December 5, 2010
On the 12th of October, 2010, 33 trapped Chilean miners ascended to the surface of the earth. As spectacular as that event was, their exodus might never have happened were it not for the miners’ faith in action. Theirs is a story worth telling. It will deepen our appreciation of what should be a gentle season, namely Advent. It will empower many to reflect on the variety of December things people do, and let them see how some of those things enhance their spirituality, while certain other habits of our culture can do it violence.
There is no evidence that the miners understood themselves to be “theologians” per se, but that is not important. What really matters is what they did to successfully endure their entombment. These thirty-three inspired men made a deliberate choice about how to live, turning their nightmare into a challenge by forming a mini-society and dividing labor based on each person’s skills. One, for instance, was a natural leader with years of experience. Another had some expertise in first aid and hygiene. A third was chosen to be their spiritual leader or chaplain. Saint Paul would recognize this as their appreciation of one another’s diverse gifts, necessary for the miners to become a functioning body. By becoming such, they offered the mutual support they needed to renounce their individual panic and despair, identify tasks, and become a community of faith.
Apparently most, if not all of the miners, had a Roman Catholic background, so they knew how to pray together for God’s mercy. But more than that, what appears to have happened is that they developed a religious life of real substance. Their religion was not about abstract, formal ideas concerning the nature of God and the human soul. It was about the things each individual had to do again and again for the sake of the others in the group, following a structured daily pattern. Each man was also bound by his commitment to a higher authority than himself. There was no choice. The possibility of survival depended on it.
There are two ancient associations that come with the term “religion.” One who is “religious” is a person who has agreed to be bound. The second association is the idea of a repeated series of practices that must be done daily for the well being of others who are likewise bound. So it makes sense, then, that when we hear of people in a community living under a set of vows, we also understand that a member of such a group is “a religious,” as, for example, a Benedictine or Franciscan monk is “a religious.”
The miners were profound and effective at practicing religion by having a shared vocation. It was founded on the common values of selfless humility and submission, and the need for each individual to put aside all personal wants in order to cooperate with each other and follow the directives of their leader. They trusted their foreman, Señor Luis Urzua, to direct their life together. By doing this, the miners taught the world that God trusts the faithful to live in commitment to their neighbors’ well being.
During the entrapment, observers all over the world were inspired by how the miners worked at their vocation to survive their situation. What was so invaluable about the miners’ “theology” is that it did what abstract conversations– like sermons – cannot do. Ideas alone cannot find their proper homes in the ongoing story of salvation; they need the flesh and blood that can anchor them to their places so that specific events can happen and become real history.
The miners were the kind of people John the Baptist loved because they were so down to earth. Yes, two thousand feet down under it! There they repented of their ordinary behaviors in life and started moving in a spiritual direction.
Many of the details of exactly what the miners did to survive, and how they did it – especially during the first seventeen days of utter darkness and silence from above – will never be known. There will no doubt be varied accounts of how they rationed their supplies, bolstered their spirits, and practiced the necessary hygiene to preserve their health. But in the end, the fact is that the miners emerged leaving the on-site medics with incredibly little to do. In fact, one of them, Edison Peña, came to New York City to run a marathon less than a month later.
So this is a story of a victory in faith that does not need embellishment. It already is a parable, a “story lesson” of what we are called to be as a church.
The gift of this story from Chile is infinitely better than what we get from a world that places a high value on its material standard of living. The miners’ exodus to salvation is an example of how their flesh and blood was exercised to make them fit and ready for their return. They taught that salvation is more than anything humankind can do for itself; it is something initiated by a God who loves us, and who expresses that love by inviting covenants with us for our cooperation with God and one another.
As long as we, the people of God, are living our mortal lives in faith, we are called on a journey that begins the day of our baptisms and continues to the blessing of a good and holy death, because we know that it is the gateway – or escape capsule, if you will – to eternal life.
Like Lent, Advent is a good time to reflect on what is not needed to live in the wholesomeness of a holy journey. But the messages Christians get in this 21st-century civilization tend to persuade them to spend their resources on baggage they don’t really need. So it is a good idea to take time to reflect a bit on what we can do without. What kinds of unnecessary baggage are we carrying? Stuck for an answer? Then just imagine yourself asking the miners, “What did you discover that you could live without?” Meditating on that for a while could be helpful.
During the miners’ first seventeen days in darkness, with no signs from above, they decided to believe anyway that their gift of life was not to be forsaken and they would not give in to despair or suicide. Instead, they got to work. They became a living church down there. By the miners’ faithfulness, a transfiguring glimpse of people in the restored image of God was ours. Pray for the grace to remember it.
— The Rev. David Somerville is a retired U. S. Army Chaplain with credentials in hospital work and the pastoral care of people with the issues of recovery and adaptation after a life-changing diagnosis. He has been in the priesthood for more than 40 years, is currently interim priest-in-charge of Saint Athanasius Church in Brunswick, Ga., in the diocese of his canonical residence. He enjoys model railroading, traveling and tandem bicycle riding with his wife.