Memoria Maris: A Visit to Gloucester Harbor

IMG_9048“They that go down to the sea in ships” reads the inscription on the famous Gloucester Fisherman statue.

The full text of that Psalm (107; 23-24) appears on a plaque in the memorial plaza overlooking the harbor. It continues “…that do business in great waters; These see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.”

Those words touched my soul today, as I paid my first visit to the Fishermen’s Memorial. The statue draws thousands of tourists a year, and that’s a good thing. But it is more than just another landmark of this marvelous nation. It is sacred ground, a place of abiding sorrow, a holy shrine.

I had come as a tourist. I became a pilgrim.

I was glad that no one was nearby. The steady rain and the smoky, low-lying clouds had kept them away. I didn’t mind the rain at all. I didn’t put my jacket hood up – it seemed that to do so would be a sign of disrespect. The few gulls that there were on the beach cooperated, keeping a deferential silence. The tide, at lowest ebb, had uncovered the black veils of seaweed on the rocks. There wasn’t a whisper of wind. Wavelets barely crested and spent themselves at the water’s edge. I listened, though, and like Matthew Arnold on Dover Beach, I could hear them “bring the eternal note of sadness in.”

IMG_9050I prefer quiet solitude when I pay my respects and when I pray. And the Fishermen’s Memorial is a place where one should pray.

The statue, the man at the ship’s wheel, gazes intently toward the horizon. But he also keeps watch over his brothers – 5,368 Gloucestermen known to have died at sea – who are honored there. At his feet, on the semicircular wall that curves oceanward, are the plaques with the names. The first is Jeremiah Allen, deceased in 1716. The last is Peter Prybot, who perished in 2011. There is ample space below Peter’s name for additional honorees. And yes, it is only a matter of time before more names arrive.

memorial 1aThe memorial says that they were called fishermen, but they were known by other names: father, husband, brother, son. They deserve our prayers. Today, walking in the autumn rain, I gave them mine.

The psalmist, whoever he was, was right about the Lord’s wonders in the deep. Masefield’s joyous “call of the running tide” and his tall ships and stars to steer them by have stirred the blood and beckoned to the adventurous. We can all wax eloquent as we speak of flashing seas and glorious dawns and calm blue lagoons. But that is not the lot of those who go down to the sea in ships. Just a short walk from the Fishermen’s Memorial is another plaque with the following passage from Kipling’s Captains Courageous:

“’We lose one hundred a year from Gloucester only, Mr. Cheyne,’ she said— ‘one hundred boys an’ men; and I’ve come so’s to hate the sea as if it ‘twuz alive an’ listenin’. God never made it for humans to anchor on.’”

No, that’s not why God made the sea. And I would not gainsay anyone from Gloucester who had also come to hate the sea as if it were alive and listening. I thought of Jeremiah Allan and of Peter Prybot. And of all those since Jeremiah and before Peter, and of those yet to come. Whose brother, son, father, husband were they? What were their dreams, their hopes, their fears – and their loves – that the sea has taken from them? We don’t know. Maybe some day, when they return, we will.

When I departed the Gloucester shore this afternoon, I thought of the Book of Common Prayer’s rite for burial at sea: “We therefore commit his body to the deep…looking for the resurrection of the body, when the sea shall give up her dead, and the life of the world to come.”

May the Gloucester Fisherman stand strong and firm until that day, and may he be the first to welcome back his long lost brothers when the sea at last gives up her dead.

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