For the next three days there were signs of hope that they would be rescued immediately. A few search planes flew over the crash site. One plane in particular, it seemed, tipped its wings to indicate that the pilot spotted the survivors. With great joy and jubilation, they thought were going home.
Throwing caution to the wind, some even ate more food than they should have. But the much anticipated rescue was not to be. The food that was set aside to be rationed was consumed.
A curious theme runs through many survival stories. Quite often, when tragedy hits- thus leaving survivors stranded in remote areas such as the mountains, ocean, desert or forest – there is often a teaser in those first days. By “teaser” I mean a rescuer or passerby is spotted by a survivor. Initially, there is great hope of an imminent rescue. Then, to their dismay, such a rescue never happens; not immediately, anyways.
It just so happens that in many of these stories the rescuer or passerby never did see the survivor(s). Hope then turns into despair. And in order to survive, hope must, once again, get the upper hand. Eventually, hope must prevail over despair. As Roberto Canessa said, “What kept you strong was thinking about the next day ‘maybe tomorrow’ was what kept us alive 72 days, ‘maybe tomorrow we’ll get out of here’ … ‘maybe tomorrow’ was our motive.”
Divine Providence, it would seem, delays immediate relief and hence ordains the prolonged struggle to survive. Perhaps, this has something to do with what Bishop Fulton Sheen once said. He made the observation that we overestimate our capacity for pleasure but underestimate our capacity to suffer. When we say, “It can’t get any worse!” It often does. And to our surprise, we endure! Sheen further adds that going beyond what we think is our limits is God’s way of telling us that he only permits us to experience “only so many” pleasures and joys in life so that we do not mistake earth for heaven. Pain and suffering is to be exhausted here on earth. After all, it is a place of exile. But true happiness is to be found elsewhere. This spiritual truth was constantly being impressed upon the Andes survivors.
As for the remaining survivors in the Andes Mountains, when it seemed like things couldn’t get any worse, not surprisingly, it did! Not only did they hear over the radio that the search and rescue had been called off, but about eight days into their ordeal they were subjected to an avalanche at night while they were sleeping. That avalanche claimed eight more lives.
Two men who barely survived had a near death experience as they were stuck, buried in the snow, and unable to breathe. During that time one survivor experienced and incandescent light of God, a heavenly beauty. Another survivor had a similar experience during those moments under the snow. He saw and experienced his whole life as in a flash, as if outside of time. And just as they were about to reach out and enjoy perfect happiness the snow was wiped off of their faces. Their lives were saved but their souls were, as it were, thrown back into their hellish situation.
Interestingly, due to their euphoric experience, the natural fear of death was lost. This attitude seemed to have been communicated to the rest of the survivors. During an interview in 1973, Alfredo Delgado spoke to this. He said, “I was surrounded by deaths whether it were at the accident or because of it or even the deaths caused by the avalanche. I learnt to live with it with the feeling that there is something superior. That life sheared with death, let’s say pacific, was possible because I became more convinced that after the death comes something better…”
So used to and at peace with the idea of death, that, in the same interview, he said to the reporter who had interviewed him, “If somebody comes and tells me that I have only three days left, I would remain immutable, I would keep walking with you across this street.” Indeed, Alfredo was confident that he would be unphased if death were to approach him again.
There were other valuable insights from this horrific but incredible experience on the mountain. In 2002, thirty years after the plane crash, Roberto Canessa was asked: “Was there any change on your religious beliefs after the accident?” His answer, like Alfredo’s, is quite instructive:
“Well, I think there are two types of Gods, one which is shown to you at the School, sitting in heaven and sending rays to the people who are on earth, and another one who is the one we knew in the Andes, we practically lived with him and we asked him help constantly. You get closer to the idea of the death and you think you are just passing through life, and that life is an accident in which the only real thing is that you’re going to die. With those parameters we learnt not to care about our possibility of dying because we were in peace with both our souls and God. In that constant talking with God we begged him the salvation to be difficult but not impossible. You were there and saw a friend dead, a friend who ten minutes earlier was alive.”
This statement is quite beneficial for those who wish to spread the Faith. Implicit in Roberto’s statement is that religious education sometimes presents God in one way; and personal experience presents him in another way. Too often the former is abstract and too academic. As such, it remains somewhat isolated from day to day life. In other words, the gap between the God in our religious books and the God of personal experience needs to be bridged.
Experience is not everything but it is an important component of Catholic spirituality. And what is universally experienced, universally intriguing and therefore universally relevant is death. Whenever the Gospel message gets too far away from suffering , death and the Cross itself, is then the Gospel itself seizes to attract souls. Why? Because the reality of heaven – the very goal of our existence – is less realized and less felt!