Saving lives at sea

Published on 20 Apr 2018
Lifebuoy on a beach

by Teresa McCaffery

Sometimes it helps to have some sort of image or metaphor for the work you are doing; it helps to put the joys and sorrows of the work into context.  I’ve heard St Beuno’s described as a motorway service station for the Spirit; The Pope has referred to the church as a field hospital for casualties of the spiritual battle.  I’ve been watching TV programmes about the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) and I wondered if that was a good image for the outreach programme.

The RNLI had some fulltime staff, but most of the rescue work is done by lay volunteers.  They do their normal job most of the time, but they carry a pager when on call.  If that goes off (and their colleagues at work know this) they change character, dash at full speed to the lifeboat station, don high tech. clothing, jump into a very expensive boat and head for the danger area.  They know that once the casualty is in the sea the difference between life and death may be measured in seconds rather than minutes.

Just like their rescuers, the casualties are people going about their daily business.  They are not doing anything bad, or stupid: a dog, out for a walk on the lead, dashes after something interesting it has seen and drags its owner over the sea wall, children, out for a walk on the sands, are caught by the incoming tide, fishermen, loading their catch, a wave drives their gear into the boat which is holed below the waterline. 

Once back ashore the casualty is taken to hospital for further treatment, which may take much longer than the rescue.  These people are not likely to become working volunteers with the RNLI though they will probably give donations and may well do fundraising.  Crew members in their massive, high-visibility foul weather gear do not look particularly loveable but sometimes a simple gesture, like holding the casualty’s hand while the rescue proceeds, will create a lifelong bond.

Lifesaving equipment is seriously expensive to buy and maintain; It must be top of the range to function with maximum speed and efficiency.  New types of equipment must be seriously considered; The RNLI has recently invested in hovercraft (which are not, strictly speaking, boats).  Some members were sceptical, but now that they have saved a few lives in shallow water they are more popular.

So, the outreach programme is also for lay people to do, with Jesuit backing.  Their equipment – the Ignatian exercises – is expensive; it has cost many lives in the form of Jesuit and lay martyrs.  It needs to be maintained carefully; there should be no rusty corners in that book that have become potentially harmful through misinterpretation rather than useful.  We must be willing to think of new structures and new ways of relating to each-other.

And what of the casualties we are trying to help?  Ignatius offers a meditation on the person who went to hell for committing one mortal sin.  That makes God seem draconian, but the RNLI knows all about people who make one small misjudgement or are pulled away at a difficult moment and get into terrible trouble.  The wonders of God’s creation surround us as the sea surrounds our island.  We should enjoy them as we enjoy the sea, and work among them as the fishermen work on the sea but our relationship to the world must be just right.  Sometimes the joy and beauty of creation can catch us unawares and drag us away from our moral purpose.  Jesus had a soft spot for prostitutes and sinners because he knew that they were not bad people, just people who had made a misstep and become lost in what they were doing. 

We need a spiritual lifeboat to rescue people who are caught out by temptation before they drift beyond help.  Such a facility needs to  be on the spot, not just in a far-away retreat centre,  well-equipped with the possibility of safe activity, and with ‘crew’ who are skilled at helping ‘casualties’ to build a spiritually healthy lifestyle.