The Ancient Mast
“Go back, go back to the ancient paths
Lash your heart to the ancient mast
And hold on, boy, whatever you do
To the hope that’s taken hold of you
And you’ll find your way…”
Andrew Peterson, “You’ll Find Your Way”
In one of the most iconic sections of The Odyssey, Odysseus commands his followers to tie him to his ship’s mast as they pass the dreaded Sirens’ island. The Sirens are irresistible and insatiable, luring passing ships to their doom with their divine songs. They tailor their song to prey upon the deepest desires of each traveler and very few Greek heroes are able to pass near their island without being shipwrecked against the surrounding rocks. Odysseus, compelled by curiosity and a thirst for glory, aims to be one of the few men ever to hear the Sirens’ song and survive to tell the tale.
Odysseus’ strategy is threefold. He instructs his men to plug their ears with wax so that they will be immune to the enemy’s alluring song and can focus on sailing the ship. He commands them to bind him to the ship’s mast and implores them, no matter how much he begs, not to untie him until they have passed the island safely. If any of his safeguards fail, he and his crew are destined for disaster.
At Dominion, we believe that classic stories contain invaluable wisdom that transcends the boundaries of time and place; Odysseus’ story is no exception. As our seniors prepare to graduate, Homer’s imagery embodies my hopes and prayers for our graduates.
I pray our graduates will be lifelong learners. Just as Odysseus is insatiably curious, I hope our graduates will take intellectual risks and grow in knowledge. Through this encounter, Odysseus gains knowledge of himself and his culture that reveals his motives, desires, and values. I hope our seniors are open to what the world has to teach them.
I pray our graduates will listen to and engage with our culture with courage and self-control. Odysseus dares to hear the Sirens’ song when no other men will. He knows that immortal glory and knowledge await him if he can accomplish this feat, but also knows his limitations and compensates for them. As the Sirens promise him undying glory, Odysseus battles his greatest foe: himself. He survives his encounter with the Sirens because he safeguards against the temptation he knows is coming. When the Sirens “[send] their ravishing voices out across the air” (12.208) Odysseus is able to resist their dangerous beckoning as he listens to the song without being consumed by it.
I pray our graduates will intentionally embed themselves in communities that hold them fiercely accountable to Christ’s calling. Without the faithful assistance of his crew, Odysseus would have been lost to the Sirens. As he approaches the island, the Sirens’ sound is so enticing that he begs his men to release him. As he cries out and struggles against the ropes, his friends row harder, and some even leave their oars to “bind [him] faster with rope on chafing rope” (12.213). May all of our graduates find such steadfast friends who are as fiercely committed to their flourishing.
I pray our graduates will “lash [themselves] to the ancient mast” of Christ. Just as Odysseus relies on the solid mast of his ship to preserve his life in the face of the enemy, may our graduates continually tie themselves to the ancient mast of Christ as they deepen their knowledge and relationship with Him. In a song written to his son, recording artist Andrew Peterson urges him to tie his heart to Christ and “go back to the ancient paths” when he, inevitably, gets lost. I pray our seniors will remember their Creator in the days of their youth (Ecclesiastes 12:1) and that they will walk in the good works God has prepared in advance for them to do (Ephesians 2:10).
As a teacher, it is easy to feel conflicted when students graduate as we celebrate our seniors’ commencement and reflect on the mysterious uncertainty of their future. In Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead, John Ames expresses anxiety over his son’s future and writes:
That is how life goes–we send our children into the wilderness. Some of them on the day they are born, it seems, for all the help we can give them. Some of them seem to be a kind of wilderness unto themselves. But there must be angels there, too, and springs of water. Even that wilderness, the very habitation of jackals, is the Lord’s. (119)
In light of their upcoming adventure, I hope and pray our seniors will maintain a healthy curiosity, engage with our culture with the daring and wisdom the Gospel provides, while relying on Godly community and Christ himself as they continue their journeys. May they remain firmly tied to Him as they leave, and may we trust Him as we watch them go.