Two months ago, with the riveted world for an audience, the thirty-three Chilean miners who spent seventy days in the darkness of the San Jose mine emerged one by one into the light of day. Worldwide, watchers responded with outpourings of enthusiasm, wonder and relief.
But while the enthusiasm was general, perspectives on the event’s significance varied. The secular observer witnessed in the rescue a marvel of coordinated technology, a model of political resourcefulness and will, a brutal test of human endurance, and a story with a happy earthly ending. More spiritually minded observers expressed interest in the mythic allusions of the story—to Hades and the underworld, rebirth and reincarnation.
But for Christians, and especially for Catholic Christians, who share the faith of the miners themselves, this was a profoundly Christian event, understandable both in its details and its overall scope only in Christian terms. It was a teaching moment, rich in theological references. It was a kind of parable, worth considering as an Advent reflection, with its strong movement from darkness to light.
In this reading, the collapse of the mine recalls the Fall in human history. This original catastrophe throws everything off course, cuts man off from God, sets him at odds with other men, and leaves him prey to death. Deafened by the explosion, the miners were unable at first even to see their hands in front of their faces, on account of the dust. The dust cleared, but then their lights failed, and in the darkness that followed, terror and strife broke out, violence and paranoia. Before they emerged from the mine, the miners agreed among themselves not to reveal the humbling details of those days, but any of us can imagine what went on. As Pope Benedict reminded us in his encyclical Spes Salvi, sin, by definition, is fragmentation and enmity, alienation and division.
In this postlapsarian state, man cannot save himself. He is alive, but only provisionally. He can stay busy; he can endure; at best he may manage to avoid evil and practice virtue. But lasting life, as well as the faith and hope that such a life is possible, can only come from above. The ladder from below, like the ladder the men found in a ventilation shaft or the Tower of Babel in Scripture, is too short. It doesn’t reach to heaven. The initiative has to come from above. Only God can cross the distance between Himself and fallen man. So the probes begin.
“Where are you?” God famously calls to Adam in the cool of the day in the garden. “Where are you?” the probes ask of the men cowering and famished in the dark.
On August 22, the Catholic feast of the queenship of Mary, the men are reached by a probe which pierces the roof of their cave. Hope is ignited, and through the borehole made by the bit, a conversation begins between the men and the upper world. As in the life of prayer, relief and assurances are exchanged, requests and consolations. Again, as in the life of prayer, the world above says yes to some things and no to others, with an eye to bringing the men out alive. And as the life of prayer is always the work of the Holy Spirit, mediating between God and man, so the miners, demonstrating a theological grasp of their situation, christened the narrow capsules that brought them sustenance from above, palomas, which means—not birds, as Diane Sawyer translated it on ABC News—but doves, the scriptural symbol of the Holy Spirit. In Hispanic Catholicism, palomais also an appellation for the Virgin Mary, as in paloma blanca, or white dove, the bride of the Holy Spirit.
Meanwhile, above ground, no expense is being spared. God, who does not give up on man—“Thank you for believing that we were alive,” one of the miners choked out repeatedly at a celebratory banquet after the rescue—has one goal, which is the saving of all who have fallen away. But if salvation is God’s work, he wills to accomplish it through many, involving in the salvific enterprise both sinners on earth, and saints and angels in heaven. The setting aside of political differences in Chile, the confidence that the men were alive, and the overcoming of every obstacle that stood in the rescue’s way, these are images for the Catholic of the teamwork and total commitment of heaven. In the Catholic view, salvation is never simply a relationship between an individual and his God. Rather, it is a relationship between a community on earth and a community in heaven, just as the Tent City—with its engineers and psychiatrists, priests and family members—kept vigil for the duration over the community of men underground.
Comparisons have been made between the Chilean miners and the astronauts in the doomed moon rocket Apollo 13, another spectacle of vulnerable, fallen man, thrown off into deep space after an explosion in the rocket’s fuel tank. Apollo 13 was also a story of two communities: one in danger of being lost, and another, Mission Control in Houston, entirely committed to the first’s rescue. The Catholic Church has long had names for these paradigmatic communities. She calls them the Church Triumphant and the Church Militant: the Church that is safely home, and the Church that is still fighting for its life.
Salvation, in brief, always has a social dimension. Still, the ultimate cost is paid by God Himself. The thirty-three miners repeatedly insisted that there were thirty-four of them in the sweltering mine, a clear reference to Jesus Christ who was figured by the fourth man in Daniel’s fiery furnace. For thirty-three years Christ lived on the earth as a man, which makes the number thirty-four a sign of his resurrection, just as Sunday, in the Church’s tradition, is designated the eighth day of the week: the day outside of time, and a sign of the new creation.
