A Letter to St. Francis

A Letter to St. Francis

by  Fr. Arnaud de Boisseau, Chaplain, Port of Casablanca, Morocco,  May 2016.

screen-shot-2017-01-13-at-10-54-04-am(Translated by Jason Zuidema. Original French text in: François d’Assise et Marseille, ed. Mgr Jean-Marc Aveline, Auxiliary bishop of Marseille, Institut Catholique de la Mediteranée, 2016. Used with permission.)

 

St. Francis,

I do not dare. I dare not write to you. I don’t know how to do it. I do not even know what to call you, what title I should use. I don’t have to write much in my job. And more, I am too accustomed to respecting hierarchy, authority, the higher ups, those who are important, those who are in command…Yet, it seemed to me possible…even if we have talked about you for centuries, even if we honor you (I would write that we offer incense for you even, but I do not write it). It seemed to me that you are a Great one, but an accessible Great one. This is the first time that I write to a Saint, so you can understand my hesitation, my reluctance. Maybe you want to stay available, accessible, remain the same; accessible to everyone. Yet, this is what I think I understand, this is what I thought I presumed in studying your life when I was in Sunday school: you remained a Saint at our level. A Saint at the same height as other humans. At my height, on the same level as me. At my very low level. This is what gives me courage to write to you.

I try to do my job well. Being a seafarer is not an easy job. We are far from everything. You can probably judge this, see it easily from where you are today. Take a look: we’re at 3.78 latitude and -151.69 longitude—that is, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. This morning it is Pacific like its name; a calm, beautiful sea. A little swell, nothing alarming. But the weather predictions give us nothing to rejoice about. This calm will not last. A storm is coming. The Pacific will become enraged. Hearing two officers discuss it together, I understand that the company did not want the captain to change course to avoid the storm. A delay in showing up to the Panama Canal would be very expensive so it seems. So they will stick to the planned route, despite the storm. Won’t be the first time, we have seen lots of storms before. That is why we are paid to be here, no?

If risk writing to you, Francis, it’s actually because of another storm, one that is on land. When I went home after my last contract—I was five months in the Philippines—I got married. I’ve been married a few months now. We were engaged for several years, but you know, I was not earning enough when I was sailing on ferries, at home, and then we said we had to have at least a small house, even though now the project has become even bigger. Oh, I’m not complaining; the good Lord blessed us. My wife is pregnant. When I left Iloilo (It is an island in the central Philippines, but you know that well, right?), she was two months along. Now it’s been six months more. Six months already. It is not easy to live a pregnancy at a far distance from home…it’s not easy at any distance. But it is a sailor’s lot to be gone for long periods of time. We communicate via the Internet, as soon as we are in port and I can find a connection. This is our first task as soon as we arrive in port: how to find an Internet connection? Hearing her voice reassured me; it actually gives me energy in a way that I would never have thought possible. Just the sound of her voice. You can easily imagine what kind of conversation we had. Talking about our baby. It is amazing…I hardly dare tell you, yet it is true; hearing her voice, I might say feeling her voice, for me, it is as powerful as one can imagine. It is music to my ears. What can I say about the tone of the voice of the person you love? It is like being transported to paradise! As strong as our nights of love! I never imagined this could be possible, when we were first engaged or even during the first months of marriage. And yet it’s true, I swear. As strong as our nights of love. Today, love by Internet continues to carry me forward.

And yet… Now we are far from any port. This ocean is too big. We don’t have Internet on board. Only the satellite phone on the ship. And unfortunately you have to pay attention to the cost, despite my desire, despite my love, despite everything that I want. When I use that phone, my money seems to disappear into bottom of the Pacific Ocean. So I need to save my money for a call when the baby has arrived, for building our home. We have already prepared lots of things, but much more needs to be done. So, if we need to use the phone on the ship, we do so sparingly.

