We’ve just returned. In so many ways I am home again. Back from Brooklyn, back from the world’s best job of being a Granny Nanny, back from living out of suitcases for three weeks and a studio apartment for ten months before that. Back from writing ten chapters of memoir on a dining room table. Back to my own desk and, after moving in and taking a few more trips, writing memoir fulltime. Back to the mountains of the Shenandoah Valley. Home.
Today I want to focus on being back from a voyage (May 29-June 16, 2012) on the wine-dark sea otherwise known as the Mediterranean. This sea was a place of high drama for classic writers Homer and the Apostle Luke, who described the four journeys of the Apostle Paul in the biblical book of Acts.
I traveled with thirteen other people and a staff of four on a Turkish gulet, the beautiful vessel named Karina that for seven days and seven nights met all our needs for beauty, rest, nourishment, conversation, and delight.
The trip was an Epicurean feast. Not Dionysian, but pleasurable, delightful to each sense, and balanced, just the way Epicurus would want it.
It was also Athenian and Sophian, full of knowledge, strategy, and wisdom. Billed as a learning adventure, the trip was led by seminary professor Linford Stutzman and his first-mate and co-captain, Janet.
Linford wrote a book about learning experientially on the subject of Paul’s ancient journeys while on sabbatical from Eastern Mennonite University in 2003. His book, Sailing Acts, was published by Good Books in 2006. It describes his and Janet’s navigational, strategic, cultural and spiritual adventures for a period of fifteen months.
It’s a memoir. I told Linford that and he looked surprised. I guess seminary professors aren’t given sabbaticals to write memoirs. But the book has many of the characteristics of many of the do-something-unusual-for-a-year books such as Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, and many books with the word “project” in them— The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun — being perhaps the most famous.
This book could have been called The Sailboat Project because it begins with what is actually the fantasy of many people: learning to sail, living on the water, traveling, combining strenuous activity with leisure living in ports, coves, and harbors. When we were anchored in a cove on the Karina, I saw one small sailing yacht with a big sign in the front: My Dream.
The book also could be called The Paul Project. It begins with an explanation of inspiration, the moment when the idea for the sabbatical that would change his life formed instantaneously in Linford’s mind. He had read Bruce Feiler’s Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses and Hal Roth’s We Followed Odysseus. Why not combine these ideas? Instead of following Odysseus, Linford and Janet would find a fixer-upper boat, follow the biblical narrative from Acts-Revelations (the point at which the biblical stories leave the land and become sea stories). They would sail in the summer and fall and winter in Israel, returning to the Mediterranean the next summer. Then they would sell their boat at the end of the sabbatical.
They would study the various voyages of Paul and try to locate every port, city, and harbor mentioned there. On our trip, almost ten years later, Linford’s well-worn Bible was opened every day, pages circling the spine. He would show the connections between the text and the context on land and sea, his face lighting up when he could “prove” that people mentioned in the Bible were also mentioned in inscriptions in ancient ruins. But what he really wanted, both as writer and as tour guide, was to create the conditions in which readers and pilgrims re-discover on their own the transformational power of Paul’s journeys.
Both Linford and Janet are natural optimists, open to all kinds of people and all kinds of religion and no religion, and yet passionately committed to their faith. They both love to laugh, and many of their stories revolve around their own mistakes, so easy to make when you are learning new skills and navigating new cultures. Here’s Linford explaining how he ran out of gas on a rented motorcycle:
Having never rented a vehicle with an empty gas tank in my life, I’d been struck by a dumb, temporary dyslexia and realized I’d been reading the gauge backwards, the E as an F, all the while marveling at the excellent gas mileage we were getting. I even noted at one point with genuine gratitude that the gas tank was actually getting fuller as we drove along.
Leave it to a missionary/biblical scholar to think he is enjoying a miracle of self-replenishing fuel instead of getting taken by a rental agency’s cost-saving strategy.
