Michael A. Obel
Fish, as the saying goes, are the last to ask what water is. Aside from the fact that fish were not created to ask questions, water is the medium of their existence. We, on the other hand, don't live in that element, so we find water noteworthy.
Yet we can be like fish in failing to marvel at something just as basic as water, but far more wonderful. All of us inhabit an element that is as constant a part of our lives as water is for fish. The element that we all "swim" in is God's holy, wise, and powerful governing and preserving of all of us and all our actions. It's "providence," the medium of our existence. There never has been and never will be as much as a single nanosecond of any person's life that is not submerged in the infinite holiness, wisdom, and power of the Creator who preserves and governs us. Perhaps it's understandable that we humans take providence for granted.
Every now and then, though, God's care and guidance can be stunning. Believers ought to take such opportunities to marvel afresh at our Creator's care and guidance, no less precious for its familiarity. Such an opportunity can be found in the life of Sir Ernest Shackleton. Few men have had as dramatic an experience of providence as he and the twenty-seven men he took to the bottom of the world for the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-1916.
The world has been slow to take note of this breathtaking display of providence. But that's changing. In 1976, the first man to scale Mt. Everest publicly declared Shackleton to be "the greatest leader that ever came on God's earth, bar none." Four years ago, National Geographic devoted much of an issue to this Anglo-Irish explorer's voyage. More recently, Irish actor Liam Neeson narrated a full-length documentary on Shackleton's exploits that has been in theaters since early this year. Indeed, today English-speaking school children can read about this improbable adventure in a variety of young people's books.
Yet despite this emerging and long-overdue interest in the expedition, scant if any attention has been paid to the leader's own spiritual assessment of the voyage. Part of the reason may be Shackleton's brevity. When he wrote, he got straight to the point, including the "religious" point. His religious point, contained in his memoir South: The Endurance Expedition, underscores the personal side of providence. Christians, then, have two reasons to consider Shackleton, both as a trophy of God's providence and as a man who gives poignant testimony to providence.
Before reviewing Shackleton's religious reflections on the expedition, two things should be noted. First, it is not clear that he was a Christian. He had a reputation as a drinker and a womanizer. Nothing that follows is intended to imply that Shackleton was regenerate. Second, it helps to know something about the trip itself. So here's the story of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
Long before 1914, Shackleton was a seasoned Antarctic explorer. In 1901, Capt. Robert Falcon Scott, the British explorer, engaged him as a lieutenant on a failed expedition to the South Pole. Shackleton had to leave that trip because of scurvy, but five years later he was back, this time leading his own expedition to the pole, which he got within ninety-seven miles of. After the Norwegian adventurer Roald Amundsen succeeded in reaching the pole in December 1911, only one distinction remained: to lead the first trek across the continent.
This became Shackleton's goal. After months of fund-raising, he went to Norway's best shipyard and bought a new 300-ton wooden barkentine, the Endurance, as fine a vessel as had ever plied ice-infested waters. Likewise, the men he selected were the best available seamen and officers. On August 1, 1914, they sailed from London. After final provisioning in Argentina, they arrived at South Georgia Island on November 5. For four weeks, they waited for Antarctica's summer to set in. Then on December 5 they set a course for the Weddell Sea.
Two days later, they encountered heavy, but loose pack ice. Using the vessel's engines and sails, they drove into it. Eventually the crew began to walk ahead of the ship and manually break up the ice. Progress was slow. Then on January 18, 1915, when they were close to Antarctica's coast, the pack ice encased Endurance. She could move only slightly, listing to one side, lifting a bit at one end or the other.
For the next ten months, the ice carried the vessel and her crew hundreds of miles north, in the general direction of South America. Without radio contact, they were cut off from the rest of humanity. The emotional wear on the men was a constant challenge to Shackleton. He confronted the beginning of a mutiny, reconciled brawlers, and built unity by exchanging his perks as the top officer for the common chores of the lowest seaman.
On October 26, the Endurance was no longer able to withstand the forces of the ice floes and monstrous pressure ridges. The slow implosion of her hull, audible for months, was now agonizingly visible. Endurance would never take them home. Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship, and the men removed as much of the ship's supplies as they could carry. On November 21, her twisted and splintered remains slipped to the bottom of the Weddell Sea.
The men, taking up the dog teams' harnesses, began dragging their three lifeboats north, hoping to reach the Atlantic. Only the barest essentials could be taken. Cameras, film, bookseven the ship's Biblewere all left behind. Shackleton, however, did tear out and keep a page from the book of Job that stated:
Out of whose womb came the ice? and the hoary frost of heaven, who hath gendered it? The waters are hid as with a stone, and the face of the deep is frozen.
