04/18/2012 02:55 pm ET Updated Jun 18, 2012

What the Titanic and a Ship That Sailed 300 Years Before Her Can Teach Us

She was the largest ship in the world. In fact, she was the largest movable object man had ever made. More than 11 stories tall and almost a sixth of a mile long, she dwarfed the seaside buildings of Belfast where she first arose like a colossus and where her proud craftsmen boasted of her to their grandchildren. Newspapers the world over took note of her and of her maiden voyage from Southampton, England, on April 10, 1912. She was, they said, "the promise and pride of a new age." Her name was Titanic.

She carried the best of nearly everything. Her staterooms, ballrooms, restaurants and 50-foot-wide promenades were the talk of Europe. She shone with the best art, books, furniture and even gold bathroom fixtures. She boasted a gym complete with exercise bikes, a rowing machine, a swimming pool and a squash court. She even carried a Renault car, the finest hunting dogs available, four cases of opium and luggage bulging with such valuables that one woman's suitcases were estimated as worth more than $177,000.

Her passengers were a cross-section of the age, from the mainly Scots-Irish passengers below in third class to the stunningly wealthy many floors above. The rich included John Jacob Astor, Macy's founder Isidor Straus and a millionaire playboy named Guggenheim. President Taft's military advisor, the music teacher to Theodore Roosevelt's children, a squash pro, a movie star, a thief, several gamblers, the Titanic's architect and hundreds of far more common people were aboard. The Titanic, despite her name, was the world in miniature.

"Madam, God himself could not sink this ship." It was something a steward had said. Hundreds heard him on the day most passengers came aboard. Several couples were discussing the boast over a late drink one evening when it suddenly felt as though the wind had picked up. It was 11:40 p.m. on April 14. Titanic had collided with an iceberg on her starboard side. It left a 12-foot gash.

Ships God can't sink don't need their full complement of lifeboats, so there were only enough for 1,178 of the 2,207 passengers. As the shrill alarms sounded throughout the warm, sleepy ship, the cruel reality settled first into the mind of the captain and then his crew: hundreds of people were about to die.

Two hours later -- after panic sent half empty lifeboats out on the oil-black sea and a few men posed as women to save their own lives and husbands lied to get their wives to leave them -- the ship, which had been slowly sinking nose-down, suddenly groaned and lifted its 23-foot propellers high in the air as it slid into its grave.

Titanic. We seem unable to finish with her story. A hundred years later she still fascinates and speaks to us as a symbol of pride, folly and of the fragility of man.

She begs comparison with a second ship that left from the same port and crossed the same ocean almost 300 years before in 1620. This ship was a far humbler offering. No larger than a volleyball court and but a few stories high, she would have fit completely inside one of Titanic's ornate ballrooms. She leaked profusely, carried only 103 souls and allowed little space for supplies.

Her passengers suffered. One third were children. One was a pregnant woman. Most had never been on the open seas. They endured violent North Atlantic storms and piercing, icy winds. It was a terrifying, bone-breaking season in hell, made worse by incessant vomiting and screaming. It lasted 66 days.

Yet this more unlikely ship, named The Mayflower, arrived. She has become a symbol of persecution, sacrifice and suffering turned redemptive by a people's faith. She carried the people we now call "the Pilgrims."

It is the tale of two ships. One should easily have completed its maiden voyage, the other -- an old wine barge -- would have raised few questions had she sunk. The one carried the wealth of an age, the other a people harried from their nation for their faith. The greater was launched with a dismissal of God, those of the lesser looked to God as their hope.

The Titanic and the Mayflower as symbols have been made to serve many agendas, have been fitted into widely varying schemes. They were, at the least, two ships carrying two different types of people for two very different purposes. None of this determined what happened, of course. But that it did happen -- that the mighty may fail, that the downtrodden may eventually succeed, that neither escape suffering, that neither are without flaws, and that God may play a role -- perhaps teaches us what we need to know.