Christmas at Sea

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It was over three years ago that I hosted a lunch to welcome home a friend, a fellow clergyman, who had just returned from serving for twenty-eight days as chaplain on a cruise ship. “It’s a fascinating way to explore the planet,” he told me.  “I met people from every corner of the world. You should think about doing this.  You’d really enjoy it.”  Toward the end of the meal, he handed me the contact information for an agency that recruits chaplains for several cruise ship companies. “Call them,” he said,  “You can do some good, and you’ll enjoy the adventure.”

I told him I wasn’t sure that I was cut out for a job as chaplain on a luxury liner.  I wondered if I could perform those duties with any degree of integrity.  I knew I didn’t have it in me to bless a life-style of excess and self-indulgence, if that’s what the position involved.  “Think of it as offering something worthwhile to people, to  passengers and crew alike,” he suggested. “And I know that you and Elizabeth would enjoy traveling the world.”   So, I went home and talked it over with my adventurous wife, Elizabeth, and, with her encouragement, I submitted an application to the cruise industry ‘talent agency.’

I’d forgotten all about the matter until one gray afternoon last November I received a phone call from a man who introduced himself as Marcello, my “talent agent in Florida.”  He wanted to know if I could be available in three weeks’ time to serve as ‘Anglican priest and chaplain’ on a Christmas cruise around New Zealand.  “You”ll enjoy this gig,” Marcello told me,  “because you’ll have all benefits of being a passenger on the cruise.  Of course,” he continued, “you’ll also be a member of the crew and have some duties to perform.  You’d be expected to conduct Christmas services for the passengers.” “What about worship for the crew?” I asked.  “That’s up to the ship’s officers to decide.  Just go with the flow,” Marcello advised, “things are different at sea.”

After checking with Elizabeth, I said ‘yes’ and we spent the next ten days scrambling to get ready for a trip we’d always dreamed of taking.  I rushed to prepare a Christmas Eve sermon before we left. I had no idea what the congregation I’d be preaching to would be like, but I did know this much: anyone attending that service would be there for a reason.  What those reasons might be would be helpful to know.  I decided that I would ask people early on in the cruise why they chose to travel at Christmas.  And, if they expressed interest in worship, I’d ask them why they might come to Christmas Eve Mass.

The night before boarding the ship in Sydney Australia, I dreamt that it was already the day before Christmas.  We had just sailed into port and I was informed that there were no bibles or worship books on board ship.  The authorities explained that this cruise was a strictly secular affair and if I wanted worship resources, I’d have to spend the afternoon ashore breaking into New Zealanders’ homes and “borrowing” Books of Common Prayer and bibles.  Those texts, (so my dream had it), were, by tradition, prominently displayed on the living room coffee tables in every home!  After mass was over I could go ashore and break back into the homes to return the stolen goods. When I awoke from the dream, I could see out the window the morning sun shining on our cruise ship looming high as a skyscraper at the municipal pier across the plaza.

We made our way to the ship and Elizabeth was allowed to board with the other passengers. I showed my papers and was descended upon by ship security who escorted me up the gangplank reserved for crew.  From the start, this ‘neither fish nor foul’ status turned out to be quite challenging, since the folks who ran things aboard ship never quite knew what to make of us.  Elizabeth, for example, was assigned a fancy passenger stateroom in the interior of the ship, while I was directed to a stripped-down officer’s cabin located just below the bridge.  (We engineered staying in the officer quarters, which featured shiny brass portholes and luggage storage under the bed!)  Elizabeth was immediately issued an easily recognized passenger card while I submitted to a mug shot for a crew badge that, early on, caused only confusion above decks.   Despite the many mix-ups, we quickly learned to embrace ambiguity and to make use of one status or the other, as whimsy led us.

There was one thing about having dual citizenship aboard ship for which I was deeply grateful: I was the sole “passenger” who could open any door labelled “Crew Only” and disappear behind it. It was like stepping into a magical wardrobe and entering an industrial “Narnia,” where, to adapt C. S. Lewis’ description, “It was always winter, [despite the engines’ heat], and [almost] never Christmas.”  Behind those doors lay a stark and perilous world that stood in great contrast to the pampered environment of the passenger decks above. Seething below their feet is a workaday metropolis that few passengers ever get to see.  This underworld city is made up of many busy factories, rolling with the swell of the sea and never shutting  down.  Here, the artificial light is bright and the noise is terrific. Crew of every rank and job description scurry to and from their assignments. Large steel bins on wheels are pushed and pulled down the center of the wide corridors and it’s up to you to look out for your life!

At least once each day I would put on a clerical collar, (uniforms count for something in that environment), open a door, and, like turning on a dime, go from an ‘upstairs’ world of officially sanctioned cheeriness and moderate self-indulgence to a ‘downstairs’ world of hard work, long hours and the burning loneliness that comes with months at sea far from home. I began taking my lunch, first in the officers’ section, and then in the crew’s mess.  In that hard-edged space of bright light, loud music and colorful language, I’d spend an extended meal traveling from table to table. In fact, I traveled the world.  I’d share soup with Micronesians, salad with Philippinos, sip tea at the Bulgarian table, and still have more global encounters ahead of me: the Italian engineering staff and the Indian able-bodied seamen came in on the second shift!

Since it was just a few days before Christmas, crew members would inevitably ask if I were going to offer a special mass for the ship’s personnel.  I told them I was willing, but it was not my decision to make.  As a follow-up, I’d always ask why Christmas mass was so important to them.  They told me it was a way to have at least a spiritual connection with their families.  Back home, everyone went to the church at Christmas — it was just the right place to be, they said.  They talked  about what Christmas back home was like, assembling for me a vivid composite of family and community traditions from around the world.

