No, it’s not a type of seashell, a magnifying lens, or a species of bird.. tempting as those definitions might be, “Coracle” is actually the name of the retreat center visited by the fourth-year fellows of Theological Horizons this past weekend. If you’re as bewildered by this word as I was, check out Executive Director Bill Haley’s description on the organization’s website:
“Often when [the old Celtic Christian pilgrims] set out on pilgrimage together, they would get into a small leather boat, hoist the sail, pull up the rudder, and go where God took them, by way of the wind. In those native tongues these small boats are called curraughs, in English they are a ‘coracle’, a small boat for wide seas. A coracle is a vehicle to take the journey with God to find God, together.”
So… it’s a type of boat? Easy enough- got it. Ok. Fast-forward. When we first turned the doorknob and stepped inside Coracle, I was initially struck by the relaxed, intimate atmosphere made apparent by the circle of cozy couches and the emanating smoky smell of the furnace. It looked like a family cabin! Hmm, I thought, this is wonderful, but what about this retreat center is supposed to resemble a boat? …Should I be worried?
A few minutes later, when Bill sat us down with a smile and recounted Coracle’s story, my question was answered. Here’s my not-so-eloquent summary: a boat is never really just a boat. That is to say, no boat exists for its own sake- a boat is most “boat-like” when it is fulfilling its reason for existence, its purpose- which is to take people somewhere.
Likewise, Coracle exists in order to stimulate spiritual formation in its retreatants - to mobilize us to discover what it means to be called by God for work in his Kingdom. Bill’s direction on Christian vocation this weekend taught me that so much of the work Christians are called to carry out in this world necessitates that we understand who we are in relation to God and the world. Humans are kind of like boats, I think. We are far more interesting than monuments or statues, created to look pretty or preserve a memory- we are going somewhere, always, whether we realize it or not. And in a way, we are “most human” when we realize where we are going and how we can intentionally orient ourselves toward God, others, and creation. When we exist for a purpose outside ourselves, only then do we find out who we really are. But first, we have to get moving.
These sentiments may best be expressed by the Prayer of St. Brendan the Navigator, on his own journey in his own coracle:
“Shall I abandon, O King of mysteries,
the soft comforts of home?
Shall I turn my back on my native land,
and turn my face toward the sea?”