The Dorchester chaplains: friends of God

Homily for Evensong at Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland

A website dedicated to the memory of the Dorchester chaplains describes a fine detail:

Petty Officer John J. Mahoney, tried to reenter his cabin but Rabbi Goode stopped him. Mahoney, concerned about the cold Arctic air, explained he had forgotten his gloves.

“Never mind,” Goode responded. “I have two pairs.” The rabbi then gave the petty officer his own gloves. In retrospect, Mahoney realized that Rabbi Goode was not conveniently carrying two pairs of gloves, and that the rabbi had decided not to leave the Dorchester.”

In Holy Women, Holy Men, we read of the heroic actions of the four chaplains of the Dorchester, a converted cruise ship redeployed to carry US troops from New York to Greenland in the midst of the Second World War.

A day from shore, the ship was torpedoed by a German U-Boat. In the confusion and panic that ensued, only two of the fourteen lifeboats were launched.

The four chaplains moved among the men, assisting, calming, and passing out life jackets … to those forced to jump into the freezing ocean. Having given up their own life vests to save the lives of the soldiers, the chaplains remained on the aft deck, arms linked in prayer until the ship sank, claiming their lives. Two hundred thirty men were rescued from the icy waters by other ships in the convoy. Many survived because of the selflessness and heroism of the four chaplains.

George Fox, a Methodist minister. Alexander Goode, the Rabbi. Clark Poling, Dutch Reformed. John Washington, Catholic priest. It would be foolish to attempt to find words that would outmatch the example of their actions.

But then the same could be said of the gospel. “Greater love has no one than this, that a person lay down their life for their friends,” said Jesus, and the words barely skimmed the surface of the Incarnation, the work of the Messiah, the crucifixion and its consequences; that life given over completely for the sake of God’s friends, the creatures whom God loves.

 

When I read the stories of the four men on the Dorchester, the image that stayed with me was of them standing arm in arm, praying as the ship went down, holding on to one another. They were heroes not only to the men that they saved that night, but they were the most essential creatures to one another: friends. They helped one another, they held one another.

And my mind kept sliding towards another image, of the band playing on the deck of the Titanic as it, too, slipped beneath the icy north Atlantic. Such love that bound those eight young men together; their shared love of that mystery by which simple changes to the vibrations of the air around the ear can bring comfort and catharsis, music. Would one have stayed, have played, if not for the others?

Teresa of Avila wrote of her friends, her companions in what she titled The Way of Perfection:

When one of you is striving after perfection, she will at once be told that she has no need to know such people – that it is enough for her to have God. But to get to know God’s friends is a very good way of ‘having’ Him; as I have discovered by experience, it is most helpful. For, under the Lord, I owe it to such persons that I am not in hell …

Friends can make a man braver than he would otherwise be. They break open our hearts. In their incarnation, we see glimpses of God.

Even Jesus needed, named and claimed as his friends his companions on the way.

 

Last week, I was in London for a short while, staying at a Christian guest house, a very friendly place, where they served us breakfast. Guests were assigned to communal tables by room number. Now, it may seem a small thing to surrender one’s breakfast time to the common life, but for a raging introvert, being sent to sit with a table of random strangers is a high-wire of terror. But I survived.

And half an hour later, breathless and bruised amongst the hulking mass of humanity working to heave itself into the sausage-skin carriages of London Underground at rush hour, there was one face in the crowd, my new friend from the breakfast table, able to communicate courage across the crush:

“You’ll be ‘right.”

It is never wasted to share our humanity with one another.

 

Most of us, God willing, will not be called to the heights of heroism; yet each of us can do immeasurable good by reaching out the hand of friendship, by standing arm in arm with one who is afraid, or perishing, or persecuted; by praying with those in the shadow of death; by affirming the joy of the fortunate.

There were nine hundred and two men aboard the Dorchester that February night. Two hundred and thirty were rescued. Six hundred and seventy-two died in the north Atlantic ice water. War is hell, and that night, hell had frozen.

The chaplains knew that it was not their task to save everybody; but to love. To love God, to love God’s children aboard this sinking boat; to love one another.

Whether or not they knew the teachings of Teresa – and why a twentieth-century Rabbi would have studied a medieval Carmelite nun is a fine question; whether or not they knew the teachings of Teresa, that they should ignore the virtuous voices that say that God is enough, no need for other friends, still by good human and godly instinct they clung together, to warm one another’s hearts and courage. As Teresa said, “I owe it to such [friends] that I am not in hell.”

Whether or not they had the words of Jesus in their minds – that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends – they all knew those other commandments of God: be not afraid. Love one another.

Amen.

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