The book Sailing Acts contains fifteen chapters. The writing shows a story teller in command of his tools — suspense, dramatic pauses, curious slants on events, and satisfying endings. It has enough adventure and realistic description to satisfy readers of mysteries and thrillers and enough mechanical challenges to excite Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers. I read the book on the beautiful lounges on the deck of the Karina, a perfect, safe place. Except for one rocky morning, the weather was perfect and the sea clear and enchanting.
Yet I concluded that I could never follow in Linford or Janet’s path as a sailor. Sailing requires such hard work! I think you need to fall in love with water in your youth. I never had that opportunity. And if you don’t have Linford’s ingenuity and knowledge, sailing would take a small fortune. Hence the jokes about sail boats, defined as “a hole in the water, lined with fiberglass, into which you pour your money” (101).
It took a week on a sailing vessel to teach me how different land-based cultures are from sea-based ones. I developed great appreciation for the ways sailing is the same risky, slow, and sometime idyllic venture that it was in biblical times. Compared to the ways in which farming has changed, seafaring seems static. We have less control over the sea than over the land. Not surprisingly, monotheism developed as a desert religion where conditions, though harsh, were more stable. Because of the seeming perfidy of nature, sea peoples created multiple gods to explain the fickle universe.
Every good memoir and every good journey is an inward voyage as well as an outward one. Some of the insights Linford gained from his Sailing Acts journey were these:
- Paul was an excellent student of culture. He did not do what so many preachers after him have done. He did not harangue against the sins of those he wanted to convert. Instead, he searched for ways to connect with the people and their needs. As just one example: he saw an idol to an “unknown god” in the polytheistic paganism around him and pounced on the opportunity to explain his monotheistic God and his son Jesus.
- He saw that the resurrection story filled a gap in polytheism, which still cowered at death. Every sailor faces the possibility of death every day. Paul offered hope beyond the grave, resulting in one of his most eloquent exclamations, “Where, oh death, is your victory? Where, oh death is your sting?” (I Corinthians 15:55). By making life a competition with death, Paul was speaking a language the competition-loving Greeks understood. By offering a faith that transformed the greatest defeat (death) into a victory that not even Nike, goddess of victory, could claim, Paul gained followers.
- Paul was an urbanite who traveled to the most sophisticated cities in the world (all sea ports except for Jerusalem) and also spoke to the leading citizens and intellectuals of his time. His Acts 17 Mars Hill speech at the areopagus in front of the Acropolis in Athens caused quite a stir. And every time he spoke, people marveled and pondered, were angry or converted. He could hold his own with the best thinkers, judges, leaders, of his time.
- Paul is today honored in Greece, one of the most Christian (Greek Orthodox) countries in the world. There are festivals, icons, churches, that commemorate his memory. In Turkey, a country that is 99 percent Muslim today but where Paul also traveled and spoke in the first century, the average citizen has never heard of him. Linford Stutzman observes: “In spite of history, ruins, research, monuments, and museums, it takes a living community with an emotional attachment to their heroes to preserve their memory.”
- There are many examples of actual experiences that come alive in their settings. The description of shipwreck, for example, in Acts has been called the most accurate in all the literature of the ancient world. And the danger was, and is, ever present. In many places, the Mediterranean’s bottom is covered with wreckage.
- The famous passage about love, I Corinthians 13, makes so much more sense when you envision Paul standing in the agora or the synagogue in Corinth. And when you know that the citizens of this great ancient city worshiped Aphrodite, goddess of love, as well as Apollo and Dionysus. Paul builds on the love of love, but expands it and describes a more eternal, lasting kind of love than the eros that often led to envy and unseemly behavior. Having re-memorized this passage a year ago, I was able to recite it for my fellow travelers in front of the mountain where a temple to Aphrodite stood.
What is your equivalent of sailing with Paul on the Mediterranean? How have you witnessed and/or experienced transformation?