From the Psalter:
Some went down to the sea in ships
and plied their trade in deep waters; . . . .
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalm 107:23 (BCP Version) – May 17, 2013.)
I cannot read this verse of Psalm 107 (today’s evening psalm) without remembering a poem, Sea Fever by the 20th Century English poet John Masefield:
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way, where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.
I remember this poem because of an incident from my late childhood when I was in the 7th Grade, about age 12, I guess.
I attended junior high in the San Fernando Valley suburbs of Los Angeles and in my 7th Grade English class we were required to memorize, recite, and offer an exegesis of poem. I chose this one. After dutifully reciting it, I explained what I believed the poem to mean. The teacher (whose name I do remember but will not give) praised my recitation, but then critiqued my interpretation by basically telling me I was wrong. My response in open class, “I can interpret a poem any damned way I please!”
As you might imagine, I was sent to the principal’s office. Well, I was really sent to the boy’s vice-principal, one of those people who seemed always to be smiling, even when angry or when disciplining a child. To be honest, I remember very little about the man except that smile which always seemed a bit creepy. The vice-principal decided my infraction was serious enough to require my mother to called and asked to come to the school.
If my mother had been a stay-at-home parent, that would not have been a big deal, I suppose. She was, however, a working woman, and at the time her work was as a secretary at a machine-tool manufacturing company in Long Beach. The last time I visited Southern California, the drive from Long Beach to the Valley took hours; traffic was awful. In those days, however, you could actually make the drive in about an hour. So, for an hour, I sat on a chair in the administrative office of the school, missing the rest of English class and whatever I had in the next period, dreading my mother’s appearance.
When my mother, neat, trim, petite woman of 45 years, standing all of 5’2″ tall, walked through the door, I could tell that she was more than angry. The hour on the freeway, I’m sure, had stoked the furnace of her ire; she was a force to be reckoned with, and I was not looking forward to the reckoning.
She told the school secretary who she was and why she was there, so far as she knew, and then sat down next to me with not a word. I knew I was in for it!
The vice-principal soon appeared, greeted my mother, and escorted us into his office. He explained to my mother what had been reported by the English teacher: “Eric told Mrs. ______ that he could, and I quote, ‘interpret a poem any damned way he pleases.'”
Something miraculous happened! In that instant my mother’s anger was redirected. I was no longer the object of her wrath. She met the vice-principal’s explanation with a stony silence, looking him squarely in the eyes, and then in a very calm and measured voice she said, “He can interpret a poem any damned way he pleases!” The vice-principal’s smile actually disappeared!
Now, I don’t really recommend that parents do exactly what my mother did. And I’m pretty certain that if she hadn’t been called away from her work, if she hadn’t had to drive the freeway for an hour, and if she hadn’t “stewed” in her car for that hour, she wouldn’t have said what she said. But I do know this . . . Although I do not remember what happened next, although I don’t recall the rest of the conversation with the vice-principal, and although I don’t recall whether I stayed in school the rest of the day or went home, I definitely remember one thing! I remember parental support. I remember my mother standing up for me.
To be honest, I have no idea what my interpretation of that poem was. Today, if I heard the 12-year-old child’s exegesis I gave that day, I’d probably agree with my English teacher and declare it dead wrong. But whatever the meaning of Sea Fever to the poet or English scholars in the century since it was written, for me that poem, and this psalm verse which always brings it to mind, mean parental support. They speak to me of a parent standing up for and standing by her child.
And this is part of the nature of scriptural interpretation. We each bring to the written text our own life’s experiences; these color our understandings and give us the images whereby we envision God. Psalm 107 sings of the gathering of God’s People, some who went east, some who went west, some who wandered trackless deserts, and some who went down to the sea in ships. God is said to gather them all and give them support and comfort, and the Psalmist repeatedly encourages each group, “Let them give thanks to the Lord for his mercy and the wonders he does for his children.” (vv. 8, 15, 21, and 31)
Like the merciful wonder of a mother supporting her son in the vice-principal’s office.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.