And just yesterday, it was Sunday, I allowed myself a little treat, just a few minutes of phone time, I was hoping to get a boost of energy for the week. But, instead, I received a kick in the stomach. It was hard to hear; too hard. My wife told me. She was not feeling well. The doctor advised her to go urgently to the hospital. She asked me what to do. I told her to go, no expense spared. Oh sure, I made sure to sound courageous and generous, I said words to reassure her, but deep down, I collapsed; like falling into a black hole, bottomless. Although my salary is much better than when I was working on ferries in the Philippines, as in the early years, I’m not sure I can meet the expense. You know, going to the hospital is expensive, very expensive, at home. And above all, it is this anxiety that gnaws at me, that torments me, that spins me around. Our child, our first child, is he suffering? How is he doing? Despite the reassuring words to my wife, I can’t help but imagine the disaster it would be if anything happened to her…Slowly, I started thinking about how I would hold our child in my arms two months after his birth (our contracts are for nine months, and I sometimes curse those contracts that last exactly the time of a baby’s growth).

This morning, lost and isolated in the middle of this endless ocean, I don’t feel good. Seasickness is nothing compared to homesickness, the longing for family, longing for my darling wife, thinking of our future child.

Francis, since you are a Saint that is my height, maybe you can hear me? Maybe understand me? Listen to me? Help me?

As soon as he saw me, Joselito, my best friend on board, immediately understood that I wasn’t doing well…I told him. He did all he could to reassure me. He has been at sea for six years, he has experience. He said that all seafarers suffer from homesickness, and loneliness. He repeatedly spoke of the stress on board, when you have too much pressure, too much responsibility, it is always difficult to adjust to the situation of life on board. He even told me that I should not count too much on going ashore. That we are most often too far from everything. Too far out to get off, to relax, to forget the ship for an hour. And if we had the opportunity to get off, we are often too tired to take it. We are the forgotten of the world. Its like we are in prison on the ship. A prison that floats, a prison that moves, a prison that navigates, a prison that never stops, a prison that goes around the world, but a prison nonetheless. That’s our seafarer life: wherever we are in the world, we are always elsewhere; too far from towns; too far from the Internet; too far from our families. We who bring everything people need, we are forgotten ourselves. We are the forgotten on the periphery of the world.

It is Joselito, who recommended that I write. Only to write. Doesn’t matter who I write to, he told me. To destress, to combat anxiety, to put on the unimaginable confidence that we need to wear like some sort of armor, in stressful situations like the one I was in. At first I thought he was laughing, he was making fun of me. But no, he was serious. He gave me experienced advice. So I told him I would try. Without believing in myself. I do not even know to whom I should write! Then I remembered having read the story of your life, when I was in Sunday school. I was struck to find out how you were the friend of little ones; especially the small and poor. And I’m also reminded of our Pope, called Francis (this can’t be a coincidence), who speaks of the peripheries of the world. He has not mentioned us, seafarers. Still, I know it is about me, I feel like I am moving and floating on the edges of the world. That’s why I chose to write to you. So that you could bear all those who are on the edges of the ocean, but also my wife and my unborn child.

I sailed several years on ferries, at home, in the Philippines. There were many of us on board, all Filipinos, of course. Here it’s very different. We are only twenty-one sailors aboard. And above all, we are from six different countries. Six very different countries. That took time to get used to. We first had to understand. You know, the universal language is of sailors is English. But this does not mean we understand the first time someone talks to us! We don’t dare ask some officers to repeat themselves, even when we are not sure we understand. Not everyone has the patience. If we do not obey quickly enough, some yell, and when they yell, it paralyzes me. In our culture, this is not done. I cried at first alone in my cabin. And then I learned. We can hardly do otherwise. We must learn to know, to respect, when you have your own customs or ways to live differently. One is forced to get used to living together: no escape, not even possible to do things differently in this floating prison.

