and to be making a genuine effort to reach those who visit. We were approached by two young French seminarians training for the priesthood who asked us if they could help us in any way and wondered if we had any spiritual needs we would like them to pray for. We chatted a while (they were rather excited when they discovered I teach a course in preaching at Vose – “come and teach it here… our teachers are very good but know nothing about preaching”). After chatting a while they politely excused themselves telling us they needed to go and talk to other visitors who didn’t yet know Jesus. Before going, they prayed the Lord’s prayer with us. I was impressed and heartened by the encounter. Incidentally I asked them how they felt about becoming Roman Catholic priests at a time when the church is facing so much valid criticism for the sexual abuse it overlooked, and if they found this deeply discouraging or motivating. The latter, they replied, adding that it was up to their generation of priests to reestablish the credibility of the priesthood. Perhaps a better day is about to dawn for the Roman Catholic Church in Europe.

I was reminded that many churches have a defining story – an event that marks a new and decisive point in their journey. For the Parish Church of the Assumption in Mosta Malta (usually known as the Rotunda Mosta as it is based on the Pantheon and boasts the 4th largest unsupported dome in the world), that story was born on the 9 April 1942 when a 200kg Nazi Bomb dropped through the dome and landed in the middle of a congregation of over 300 people celebrating mass. For no known reason, the bomb failed to explode. The locals are convinced it was a miracle. The unexploded bomb is still there for all to see, as is the not fully repaired hole in the dome, a tangible reminder of the day God intervened and spared the community from what would have been enormous heartache. Yes, of course it raises all kinds of theological questions (why did God spare this church, but not others? Was it a miracle or a happy co incidence?) – but for this faith community it was a defining moment.

Back to the cruise… Did I have any complaints? Only that the tea was undrinkable! Seriously awful. If this is the way tea is brewed in Europe, it gives a clue as to why Britain plans to leave the EU! I was also a little disappointed that we didn’t see more sea life. Some gulls and 4 dolphins was my tally – higher than others in our group (they didn’t spot the dolphins who were gone almost as soon as they were noticed).

We did have a moment of minor drama… a very high swell making it too dangerous for us to enter port one day, and leading to a reworking of the schedule. No doubt the story will grow with time (“we thought we were going to drown”), but I did discover that seasickness is real and unpleasant while it lasts.

I’m writing this at Genoa airport, the cruise completed a few hours ago. We are off to Munich for two days and then back to Perth. The Munich visit seems an appropriate end to the trip as the bulk of my holiday reading has been of Eric Metaxas’ excellent biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as well as of Bonhoeffer’s own classic work, Life Together. Nothing like being in Germany whilst reading this sobering but challenging fare.

Well, that’s it for now… As always, nice chatting…

6 Comments

  1. Very interesting reflections Brian, appreciate you sharing them.

  2. Brian, its a pity I didn’t know you were here in Malta. You could have come and had a nice cup of English tea with me and my husband at home in Bugibba (near where Paul was shipwrecked). And I could have told you the story about the part that Mosta cathedral has played in bringing us to Malta, and about the Reformation that God is going to bring to this island to release many souls from their bondage under Rome.

    • That would have been great. Blessings on your ministry in Malta.

  3. Thanks for sharing, Brian. Very interesting (and thought-provoking) reflections. Welcome back!

  4. I always love your reflections Brian. They tell a story of someone who is deeply empathetic and loving towards others and their needs. Like Jesus.

    • Thanks Stephen. Thats more than generous. Good to hear from you.

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