The Lord helps them and delivers them;
he delivers them from the wicked and saves them,
because they take refuge in him.
– Psalm 37:40
This Psalm is a life saver, literally. One hundred years ago saw the worst peacetime shipping disaster in British waters. On New Year’s Day 1919 an overpacked yacht carrying Royal Navy Reservists back from the Great War was about a mile away from Stornoway harbour on the Isle of Lewis – it never made it. For some unknown reason the Captain got the course horribly wrong and the boat crashed onto a reef, the Beasts of Holm. Although the yacht was not far from land it was just before 2am, numbingly cold, pitch black, the sea was heavy, most of the half-asleep sailors never had a chance. Of the 284 aboard, 201 men lost their lives. It was a cruel blow particularly to the small island community from which most of the men came. That fateful morning made 67 wives into widows, 209 children into orphans and it scarred a whole generation.
One man who survived was Donald Morrison. He was just 20 years old. As the ship sank into the waters he climbed up the main mast and as the boat was buffeted and as the sleet came down he clung desperately to the mast. Hours passed, the wails of the drowning and dying passed, he was all alone. At one point he heard voices and saw a flash of dim light but no one from the rescue party noticed him.
At that moment he despaired of life, he was tempted to release his grip, give up his useless resistance and surrender his life and pain to the sea. Then words came unbidden into mind, he didn’t know where they came from.
‘The Lord shall help them, and deliver them: he shall deliver them from the wicked, and save them, because they trust in him.’
Something strengthened inside young Donald Morrison and he clung on. Some eight hours later he was rescued.
The second century pagan writer Artemidorus wrote, ‘The cross, like a ship, is made of wood and nails, and the ship’s mast resembles a cross.’ Many early Christian writers including Justin, Athanasius and Augustine seized on and commented on that similarity between the cross and the mast. ‘The sea is the world in which the church like a ship at high sea endures tempests…she bears with her the cross of the Lord, and the ladder ascending to the yardarm crossbar stands for Christ’s Passion, which draws the faithful up to an ascent to heaven’ (Hippolytus). We live in rough seas, we live in the dark, buffeted by the wind, sometimes we fear that everything is breaking up in pieces and we’ll drown. Cling to the cross, just as Donald Morrison clung to the mast.