Gen­u­flect to the Sea

Passage Maker - - From The Pilothouse -

Off the coast of north­ern Spain near Bil­bao lies a tiny promon­tory called Gaztel­u­gatxe. (Say that once, re­ally fast.) This sec­tion of coast­line is a ge­ol­o­gist’s dream, where the con­stant siege of waves in the Bay of Bis­cay carves solid rock into blocks of Swiss cheese. The is­land is con­nected to the main­land by a man-made bridge; at the top, you’ll find San Juan, a small Catholic church 241 stone steps up to the heav­ens. When you ar­rive, huff­ing and puff­ing, tra­di­tion re­quires you to ring the church bell three times be­fore mak­ing a wish.

The church—ac­tu­ally a her­mitage—is quite sim­ple. A few rows of pews and an al­tar. But in­stead of the typ­i­cal cru­ci­fix found above the al­tar, in its place is the bow of a boat stick­ing out from the wall, a por­trait of Je­sus af­fixed to the pul­pit. The boat is real—just the first six feet of a local fish­ing boat, reg­is­tra­tion num­bers and all—mounted there like a moose head wall tro­phy.

The sym­bol­ism of such dé­cor would be con­fus­ing were you to ig­nore the rest of the place. Stained glass above the stone door­way arches de­picts ships at sea and whale hunts rather than saints and apos­tles. Above the pews hang a half dozen model ships, many of plas­tic and con­tem­po­rary de­sign, swing­ing from invisible fish­ing line as they drift in cur­rents of air mov­ing within the church’s walls. In­stead of the bronzed scal­lop shell in­di­cat­ing that this chapel is some­what near a pil­grim­age route to San­ti­ago, the in­laid-stone mo­saic de­picts yet an­other sail­ing ship. Ad­di­tional wall dé­cor con­tin­ues the theme: a large teak helm wheel, a three-bladed bronze pro­pel­ler, a brass ship’s bell and barom­e­ter.

At first it might seem odd, but it ac­tu­ally makes sense. The ori­gin of the Basque peo­ple and their unique lan­guage is a mys­tery to an­thro­pol­o­gists. But what is well un­der­stood about the Basques is their sea­far­ing skill, from fish­ing the At­lantic to ex­plor­ing the New World (a Basque com­pleted Mag­el­lan’s cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion and Basque fish­ing en­camp­ments were dis­cov­ered in New­found­land). So it is lit­tle won­der that in­side this church, sit­ting un­pro­tected in the Bay of Bis­cay, that the prayers are as much to a higher power as they are to the safety of the boats, ships, and fish­er­men at sea. I find my­self drawn to these places where peo­ple need to make sense of the oceans, where loved ones are mourned and re­mem­bered, and where ex­plor­ers pray for the courage to change the world.

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