In hindsight, trying to swim across to the breakwater in Valletta’s Grand Harbour was a foolish thing to do. But it was a baking hot afternoon in Malta – and mad dogs and young Englishmen were feeling restless.
“I reckon we could do it,” said Hugo, an old schoolmate, as we watched from the safety of a rock. “Easily,” I replied, staring at the gap between us and the enormous stone breakwater. “It can’t be more than 50 metres away.”
We made perhaps 10 metres before realising that we urgently needed to turn back. The current through the gap was much stronger than we expected, and the waves choppier than they had looked. Our exhausted arms and legs fought the sea for several minutes, but we were going nowhere. It was eventually the swell that carried us back to the rocky shore. Too much longer in the water and we might have been in serious trouble.
Hugo and I were 19 years old on that afternoon in Malta. We had eaten a good lunch and were feeling fit and adventurous. We learned our lesson.
When a much older St Paul was shipwrecked on Malta in 60AD, just eight miles up the coast from Valleta (or so tradition has it), he crash-landed in very different circumstances.
His ship, which was full of prisoners and their Roman guards, had been tossed about in a gale for all of 14 days. They were half-starved and morale was low. And as they attempted to land, the ship ran aground.
As the Acts of the Apostles recounts, “the bow stuck and remained immovable, and the stern was broken up by the surf”. The centurion “ordered those who could swim to throw themselves overboard first and make for the land, and the rest on planks or on pieces of the ship. And so it was that all escaped to land.” How lucky they were to survive.
The natives of Malta, the Bible tells us, showed St Paul and his fellow passengers “unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all, because it had begun to rain and was cold”. The new arrivals stayed on the island for three months.
This story is something of which the Maltese are rightly proud. It explains in part why 95 per cent of the island’s inhabitants are Catholic.
Pope Benedict spoke about St Paul’s visit to Malta on his own visit last year, and about the island’s relationship with seafaring visitors, which of course have included the British. He urged the islanders to “exercise discernment” when drawing on what outsiders have to offer.
I hope their recent referendum on divorce isn’t a sign that the Maltese have been fooled into thinking that secularism means progress. This seafaring visitor can tell them for certain: it hasn’t worked for us. The world needs Malta’s faith more than ever.
Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man. That’s the great Jesuit promise. The Benedictines, as I understand it, are more concerned with the man’s afterlife. But here’s an anecdote that might please the Downside monks who educated me.
About 15 of my peers had an informal school reunion a couple of weeks ago. We met at a south London pub, and had an eight-hour lunch. The details are slightly hazy, I admit. But I do remember this: as we gathered around the table to sit down, a hush descended. It didn’t seem right to sit down without saying grace. Young City types, Sandhurst cadets and trainee lawyers looked sideways at each other. Then from a corner of the room, a low voice uttered: “Bless us, O Lord…”
Never again will I doubt the piety of a 1st XV prop forward.
Will Heaven is assistant comment editor of the Daily Telegraph