The odd group of occupants on the boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in the book Life of Pi were like a small world. In fact, Pi thinks of it as an ark. I don’t want to tell you everything that happens. You should read this excellent book. The story-telling is wondrous and perhaps, as one of the characters said, “it can make you believe in God.”
Pi was a student who studied Religious Studies (perhaps with Carl Ridd?) and zoology. Could be he lived part of the time in Canada. Pi was particularly enamoured of the three-toed sloth, “because its demeanour—calm, quiet, introspective—did something to soothe my shattered self.” The sloth does little other than sleep. Pi said it survived by keeping out of harm’s way, where no predator would notice it. It lives a peaceful, vegetarian life, “in perfect harmony with its environment, with ‘A good-natured smile forever on its lips.’ ”
Pi admitted that sometimes he got his majors mixed up:
“A number of my fellow religious-studies students—muddled agnostics who didn’t know which way was up, who were in the thrall of reason, that fool’s gold for the bright—reminded me of the three-toed sloth; and the three-toed sloth, such a beautiful example of the miracle of life, reminded me of God.”
The sloth spent most of its life hanging from a tree, but knew better than the students which way was up.
Life on the little lifeboat is not idyllic. In a way the book describes a religious journey or pilgrimage, but it was a rough voyage and there was much misery among the human and animal passengers. The religious quest is never smooth nor easy. A perfect place for religion to flourish in other words. As Pi said,
“High calls low and low calls high. I tell you, if you were in such dire straits as I was, you too would elevate your thoughts. The lower you are, the higher your mind will want to soar. It was natural that, bereft, and desperate as I was, in the throes of unremitting suffering, I should turn to God.”
But the world on the boat is not always a wonder. In fact, at times, it seems like God has abandoned the travellers on the boat. Sometimes, it looks more like a journey to hell than heaven. Nature, so often identified with the divine, is also brutal and ugly. In one scene, the hyena was eating the zebra while it was still alive, but the hyena kept sliding inside the big gaping wound. “The zebra was being eaten from the inside. It protested with diminishing vigour. Blood started coming out its nostrils. Once or twice, it raised its head straight up, as if appealing to heaven—the abomination of the moment was perfectly expressed.” But there was no successful appeal to heaven. It was an abomination instead.
Yet Pi still believes in God. In fact, he believes in more than one. He says, “disbelief is a poorly armed foot soldier.”
Later, during a lightning storm in which the small boat is surrounded by booming thunder, Pi tells Richard Parker, the 450-pound Royal Bengal Tiger, “Stop your trembling. This is a miracle. This is an outbreak of divinity.”
Isn’t that what we are looking for on our quest? Is it all around us?
Next, I want to talk about another sea voyage that is clearly a quest for God. It is a very different voyage. It ends up in a very different place. That book, of course, is Moby Dick.