Observers who equated the San Jose mine with Hades or Hell, passed over the Christological significance of the number thirty-three. Allegorically, the mine doesn’t represent Hell, but life on earth. It is the place of suffering and purgation; the place of work (Saint Joseph, for whom the mine was named, is the patron of workers); the place of potential conversion (“In the mine,” in the words of one miner, “I learned to pray”). Because of the saving sacrifice of Christ, the reestablishment of relations with heaven, and the stirring up of faith and hope, unity on earth has become a real possibility. If sin is division, redemption, in the Pope’s words, always appears as a reestablishment of unity, a working together in harmony toward a shared goal and a common good. This is a work, in the Church’s view, inseparable from the work of repentance. Absent a priest, the sacrament of confession wasn’t available in the mine, but in its place, once they were found, the men included in their routine something resembling the ancient monastic Chapter of Faults. “Anyone who got out of line,” according to an article in the New York Times, “had to stand in front of the other thirty-two and ask to be forgiven.”
But if life on earth is a time of testing and purgation, “if those days had not been shortened,” scripture tells us, “no human being would be saved.” When the miners were first found, it was estimated they would be rescued by Christmas. As things turned out, their ordeal was shortened to exactly seventy days, a number signifying in Scripture the life span of man (“the days of our lives are seventy years”); the time of the Exile (seventy years in Babylon); and the time—Daniel’s seventy weeks of years—necessary to “finish the transgression, put an end to sin, atone for iniquity, and bring in everlasting righteousness.”
As the seventieth day approached, the men asked for shampoo and shaving cream: outward signs of their interior purification, their wedding garmentsand their washed robes.
Finally, on the last day, each made the solitary death-like ascent, emerging from the darkness and anonymity of a former life into the sunlit radiance of an upper world, where the light of the sun was so overpowering the men were forced to wear dark glasses, dramatizing for the whole world a truth that philosophers have struggled to formulate since Plato: namely, that the essences of things, including the truth of God Himself, are inaccessible to human intelligence not because they are dark and impenetrable, but precisely because, in Joseph Peiper’s phrase, they are all too knowable. “As the eyes of bats are dazzled by sunlight,” Aristotle famously said, “so it is with human intelligence when face to face with what is by nature most obvious.”
The day of the miners’ deliverance was October 13, a day famous throughout the Catholic world because of events in Fatima, Portugal. Between May and October 1917, the Virgin Mary appeared six times to three peasant children in Fatima and promised, as part of her final appearing, a miracle “so that all may believe.” Accordingly, on October 13 some seventy thousand people witnessed what is called the Miracle of the Sun, the greatest attested miracle of modern times. Detailed descriptions of the solar phenomena in Fatima have come down to us from a New York Times journalist and skeptical European scientists. On that day, the sun—the great scriptural sign of the Father whose universal benevolence shines on the just and the unjust alike, and the Son, who is called in scripture the Sun of Justice and the Sun of Righteousness—on that day, the natural sun, in the words of the peasants, “danced.”
The marvel in Fatima was a miracle by definition: a contravening of the laws of nature. Despite the hyperbole of the media, the rescue in Chile was not a miracle. I have called it a parable, narrated in human events by a sovereign God. But the challenge of a parable always includes the mystery of its reception: “He who has ears, ought to hear.” If the rescue was a parable, was it effective? If it was a teaching, was its teaching received?
We know that the audience following the events in Chile was vast. Since 1917, when witnesses had to reach Fatima on foot, and even since Apollo 13, global interconnectedness and the possibilities of technological simultaneity have exploded. In effect, the whole world watched the rescue, with an empathy that bordered on identification.
But if the world couldn’t look away, it sometimes seemed deaf to what was happening. Commentators in the media seemed not to hear the miners themselves, the protagonists of the story, who were perfectly blunt and outspoken about their experience. Like the children in Fatima, they witnessed unapologetically to their faith. “God was there and the Devil was there,” one said. “God won.” But when the miners said “God,” the media said “Higher Power.” When the families of the miners insisted on the faith that sustained them, the normally voluble media had little to say.
Which brings us back to the dark glasses and Aristotle’s bats in a cave: back to the idea of a truth so clear—so commensurate with light itself—it cannot easily be taken in.
Only through much suffering, Saint Paul tells us in the New Testament, will we enter into the kingdom of God.
Still, all over the world, believers and unbelievers alike were ecstatically invested in the fate of the thirty-three miners, and exultant over their rescue. In his last encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, the Pope suggested that globalization itself is a sign of what is coming, and perhaps even a precondition for it. “We have entered the rapids of globalization,” Douglas Farrow summarized the Pope’s message, “and our destiny draws near.” One thinks, by analogy, of the cultural ferment in Alexander the Great’s Mediterranean world—globalization on a smaller scale—at the time of Christ’s first appearing.
Meanwhile, we are being given signs in the heavens and on earth: rehearsals, foreshadowings, or warnings against the day anticipated in Fatima when mankind gazed at the sun—the day the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all flesh will see it together.
Patricia Snow is a writer in New Haven, Connecticut.