The Set of the Sails

I recently read a description by Father Paul Keenan of a story of a poet who stood on the seashore and noticed two sailboats moving in opposite directions on the water. This confused him since the breeze was blowing in only one direction, so how could the two sailboats be moving in different directions?

After considering the situation, the poet wrote this:

One shop goest east
The other west
It’s the selfsame winds that blow.
it’s the set of the sails
And not the gales
That teach us the way to go.

The poem conveys a basic but important message. Sometimes the winds will blow in a direction that is helpful (or pleasing) to us. Other times they won’t. We have two choices when faced with winds that don’t blow in an optimum direction: we can let them blow us where they will and curse them and complain about our lot. Or we can seek for a way to set our sails in a way that works with the wind to blow us in a better direction.

Now my sailing experience is pretty limited – years ago when I lived in Hong Kong I had friends that took me out on their boat now and then. I remember those experiences enough to know that setting sails in the wind is not always easy. Nonetheless, we can learn to use the wind – to work with what we’ve got rather than to let it overcome us.


St. Teresa of Avila – A Woman of Determination

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of one of my favorites among the Christian mystics, St. Teresa of Avila, also known as Teresa of Jesus. She was a woman who displayed an amazing independence of spirit at a time when the Catholic Church was not particularly tolerant of independence of thought or spirit and when no one was tolerant of such a characteristic in a woman. She annoyed many with her efforts to reform the male and female Carmelite orders and was a target of the Spanish Inquisition.

Teresa has many characteristics worthy of emulation. Perhaps more than anything else, she was a woman of great determination. When she knew God wanted something, she was completely committed to doing it.

Many obstacles put in her way both because she was a woman and because the reforms of the Carmelites she pushed for were not uniformly appreciated. Yet she persevered in the face of whatever obstacles were put in her path and she accomplished a tremendous amount.

In The Way of Perfection, she talks about people setting out on a serious prayer life. She writes: “It is most important, all-important, that they should begin by making an earnest and most determined resolve not to halt until they reach their goal, whatever may come, whatever may happen to them.”

Determination means more than sitting back and wishing something to happen, but never making up one’s mind to do what it it takes to get it done. “Gee wouldn’t it be nice if…” is pretty easy. Teresa understood that the key is being committed to getting it done. Determination. In the words of one of her commentators, “We all have sufficient grace from God to become saints, but we may not all have the determination to do it.”