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Quotations I love: Breton Fisherman's Prayer

Thursday November 17 2016

Quotations I love: Breton Fisherman's Prayer

Dear God, be good to me. The sea is so wide and my boat is so small.
          —Breton fishermans’ prayer

What component of your life feels like a wide sea: overwhelming, scary, hard to navigate, with storms that might arise any moment? Is it a health issue for you or someone you love? A relationship challenge? A job or financial issue? Something political?

I love the power of the metaphor here, acknowledging that we often feel that our boat in the wide sea is just too small for safety. We need God’s help because on our own, some components of life are just too overwhelming. We need a sense of God’s enfolding, God’s arms holding us up, because some aspects of life are just too scary. We need God’s guidance because the sea looks the same in every direction.

I can’t remember where I came across this prayer many years ago. I have used it on cards and stationery for at least two decades. I have prayed it many times, and I’ve given the prayer to others in times of crisis.

When I did some online research to try to find the source of the quotation, I learned that this prayer was given to new submarine captains by Admiral Hyman Rickover (1900-1986). He gave President Kennedy a plaque with the words. Kennedy used this quotation in his remarks at the dedication of the East Coast Memorial to the Missing at Sea, May 23, 1963.  He kept the plaque on his desk in the Oval Office, and a replica of the plaque is available at the Kennedy Presidential Library.

The words on the plaque, however, are slightly different than the words I’ve been using for decades. The Rickover/Kennedy version goes like this: “O God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.”

In the past few days, since I found that information and the slightly different version of the prayer, I’ve been pondering the difference between “the sea” and “thy sea.” The former, which I have been praying and thinking about for years, implies that the sea is simply there. The latter implies that the sea somehow comes from God or belongs to God.

I’m not willing to assert that evil comes from God, so I don’t believe God causes the bad things in our lives. But can get on board with the idea that “thy sea” implies that the big, overwhelming and challenging aspects of our lives, in some way, belong to God.

How are we to respond to this sense of being overwhelmed and challenged by big things? Build bigger boats? My husband, Dave, spent two years on the USS Enterprise floating around off the coast of Vietnam. The Enterprise is about as big as a ship can get, 247 meters (810 feet) long, almost one quarter of a kilometer and just over one sixth of a mile. Even on a ship that big, Dave says tropical storms in the Pacific were scary.

The only solution, as the prayer describes, is to rely on God’s mercy and help. And that’s okay, because that’s what we were created for. “This I declare about the LORD: He alone is my refuge, my place of safety; he is my God, and I trust him” (Psalm 91:2, NLT). “Let all that I am wait quietly before God, for my hope is in him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress where I will not be shaken.” (Psalm 62:5, 6, NLT).

(Next week: a few quotations on attention. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)



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