So we have to get to know each other, and even end up enjoying each other! At the beginning I would have thought it was impossible. It is a kind of small monastery, you know, to live on top of each other without a lot of personal space, and all doing the same job: each must do his best so that the ship remains secure, and take us safe into port. This is what it means to be on board the same ship! I remember one time when I went into the country at home, I went to visit a cousin who is a monk. I was very young at the time, and it seemed an impossible life, to live so shut up in a monastery. My cousin told me, smiling broadly that he chose his monastery, that the brothers of the monastery had become his own brothers, that he was leading a balanced and healthy life, close to nature, in the sight of God. I have often thought about his ideas, since I started life at sea. The long nights of watch promote meditation. I have thought that our community on the ship looked like a kind of a special little monastery. Even more special, because none of us chose the others. I had no idea of the nationality of the other crew members when I signed my contract in the offices of the crewing company in Manila; almost all of us are married, but forced to live alone; we all left our families for six- to nine-month contracts. And in case of tension between us, the cloister of the ship is much stricter than the monastery of my cousin. And then, you know, for security reasons, we are on a “dry” boat: no alcohol on board…But a beer would do us good, some nights. So I began to think that in the end, life on the ship was much more severe than that chosen by my cousin the monk…Francis, if you will come to do an inspection of your monasteries, you could visit us too and give us some advice to encourage our life on board. I think our rules on board are much like those that you wrote, that your brothers are still practicing in communities all over the world.

Except for religion. It’s not that we are not believers, no! On the contrary, seafarers, when confronted with the reality of the elements, you know, none pretends to be self-assured. All feel so small as mere toys in the hands of the immense forces of nature and of God. Like everyone else, you might tell me. Except that we feel it stronger than many others, when a ship that looks so imposing and powerful, vibrates and groans under the blows of the waves and the elements. We already suffered a big storm in the Pacific: no need to go clubbing like young people after this—the pounding of the waves was better than the bass of music at a club! But here we also have our rules, which are strong, even if they are not written: everyone keeps to himself on religious or political opinions. This is the price that the crew pays to remain united and so that the ship and all it is carrying, can reach its destination safely.

This is only my second long contract, on two different vessels, for two different companies, yet on each ship where the Community rule is respected (and it still is, that I promise!) there is not a common room (in both the mess and the recreation rooms) where we do not find a religious image: that of Jesus the pilot, which helps mariners navigate (How many times have I asked Jesus in my prayer, that He is the best pilot of my whole life?…), or icons of the Holy Virgin. Even on the bridge just behind the place where we put the maps, in the space where you can make coffee, there is an icon. It comes from the Orthodox tradition. Nobody knows who put it there, but it is certain that no one has wanted to remove it. We do not know who put it there or since when or for what reason, but in its place it seems just as useful as the world maps that are stored in the unit beside.

During my previous contract, we lived the drama on board of one of the officers dying suddenly, of a heart attack. We still had to travel three days to reach a port. Can you imagine, Francis, three days of travel with a dead body? The captain told us to put the body in one of the cold rooms on the ship. And us, we had to continue working to ensure the ship was moving, with our companion, down there… Then someone, I forget who, suggested to mark the occasion, to do something, even if we were not experts in religion. After dinner one night, we ended up in the mess for a time of prayer. I should write prayers, plural. Because we were from different churches. And even different religions. I do not know how good our prayers were, we were not experts. It was quite awkward, I think, but we put our heart into it, that’s for sure. Several sailors were from India. I do not know their religion very well, or rather religions. I only remember that we were together to offer those few minutes to our brother, a Russian officer. In respect for each other. Some did not come. It was well known that some crew members did not have much interest in religion. Was I surprised by their absence? I do not know. I just stuck to the rule of the ship: respect the religious freedom of everyone.

It reminded me that you went to see the Sultan. In Tunis, I think. You know a little about what it is to live with different religions. You see, we live this communion each day in sailing in the difference in each other.

Worry remains inside me, endlessly. It torments me every moment. Not for a second, do I forget my wife, our baby. At work, during meals, when I go on or off shift or when I try to sleep—it’s been hard for me to sleep for the last several days…Tonight I look at my hands. Hands that, hopefully, will soon hold my child. Yesterday we had a big job on the engine. I hardly recognize my hands, as they are still marked by work. Hands dirty from sludge—should be several days more before they return to normal. I seem to remember that your hands were marked by the stigmata, traces of your union with Jesus. I’m here, so far from my family, but it is for my wife and child that I endure this life. Then I look at the scars of sludge on my hands. They are almost an indelible mark of the relationship with my wife, my child, that I carry with me every moment.

