The Sunday Sermonette — The Titanic and the Titan.

In the weeks leading up to Titanic’s maiden voyage, many people had premonitions about the ship and the excessive pride and confidence its owners and the world bestowed upon the “unsinkable” liner. George Vanderbilt, the builder of Biltmore, was warned by his mother that “so much can go wrong” on a maiden voyage. Her premonition caused him to cancel his passage. Mrs. Lucille Bill of Philadelphia had a dream a few days before the Titanic sailed that something terrible would happen. Her fear was so great her husband canceled their passage.

Even among those who did not cancel, there were premonitions. A close friend of Walter Harris, who practiced palmistry, would not tell him what she saw in his palm, only that she did not like what she saw. His little boy, who was watching, blurted out, “Is Daddy going to be drowned?” Luigi Gatti, the manager of the Titanic’s elegant À la Carte Restaurant, was warned by his wife that she “felt strange about” the upcoming voyage and begged him not to go. “You worry too much!” he told her. Both Mr. Harris and Mr. Gatti were lost.

Fast forward to today and the loss of the Titan. Like the Titanic, there were premonitions concerning the vessel. OceanGate’s founders, Stockton Rush and Guillermo Söhnlein, were warned. James Cameron was quite vocal in his criticisms of the sub. He and the deep sea community engineers were very concerned about it and railed against its design. They agreed there was a likelihood that something “catastrophic” could potentially happen on one of OceanGate’s missions to the Titanic shipwreck.

As early as January 2018, experts inside and outside OceanGate began ringing alarm bells about the safety of the Titan just as the company was preparing to hand the vessel over to its crew for its initial voyages. OceanGate’s director of marine operations, David Lockridge, submitted a report that stressed: “there are potential dangers to passengers of the Titan as the submersible reaches extreme depths.” His employment was terminated when he expressed concerns about the sub’s hull.

Karl Stanley, a passenger on the Titan off the coast of the Bahamas in April 2019, said he heard a cracking noise that got progressively louder during the two hours it took for the submersible to plunge more than 12,000 feet during that trip. He had a premonition that a disaster was waiting just around the corner. The following day, Stanley emailed Rush and urged that future vessel expeditions be canceled. “Would you consider taking dozens of other people to the Titanic before you truly knew the source of those sounds?”

Premonitions are challenging to interpret. Sometimes they help us know without being told, learn without being taught, and see without being shown. Like gentle vesper bells, Heaven can also send them to warn of impending doom. They also can go hand in hand with presumption. We know “so much can go wrong,” but our excessive arrogance, and our over-riding self-confidence that we know everything and make no mistakes, can lead to our downfall.

On the Sunday after the Titanic’s sinking, The Bishop of Winchester, England, stated in his sermon that “the Titanic, name, and thing, will stand for a monument and warning to human presumption.” Presumption, not premonitions, doomed the Titanic and the Titan—presumptions in our unshakable faith in technology that relieves us from thinking everything through to the end— presumptions that we need not adhere to the rules or run the race to the end, doing everything we can to prepare for said race.

In the days since the Titanic took over 1500 innocent souls to a watery grave and has now claimed five more lives, have we learned anything about human nature? The sea hath spoken. May God have mercy on us all.

Ponder this and go forth. (Originally published June 25, 2023)