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Prayer for the week

20 September 2013

Angela Ashwin recalls a prayer that stood on a President's desk


O, God, Thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.

Traditional prayer of Breton fishermen (as it appears on President Kennedy's plaque)

I LIKE the directness of this prayer, which is a good way of reaching out to God when life is stormy and we have nothing much to offer except our own sense of vulnerability. This brief and graphic cri de coeur almost invites us to add our own conclusion, such as "Help me!" or "Stay close!", and there are several expanded versions of the prayer in circulation.

The plain statement about sea and boat enables us to be honest about our fears and anxieties, while, at the same time, drawing our attention away from ourselves alone, so that we can begin to focus on God. Significantly, the person praying says: "Thy sea" and not just "the sea", because, in the end, we and all creation come from God, and are held in being by God.

The image of a little boat bobbing on a vast ocean brings to mind the wandering monks from around the fifth to the seventh centuries, who would set sail from centres such as Iona in their fragile round coracles, in order to preach the gospel in northern Britain. They took no oars with them, relying totally on the wind of the Spirit to take them wherever he would.

When these early missionaries set off, the brothers remaining on the shore would sing "Gloria in excelsis Deo!" ("Glory to God in the highest"), and the monks in the boat then repeated the song. They continued this exchange of praise until they could no longer hear each other, and that was the moment of deepest challenge, as they carried on in sheer faith, far out to sea, totally dependent on God.

I know someone who uses this Breton prayer when she gets out of bed each morning, picturing herself stepping into her own small "coracle" of life, and entrusting herself to God, as she launches out into the uncertainties of the day.

Prayer itself can sometimes feel like sailing into the unknown, especially when we are waiting on God in stillness, letting go of the controls, and allowing our intention to be taken up into the movement and breath of the Spirit.

The Gospels describe two occasions when Jesus's disciples were afraid while in a boat. When Jesus walked on the water towards them, they were terrified, but he reassured them: "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid" (Mark 6.50).

And in a fierce storm on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus stood up and said to the waves: "Peace! Be still!" (Mark 5.39). It may be helpful for us to picture Jesus saying these words to us, especially if we are working through a turbulent situation, or feeling as small and exposed as a tiny fishing vessel.

Originating among fishermen, this prayer reminds us to pray for all who work at sea, often facing danger and hardship. By a quirk of history, these words are also associated with the most dangerous weapons on the planet. In the early 1960s, a United States admiral, Hyman Rickover, had the words embossed on brass plaques, the first of which he presented to President J. F. Kennedy.

After this, Admiral Rickover gave one to all new captains of Polaris nuclear submarines. So, when we pray this prayer, we are reminded even more forcefully of how precarious life is on this planet, and how great our need to trust in God rather than relying on ourselves alone.

Angela Ashwin lives in Southwell, Nottinghamshire. Her books include Faith in the Fool: Risk and delight in the Christian adventure (DLT, 2009).

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