I note with surprise how these lines that I pushed myself to write, to write to you, now soothe me. Frankly, I am no longer forcing myself to write now. I enjoy it. Last night I was on the bridge. Fortunately, in the Pacific, marine traffic is not heavy, given the vastness of the ocean. I had to report only one other ship during my shift. We were as alone in the world, as the ocean is wide. So I could open myself to the spectacle of the ocean safely without being as preoccupied about potential dangers for the ship. I could contemplate the colors of sea and sky that met each other. These are colors that carry you off. They carried me far, far away…but not only to the Philippines, home to Iloilo, no. They took me elsewhere. It’s hard to explain, you know. I remembered your song, the one where you sing about creation. I only know bits: “Praised be You, my Lord, with all Your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun, who is the day through whom you give us light. And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor, Of You Most High, he bears the likeness. Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars, In the heavens you have made them bright, precious, and fair. Praised be You, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air, And fair and stormy, all weather’s moods, by which You cherish all that You have made…Praised be You my Lord through our Sister, Mother Earth…” Well, you said it, you prayed it much better than I could… And then something happened in me. I believe, a kind of peace came over me, despite the storms of the ocean and in the life of my child. Or perhaps beyond the storms. I love the sea, even though I hate the waves and swell. Yes, praised be Lord who never abandons us, when the night is too dark, or when the swell is too strong…

That night, I took the time to write, time to write to you. And suddenly I had an odd thought: perhaps is it you who are telling me what I should write, and these words are more yours than mine. Perhaps they are your answer to my distress, your response at the human level, near to the heart of our isolation…

It seems that we are going to stop in Marseille. I stopped there also during my previous contract. I read Alexandre Dumas long ago. So, I was very excited to see for myself the Chateau d’If. To see it was to unite my imagination and reality. But the reality, when I could saw the silhouette of the castle, has not actually done away with the wonder of it. We couldn’t visit the Chateau d’If, our stop was too short and too busy to allow us a tourist trip.

I could also appreciate another view, that of a church perched on a narrow hill overlooking the city of Marseille, which seems to protect it. Rather it is the view of the Virgin Mary, who is at the top of the church that protects the city. And perhaps we sailors too might get a chance to go to her feet. When we entered the port, it seemed to me—no, it is not a hypothesis but a conviction, a certainty—that many times the pilot who guided us looked up at her as if he went under her protection, as if he was praying, as if it was she who guided our ship. I seem to remember in your biography that you’ve also written some prayers to the Virgin. Perhaps like you, Saint Mary is also a saint at our height. So too, when we go to the port of Marseille, I will entrust to her my child, as I now have done to you. Is it not you, the two of you, Mary and Francis, who can do wonders?

Francis, I realize that I did not introduce myself: my name Jovin Omero. I had an uncle who was also a seafarer. Was it because of his example that I decided to follow this path? I am not sure. You know, at home, maritime schools always advertise to get us to enroll with them. They tell us: “Become sailor to visit the world and earn dollars.” The world and dollars were advertised, but no one spoke of the years of struggling in Manila to get a contract, the short stopovers in ports, the many modern ports far away from cities, the loneliness and homesickness, and a stomach knotted with worry for my future child…But I do not regret the life I’ve ended up choosing, although my dreams always carry me home.

Why did I decide to write to you, Francis? What intuition led me to it? Maybe this one: Brother Francis, could you be the little brother of all seafarers?

by  Arnaud de Boisseau,  May 2016.

screen-shot-2017-01-13-at-10-54-04-am(Translated by Jason Zuidema. Original French text in: François d’Assise et Marseille, ed. Mgr Jean-Marc Aveline, Auxiliary bishop of Marseille, Institut Catholique de la Mediteranée, 2016. Used with permission.)

For other writings by Fr. Arnaud de Boisseau, see Marins: Lettres de la mer et paroles de la terre.  With Fr. Roland Doriol.  Marines éditions, 2014.