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Literature as an Invitation to Spiritual Growth
An Online Book Group
Discussion Guide by The Rev. Margaret Gunness

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage
by Alfred Lansing
Carroll & Graf Publishers; 2nd edition, 1999

For this selection we read an exhilarating adventure story which seems to have come into renewed prominence lately, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing (copyright 1959). For me, it is one of my lifetime favorite books, and I’ve read it several times. It’s surely not a book one would classify as “spiritual,” but is rather an amazing piece of history. In fact, I can’t help but wonder what Shackleton himself would think if he were to know I was leading a book group whose purpose is to look for its spiritual underpinnings or implications. We’ll never know, but I do think it’s very revealing to read and study the telling of this adventure from this perspective.

I’ll do here online as I did with the “face to face” class, primarily to raise some questions and to point out some interesting symbolism. I’ll give page references when possible. Perhaps quite obviously, my underlying intention is to get all of us, present or online, to use this same method to find indications of the presence and movement of God in our own lives.

So, first of all, the name of the ship itself is The Endurance. The word endurance means “the fact or power of enduring or bearing anything,” and it implies a lasting quality, a durability. The verb “to endure” means “to hold out against” or to “sustain without impairment” (Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary). We think of something that is durable, hard, tenacious. Yet in thinking about this, what strikes me is that neither the ship nor the men upon it, nor—for that matter—we ourselves, are impermeable. The ship leaked; it wasn’t impermeable. The men suffered greatly, both physically and emotionally; they weren’t impermeable. And in any other even vaguely similar situation, we ourselves would also be permeated, quite soaked, in fact. Yet when that happens, each of us is indeed challenged to endure.

As I reflected on the book, one statement (which I think is from Teilhard de Chardin, written in The Divine Milieu, but I can’t find it again to be certain) came to me unbidden. I may misquote it, but in essence it says, “God is working on you in all things, so in all things respond as you would respond to God.” I wonder if the Endurance crew was ever doing that, responding to God in all things, directly or indirectly, knowingly or unknowingly? I wonder too how often we do that? I don’t mean in the sense of “God told me to do thus and so” or “God sent this hardship upon me to strengthen me”—but rather, “The presence of God is in that sunset, in the old man’s smile, in the teacher’s lesson, in the rock or seashell on the shore.” I try to make myself aware this way often, when I’m cooking dinner, when I meet a friend, when I take a “power walk.” “What is God revealing to me here and wanting me to understand?” I ask. And how does God hope I will respond? In other words, the presence of God is everywhere. We have only to be alert in order to perceive it.

After all the celebrations of The Endurance’s embarking, it wasn’t long before the seas became rough and dangerous, and the entire crew began to realize the challenge they faced simply to survive, and the fact that they had only themselves to get them out. This brought to my mind another quotation: “We show a lack of faith in God by a lack of faith in ourselves as proceeding from God’s creative act.” (Another quotation whose source I can’t recall!) The men of The Endurance seemed to have a remarkably strong faith in themselves, as the whole story reveals. But did they equate that with a faith in God? The book never says. They did have Bibles with them and read them, but I don’t know how they thought or believed or prayed. I only could perceive that they were incredibly courageous and tenacious. Perhaps it was God who had great faith in them. What do you think? Would you say God has faith in you? Have you given God reason to have such faith?

Early into the book the Polar night began—24 hours of darkness. This leads me to raise the question: Did they let this darkness become a spiritual darkness in any way? I would say no, they didn’t. I saw no indication of this. They seemed to prevent such darkness through their fellowship with each other, through their mutual concern for each other, their pursuit of intellectual stimulation, physical activity and the like. Their spirits were generally high, and they clearly cared for and about one another. Such community is certainly a Christian goal, which both individuals and churches try to create and sustain. Look, for example, at how important the sense of community was following September 11. That was surely an outpouring of human love and caring, one for another—families, friends and total strangers.

I was struck that later on in the book, when The Endurance sank, it was stated that, “The men showed astonishing optimism.” What created that optimism? I can’t help but think that it was a combination of their profound trust in Shackleton, their strong sense of community and the confidence they had in their ability as a group. (Notice that the word confidence is made up of two root words meaning with and faith) So again …“We show a lack of faith in God by a lack of faith in ourselves as proceeding from God’s creative act.” They had faith in themselves.

It’s noteworthy that even as their chances grew slimmer later on, when some of the men were left on a small island while others went in search of rescue, “There was always that niggling little ray of hope which kept them climbing the lookout bluff religiously each day.” Hope is a fundamental part of faith. I would even say that one can scarcely be truly faithful without also being profoundly hopeful.

The sea has often been cited as a symbol of chaos. So in this symbolic sense, the struggle of the crew of The Endurance exemplifies the struggle for order over chaos, for life over death. And it was together that the crewmen succeeded. Often, either because of the Antarctic night or the thick covering of clouds or even the fatigue and fear of their own hearts, the men were in the depths of darkness. Yet in that darkness the voice of God was present and said, “Let there be light, and there was light…” and they surely saw that it was good. Because of the light, the hopeless men were transformed. In much the same way, the Biblical symbol of water also takes on new meaning: They were surrounded by water—salt water— and yet at one point their thirst was profound, even dangerous. In a very real way, their thirst expressed their yearning to be saved. Then they landed on an island, and there they could hear the blessed sound of melting ice and fresh water trickling down the hillside. This water for them at that moment was salvation.

I’m aware that I’ve taken a great deal of license with this book, that I’ve read into it spiritual symbolism that wasn’t written there by the author. But that’s what this book study is all about, looking for the spiritual meaning of secular literature. You and I can do the same with our lives. So why don’t we give it a try?

Copyright ©2001 Margaret Gunness


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