It is my 3rd day back diving in Subic Bay and I find myself floating though the El Capitan wreck, watching the sunlight streaming into the internal spaces we fin though. Marine life grows and moves everywhere on and in this man-made structure, transforming it from a lost machine of the surface world to a vibrant part of the underwater community. “I am in Church” my internal dialog speaks clearly to me. “Blasphemy”, a more traditional turn of my mind replies.
My mother was an extremely religious person raised in the catholic faith, with two aunts who were Nuns, she briefly pursued a life in the convent before deciding she wanted marriage and a family. As a kid, church was our Sunday routine, and in the summer the warm breezes and bright sunshine through the open stain-glass windows challenged our behavior and chaffed at our patients throughout the mass. The salt air and sunshine called to us to be where we knew we truly belonged, splashing in the shallows of the tidal creek, or exploring the depth and opportunities the high tide brought us along the shoreline. We streamed out of church, positioned after communion as close as possible to the side exit doors, and then raced home to strip off our good clothes in exchange for sun faded, mud stained swimming shorts.
My mother always made sure we went to church on Sunday, even when it meant walking us past the adult theaters and burlesque houses of New Orleans famed Bourbon street when we traveled there. On that occasion we arrived at an impressive Cathedral, but at the wrong time for mass. I always remember the tall busty women with the unbuttoned blouse and ample cleavage who stepped out of a bar and walked past us in the opposite direction on our way home. My father mustered his best concerned parent voice and said, “that poor women is going to get a chest cold.” Good one, Dad. It was also one of the times Mom made the point of telling us you could pray anywhere, that you didn’t have to be in church, and on those rare (very) occasions we could not make it to mass, or find a church while traveling, it was our prayers and reflection, and not the venue, that was important.
In my adult years I have rarely made church, but always remembered Mom’s guidance regarding pray outside of regular Sunday service. My mother also had a wonderful way of reconciling whatever scientific discoveries may have come along that conflicted with previously held religious beliefs. Thanks to a science teacher somewhere long ago in her catholic education, my mother had a simple remedy for the things that didn’t quite fit. “Science” she had been told, and took to heart, “reveals the Omnipotence of God”. Basically, if something new is discovered, even if it seems to conflict, it was/is just part of a bigger picture we are still unable to fully see. Like a tremendous jigsaw puzzle, the more we know, the more is revealed, and we have faith in the guy who put the picture on the box that we will eventually be able to grasp the true magnificence hidden in all those confusing pieces. For myself this has come to mean, Muslim, Jewish, Wiccan, Buddhist, Atheist, whatever you believe, we will never know which of us are right and which of us are wrong, if any are, within our lifetime. None of us can see the whole picture, and no benevolent superior being would ever condemn a good and decent person who happened to be raised in the wrong belief system, practiced the wrong rituals, or prayed in the wrong building. As Mom would tell you, you can pray anywhere.
Most religion have at their core the same basic ideas, be good to each other, help the next guy out, keep a good thought in your head for your neighbor, and if possible, try to leave the world a little bit better place than you found it. (To me, this also includes the hope people will realize the value of the oceans and leave them for the next generation to look at with awe and wonder, and not just a convenient place to dump trash).
I am thinking all these thoughts as I am floating around my church of the day, the wreck of the El Capitan. Now home to an abundance of marine life, and redecorated in nature’s own splendor. As breath-taking as any cathedral on land, I offer prayers of amazement for all I see around me. The El Capitan was a product of industry brought into the service of mankind by the skilled hands and ingenuity of shipbuilders, crippled by a Japanese torpedo, and dispatched to the bottom of Subic Bay by the fury of nature in the form of a typhoon. This is my church for this day, with sunlight streaming through the portholes and cargo holds, more spectacular than any stain-glass in any house of worship onshore. I am humbled and inspired, and I reflect on the hard work and diligence that went into fabricating the original hull, as well as the pride and affection of the crews that sailed her during her service above the water.
We divers and fish now share these spaces, ramble and explore nature’s work in progress. This church spawns profound thoughts as I float along inside. There are not many places in life I am happier than here underwater, in a church created by the ocean out of what was once just another cog of industry. I remember my mothers words, I am thankful of my opportunity to enter such a glorious place, and to be so inspired by the beauty that is around me.