Eventually the ice began to thin and became treacherous, especially when the men camped. Referring to hungry killer whales that surfaced to inspect the men, Shackleton wrote, "The killers were blowing all night, and a crack appeared about 20 feet from the camp at 2 a.m. The ice below us was quite thin enough for the killers to break through if they took a fancy to do so." One night Shackleton had to pull a man, still in his sleeping bag, out of the frigid sea because the ice had broken.
On April 9, 1916, Shackleton gave the order to launch the three lifeboats amidst the floes, icebergs, and killer whales. The plan was to sail north. It was -10 F, and the South Atlantic was raging. During that week, the men endured the most abysmal conditions: one sailor collapsed; another one developed frostbite that led to gangrene. In a few days, they landed on Elephant Island, a barren outcropping that offered nothing in the way of food or water or even shelter. Some men wept; others struggled to stay sane.
Something had to give. Shackleton announced that he and five chosen men would sail the largest of the lifeboats, the 22-foot, 6-inch James Caird, 800 miles through the South Atlantic to South Georgia. It is difficult to describe the improbability of such a venture succeeding.
But they did succeed. Through 60-foot waves and gale-force winds that were so frigid that New Zealand navigator Frank Worsley could only manage five sightings with a borrowed sextant, these six men not only stayed afloat, but actually reached South Georgia sixteen horrific days later. Suffering acute dehydration, extreme exhaustion, and frostbite, the men found fresh water, wild game, and shelter. They also found a mountain range between them and the whaling station. It was not possible to sail around the island to the station, so a few of them would have to cross the island on foot.
Early on May 19, with the light of a full moon, Shackleton, Worsley, and a rugged Irish sailor named Tom Crean began climbing the mountains and crossing the glacial crevasses. Without the benefit of one real meal, a tent, or even an hour of sleep, these three pressed on for thirty-six hours until they walked into the same whaling station from which they had set off nearly two years earlier. It was now May 20, 1916.
Once the Norwegians picked up the three men on the other side of the island in a motor launch, the push was on to return to Elephant Island and rescue the majority of the crew. They were living under the two overturned lifeboats and subsisting on a broth of water and penguin carcasses. Death was near. Three times Shackleton tried to reach his men, but pack ice stopped him. Finally, using a borrowed Chilean vessel, Shackleton found an opening in the ice and rescued his men. It was August 30, 1916, more than two years since the Endurance had sailed from London.
Thus far, the achievements of Sir Ernest Shackleton. One suspects that the greatest voyager of ancient Greece, Odysseus, would have stood in the presence of this man, the last great explorer of the Victorian Age.
Note well Shackleton's own spiritual assessment of his struggles:
When I look back at those days, I have no doubt that Providence guided us, not only across those snowfields, but across the storm-strewn sea that separated Elephant Island from our landing place on South Georgia. I know that during that long and racking march of 36 hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia, it seemed to me often that we were four, not three. I said nothing to my companions on the point, but afterwards Worsley said to me, "Boss, I had a curious feeling on the march that there was another person with us." Crean confessed to the same idea. One feels the dearth of human words, the roughness of mortal speech, in trying to describe things intangible, but a record of our journeys would be incomplete without a reference to a subject very near to our hearts.
So the glory is all God's. And that glory shines more brightly in light of the fact that Shackleton never once in any of his voyages attained his primary objective. Vocationally, he was a failure. Each of us fails, too. Yet the same holiness, wisdom, and power that accompanied Shackleton now conduct each of us on our voyages. Through both success and failure, even repeated failure, the same Creator surrounds us with exactly what he surrounded those men. As Christians, we can say that our expedition is led by the most authentic Hero of all. Indeed, the only Hero. His many humiliations guarantee both our present rescue and our future arrival at our celestial home.
Long before Shackleton, there was a Puritan pastor who knew something about sailing and about providence. John Flavel ministered to sailors in Dartmouth, England. Flavel once said that many sailors who had been spared shipwreck quickly forgot God's good providence and whatever vows they had made in the midst of the storms. Preaching from Psalm 107:25-27, Flavel lamented, "How little of the goodness of God abides kindly and effectually upon the heart." For the Christian, Shackleton's story provides an opportunity to stop taking providence for granted. Let us, therefore, let our God's good providence "abide kindly and effectually" upon our hearts.
The author is the associate pastor of Gwynedd Valley OPC in Gwynedd, Pa., and a teacher at Philadelphia-Montgomery Christian Academy in Erdenheim, Pa. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 2002.