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I heard it from Eugene Peterson. Peterson “heard” it from Herman Melville, who lived in the 19th century. The whaling vessels of his time are a thing of the past. But harpooners, according to Peterson, are still important people today.
On a whaling ship there were men who manned the ship, expending enormous amounts of energy moving forward, keeping afloat, getting to the destination. But the harpooner did “nothing.” He remained poised, alert, and attentive, watching for the whale.
Peterson says, “History is a novel of spiritual conflict. In such a world, noise is inevitable, and immense energy is expended. But if there is no harpooner in the boat, there will be no proper finish to the chase. Or if the harpooner is exhausted, having abandoned his assignment and become an oarsman, he will not be ready and accurate when it is time to throw his javelin” (The Contemplative Pastor, p. 24).
Two things stand out to me in this illustration. First of all, I want to remember that my being still, paying attention, looking for God in every situation, is good for those around me – even if it looks like I am doing nothing. I want to be a contemplative presence in my family, in my church, in my friendships and in my world. By God’s grace, I hope this stance will help others fulfill their purpose.
I also notice in Peterson’s illustration that the harpooner may be tempted to abandon his place and become an oarsman. Indeed, the temptation is great to leave the place of attention to become busy, to be more active, to do a job God has given to someone else. Those of us called to quiet need to tend the harpoon. Those called to row will tend the oars. God will bless us both.
Are you called to man the harpoon or the oars?
How has your own practice of stillness benefitted those around you?
Alice Fryling is a spiritual director and author. Her most recent book is Seeking God Together: An Introduction to Group Spiritual Direction. She teaches Enneagram workshops in the Chicago area with her colleague Jessie Vicha. Alice and her husband Bob have two grown daughters and four grandchildren.