As the cruise progressed, some crew members asked to speak individually with me.  We would address many pastoral issues, and often, before the end of these conversations, I would ask them about their work.  They told me that they were pleased to have such good jobs.  The work was long and hard, and the loneliness always difficult. But, they’d inevitably say, they signed on for these extended “contract  periods” for the  sake of their families.

In a few days’ time, the word came down from the ship’s authorities about worship schedules. The officers had decided that it was sufficient to permit off-duty crew members to turn out for the regularly scheduled Christmas Eve Midnight Mass.   If they ‘dressed sharp,’ they’d be allowed to sit with the passengers in the ship’s theatre.   Given the ship’s work schedules, it was not an ideal time for many crew members. , but everyone had to make the best of it.

Meanwhile, on the decks above, I  was getting to know my fellow passengers.  Often when I’d emerge from belowdecks wearing my clerical collar, passengers would stop me to inquire about the time and place of Christmas services.  No announcement about worship had yet been made in the ship’s daily newspaper where the columns were taken up with entertainment schedules, passenger services notices and excursion ads.  Over breakfasts and dinners and at other times, I followed my plan and asked my companions why they had chosen to go on a cruise at Christmastime.  Their responses surprised me.

I quickly realized that it was not for nothing that the cruise line’s corporate motto was “Escape Completely!”  Many of my new passenger friends confided that they had booked this cruise in an effort to avoid facing Christmas altogether! One grandmotherly type told me over a five-course, formal dinner, “ I came on this cruise because I have such a hard time saying ‘no’.  For twenty-eight years I’ve almost singlehandedly prepared Christmas dinner for upwards of twenty-two people.  You should have seen the look on the faces of my family when I announced that I’d be in Aukland New Zealand this Christmas.  I told them I was sure they’d all be able to handle Christmas dinner quite smoothly this year!

Some passengers came with their families because it was a good opportunity to get away and enjoy some precious time together.  But many spoke of different circumstances, telling stories laced with pain.  A recently-widowed man said he couldn’t face this first Christmas without his wife of many years and decided it was better to be among people he didn’t know very well.  One couple told me they looked on this cruise as their time for building strength and gaining perspective. The husband explained that his wife had recently been diagnosed with leukemia.  They decided they would see New Zealand together, a place they had always dreamed of visiting, before she began her cancer treatments.

A sweet elderly lady told me that she just didn’t feel like sitting alone in her senior citizen’s apartment at Christmas: “It’s not healthy for me to be moping around , remembering  things and feeling sad.”  And there was the middle-aged mother who confessed to feeling at sixes and sevens because her only son was off on another continent visiting his new wife’s family for the holidays.  A worried young wife confided that her husband had just been assigned to high-risk security duty at the American embassy in Afghanistan.  They both thought that a cruise just before he departed for this dangerous assignment might prove a good distraction from their worries about the future.

Not all the passengers who answered my question spoke of loss and heartache, but after hearing what many of them had to say, I felt deeply respectful about what might be in people’s hearts as they came to Midnight Mass.  The gathering, I speculated, might well be made up of two different sets of folks entirely: some who would come to worship even as they dreaded the arrival of Christmas, and others, who, mindful of the life and the loved ones they’d left behind, would come eagerly to celebrate the feast.

As it approached midnight on Christmas Eve, worshippers gathered and filled the ship’s large theatre almost to capacity.  As I looked out from the wings  of the stage, I saw to my great dismay that a divided congregation was seated before me.  The  passengers, it turns out, had been ushered in and directed to seats down in the front and the middle of the theatre.  The crew, however, (all ‘dressed smartly’ in civilian clothes), seemed to have slipped in and taken seats in the shadows at the back and back and sides of the auditorium.  The ship’s music director, standing at my side and looking out on the scene told me that, in all likelihood, it was the first time most of the crew members had ever been inside the ship’s theatre! Something was not right about this, I thought; something here was just not Christmas.

So, I decided to go out on stage and begin the service with a big Christmas fib.  I announced that for safety considerations and the convenience of all, as many people as possible had to be seated in the center section of the theatre.  Those in the rear and at the sides of the theatre, I directed, should abandon their seats.  Those already seated in the middle and front sections were kindly requested to make room for their fellow worshippers from the wings.  A great hubbub ensued as the crew complied  with “orders” and the passengers good-naturedly helped them find seats closer to the stage.  Soon the ruckus subsided and the shuffling was accomplished — a shuffling of the decks, as it were!  I then welcomed everyone, thanked them all for coming, and noted that there were many crew members who had made a special effort to be among us this night.  To my surprise, the Christmas congregation broke out in loud and sustained applause.  And so ship-board worship began that holy night, blending those who, dreading Christmas, still had come, with those who, uncertain whether it was their place to be there, still came eagerly.  We all had come, it seemed, to honor the one who was born to bring us together in peace and who taught us never to make distinctions in matters of the Spirit.

I didn’t spend the early morning hours after worship trying to return stolen property to the homes of pious New Zealanders!  I did have brunch Christmas morning with a ship’s officer who had attended the mass the night before. He told me that as he was leaving the theatre, he overheard the conversation of three women exiting behind him.  One said to her companions, “You know, I’m a Catholic and I liked that service.”  A second woman replied, “Well I’m a Methodist, and I liked it too.”  The third woman said, “Hell, I’m an atheist, and I thought it was terrific!”  Christmas at sea had come, and it seemed as if something new had been born in us all.

Edward R. Dufresne © 2013

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