The intangible presence

This is a reflection based on the road to Emmaus story from Luke’s gospel (Luke 24:13-31).

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to got to Buckingham Palace. Sadly, it wasn’t to receive my OBE but rather to go to the Queen’s Gallery! We went to see a fascinating exhibition of photographs from 20th Century polar expeditions. The main attraction was the material relating to Captain Scott’s doomed Terra Nova Expedition to the South Pole. This expedition had been incredibly well-documented by the mission’s official photographer and he had presented a complete copy of the plates he’d taken to the king. It was heart-rending to see the photos of these incredible icy landscapes and these hale and hearty young men celebrating Christmas in their little hut in Antarctica, knowing full well the terrible fate that lay in store for so many of them.

Grotto_in_an_iceberg copyFor me, though, the most striking aspect of the exhibition were the photographs and artefacts relating to the Shackleton expedition. I vaguely knew the name and perhaps a few scant details but I became utterly engrossed by this incredible story of survival against all the odds. Shackleton and his men set off in 1914 on what was called the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Its aim was to march across the Antarctic continent via the South Pole. It became known as the last great adventure of the ‘Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration’.

The expedition hit problems even before the march began, when Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, became trapped in the ice of the Weddell Sea. Unable to escape the pack ice, they had to wait in their ship during the long, dark Antarctic winter. When the ice finally began to break up, the ship was crushed by its incredible power and the men (and dogs) were forced to camp on the surrounding ice floes. Running low on supplies and struggling with the freezing temperatures, Shackleton decided that their best hope of survival was to head to the uninhabited Elephant Island, on the edge of the continent, where they hoped to be able to escape the ice and organise a rescue. Crossing the perilous ice floes, with a constant danger of death, they managed the feat in three lifeboats rescued from the Endurance.

LaunchingTheJamesCaird2 copyThen came the greatest challenge of all: crossing the South Atlantic Ocean in an adapted lifeboat to reach South Georgia and the hope of a rescue party for the whole expedition. Shackleton and five others completed this feat in two weeks, in some of the most appalling conditions imaginable, in a boat no more than 7 metres long. This despite the fact that it required pinpoint navigation in an open boat where everything and everybody was soon drenched by the icy water and bitterly cold, facing some of the worst storms any of them had ever seen.

PanoramaOfSouthGeorgiaWhen they finally reached South Georgia, though, their ordeal was not over. They had landed on the south of the island and all the whaling stations, where help was to be found, lay on the north. They could not risk another boat journey and so three of the men, led by Shackleton again, set off across the uncharted interior of the island to get help. Without maps they had to make the best way they could, crossing treacherous mountains and at one point wading through an ice-cold waterfall. Miraculously, they reached the whaling station, and help, and were ultimately able to organise the rescue of the entire expedition. Not a single man was lost, despite their horrific ordeal.

You will have to decide for yourself what kind of man Shackleton was. It is reasonable to suggest, though, that he was no romantic, and certainly not given to flights of fancy. Reflecting on his incredible adventure later, however, Shackleton described having something like an Emmaus Road experience during that final ordeal, crossing South Georgia. He wrote:

When I look back at those days I have no doubt that Providence guided us, not only across those snowfields, but across the storm-white sea that separated Elephant Island from our landing-place on South Georgia. I know that during that long and racking march of thirty-six 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.

(Ernest Shackelton, South!, chapter 10.)

This idea of the unrecognised, and unseen, travelling companion was taken up by T S Eliot in his poem ‘The Waste Land’:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you

Since then, many others have spoken about this idea of the unknown presence beside them at times of great challenge, especially when they have been at the very edge of human endurance. Times when they felt it was impossible to go on with life; to put one foot in front of another, even. Just like those two unnamed disciples in Luke’s gospel, who felt that their world had come to an end. Their leader, their friend, their hope had been nailed to a cross on Good Friday: how could they go on? How could it be just ‘business as usual’. As the hymn writer Mary Haugen expressed it so well: ‘On the journey to Emmaus with our hearts as cold as stone’.

Altobello_Melone_-_The_Road_to_Emmaus_-_Google_Art_ProjectYet, somehow, against all the odds, Christ appeared among them. Not with fanfare, hosts of angels, or dazzling light. But just as an ordinary man, walking and talking with them on the dusty road. Helping them to make sense of all the madness that had happened. Giving them hope once more: hope for the future; hope for themselves; hope not just for their friends back in Jerusalem but for the whole world.

In my life, I have certainly experienced enough ‘dark nights of the soul’ and know only too well what it is like to feel the absence of hope, and even of God. But I have also been lucky enough to have know that presence in my journey through life as well. The unnamed stranger walking with me through the darkest times of my life, giving me encouragement, strength and that most precious gift of all, hope. Sometimes it has been like that mysterious presence that Shackleton described, at others it has been the words of a hymn or verses from the Bible that have given me the strength to go on. At others, it has been words of wisdom and encouragement from someone else – quite often the most unlikely fellow traveller. Yet somehow, Christ has always walked beside me at the lowest point of the road.

Caravaggio_-_Cena_in_EmmausThe road to Emmaus is not a fairy tale. Nor is it just saying that everything will be fine, if you call yourself a Christian. The unknown presence that Shackleton described did not take away the frostbite, the pain or the horrors that those men experienced. Nor did the Emmaus encounter erase the reality of the pain of the crucifixion: of the suffering, betrayal and loss experienced by all. But it does give us all the hope that we are not alone as we each make our own journey through life, with all its twists and turns, adventures and disasters. It reminds us all that God chose not to remain remote and aloof from his creation but to walk among us as a simple man from Galilee: to experience all the joys and sadnesses of our common humanity. He chose to make himself real to us, and continues so to do, if we but open our hearts to his presence in our lives. I pray that you may know that presence through all the days of your life. Amen.

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