A Quiet Place, Part II
On the perils of pastors and sea captains
A friend recently stopped by a donut shop in Michigan whose slogan is “Donuts: We made them taste good; you made them famous.
I want to adopt that idea. I do what I can to make these posts taste good. If you agree, then I need you to make them famous.
Fame is not my goal, but being a service to as many as I can is. If you find these posts tasty, please let others know.
I hope you have others to tell, not just for my sake, but in a real sense for yours as well. I touched upon the need for friendship in our last conversation. Pull up a chair as we continue that them in this post called “A Quiet Place, Part II.”
In John Krasinski’s 2019 movie A Quiet Place,1 a farm family is forced to live in absolute silence. Their farm is surrounded by deadly alien creatures whose acute hearing allows them to hear, and to follow with ravenous intent, the slightest sound. The movie is not meant to be a metaphor for pastoral ministry, but it can be. As pastors we can find ourselves inhabiting a forced silence, afraid to talk about hard things lest they attract problematic, if not deadly, attention. And while most church members are not voracious alien creatures, nevertheless, as I discussed last time, when one becomes a pastor, the relational dynamics in the church shift. Pastors need safe, alternative communities where the thoughts often kept quiet can be spoken, where the silence can be broken.
The lack of such a space is exhausting and can be perilous. That peril is spotlighted by novelist Patrick O’Brian, whose characters, Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend and ship’s surgeon Dr. Stephen Maturin, are featured in twenty-two novels as well as the 2003 movie Master and Commander. Though O’Brian writes about captains of Nineteenth-century British sailing ships, the parallels for modern pastors are instructive.
In the eighth novel in the series, The Ionian Mission, Aubrey’s ship is taking part in a blockade requiring him and his crew to remain monotonously in one place for an extended period.
The crew, being a fellowship of equals, deals with the monotony by rehearsing and performing a rendition of Handel’s Messiah.2 Jack had once enjoyed such camaraderie, but now he is the captain, and captains, O’Brian notes, were often alone. O’Brian writes
Breakfast and dinner . . . were reasonably companionable; but Jack dined at three, and since he was not a man who turned in early that left a great deal of time, far more than the concerns of a ship on blockade could fill . . . .
Obviously, pastors rarely have much free time to fill, but like captains, much of the work of the pastor is done alone. It’s the aloneness that is the concern.
The familiar tedium of blockade made these spacious, lonely evenings lonelier and more spacious by far, but in one form or another they were the lot common to all captains . . . .
On a crowded sailing vessel, people were always nearby. Similarly, a pastor’s life can be crowded with people, but since the relationship with those people has changed, loneliness lurks. Such is the lot common to all captains and pastors.
Some dealt with the situation by having their wives aboard, in spite of the regulations, particularly on the longer, quieter passages, and some took mistresses.
Loneliness opens a space for sin and other desperate measures. The yawning power of loneliness can lead us to look for ways to step around regulations—to take a mistress—or to indulge some other toxic distraction. The presence, however, of a good friend, O’Brian notes, can provide a more healthy alternative.
Others sailed with friends, and although Jack had known this answer fairly well, generally speaking it seemed that few friendships could stand such close, enforced proximity for many weeks, let alone months or even years.
The pastor’s ideal, I have argued, is to sail with a friend. Though it’s a rare thing for captains and pastors to find friends willing to tolerate close proximity and honesty, such friends can keep us from crashing on the rocks of sin that threaten always to sink us.
These perilous rocks, the moral temptations of lonely captains and lonely pastors, are quite similar.
There were also men who took to drinking too much, while some grew strange, crotchety and absolute; and although the great majority became neither confirmed drunkards nor eccentrics, nearly all captains with more than a few years’ service were deeply marked by it.
Some captains take to drinking too much. Some pastors do the same, or abuse some other substance or travel to the dark and forbidden corners of the internet. Some captains grow crotchety and absolute. Some pastors explode at home, and others, in the name of visionary leadership, become absolute at church. Behavior we might identify as narcissistic and abusive, and O’Brian calls “strange, crotchety and absolute,” feeds on isolation. Like captains, by such isolation nearly all pastors with more than a few years’ service will be deeply marked.
But some pastors, by design or by providence, escape, as did Jack Aubrey.
So far Jack had been unusually lucky in this respect. From his first command he had nearly always sailed with Stephen Maturin, and it had proved the happiest arrangement.3
Pastors must sail with friends. We may not be aware of the depth of our danger, but it is forever there. A friend or a group of friends providing a safe and quiet place will prove the happiest, and safest, of arrangements.
I’ve titled the previous post and this one after the movie and its recently released sequel for reasons which I hope become clear.
If this seems a stretch, it is because our view of the shipboard culture of that time is shaped by legend and not reality. O’Brian has done his research deep in the archives of the British navy.
Patrick O’Brian, The Ionian Mission (United States: W. W. Norton & Company, 1992), p. 166.
If I make frequent references to these books it is because O’Brian’s insight into humanity is so rich. It’s also because I’m a fan.