The ferry that crosses the water several times a day between Bere Island and the mainland only takes about a quarter of an hour. This morning I unexpectedly called the ‘master’ of the boat for that trip ‘Ferryman’. I was thinking of Charon the mythological figure who carried the dead in a boat across the river of death to the other world. Before burial, relatives of the dead person would place an obon, a low value coin on or in the mouth of the dead person as payment or a bribe to Charon. (The Bere Island ferry has a lower rate for locals and you get a discounted rate for twelve trips.)
In Christian times this practice of preparing for the journey from this world to the next became viaticum, the consecrated hosted placed on the tongue of the dying person. It means literally ‘provision for the journey’. As it is placed in the mouth these words may be said ‘May the Lord Jesus Christ protect you and lead you to eternal life’. Hades was the name of the god of the underworld and an object of great fear and superstition because his main task was to prevent any of his guests from ever leaving. In the new myth that replaced him we often hear the question ‘why are you afraid’. We are invited to believe in the real possibility of living free from fear.
I thought, as I crossed the water and returned to the island today, that these frequent trips of the Bere Island ferry are like trial runs that we all make in the many personal stories of our lives. They are times when we must die to our expectations, plans and hopes or when relationships unravel and we learn painful lessons about ourselves and are faced with the pangs of the birth of a new self. Every trip, every story, is both separation from the past and the familiar, a little death, and yet it is also a return to where started and seeing it with new eyes and fresh, reassuring gratitude.
As you chug across the water, the town, or the island on the return trip, seems to be coming towards you, which is true but only because you are going towards it. This is the illusion built into all that we inhabit in our temporal-spatial world and too linear way of perception. The other side can be frightening. But what if Hades was replaced by a John the Baptist who is the main figure in today’s gospel. He didn’t ask anyone for a fee but the world came out to see him in the wilderness simply to ask ‘what shall we do? Show us how to live’.
Prophets are not sentimental by nature and are economical with their words. But they communicate a sharp compassion for all who suffer on the frequent trips of our lives between the familiar and the other side. It is hard to make these trips, although the views can be magnificent, until we fully realise that what we are going towards is coming towards us.
Half-way between the two sides there is that point of stillness where here is where we are and where past and future are in the present.