From August 10 to October 13, thirty-three men were trapped 2,300 feet underground in a coalmine in Chile. From August 10 to October 13, I found myself thinking about these men every day and praying for them. It was probably because my great-grandfather was a coal miner in Pittston, Pennsylvania that I felt particularly emotionally connected to this story. Going out into the sunshine of any of those sixty-nine days, I would think, "They can't see the sun. How would I cope if I couldn't see the sun? What are they doing? Are they in shock? Are they in darkness? Are they starving? How desperate are they, and their families? Please God, be with them. Be with them as strength, as sanity, as calm, as peace."
I breathed for them, breathed my own anxiety as I imagined being where they were. Some of this was just primal human empathy that we can have when we know of someone enduring a trial that would be our own worst private nightmare. Being buried alive is one of mine. Being trapped in a small space, even. I had read a short story as a teenager that has haunted me ever since: the story was about a colony of prisoners being held captive underground in a circular stone fortress carved into a mountain. Each day, the prisoners spent their time straining at chains that dragged their prison inch by agonizing inch around its circumference from within the mountain. There was a small opening -- just as big as one prison cell -- at one point in the mountain. If all the prisoners worked from sunrise to sunset pulling at their ropes, their combined efforts would allow for the release of one prisoner through the slot every day. The time it took the prison to rotate once around the mountain was ten years. The prisoners in the story, all of whom occupied a solitary cell in the mountain, had worked out an intricate method of communicating through taps on the walls. And that was all they had. Taps to assure that another human being was in the cell next to them. Taps to send messages around the circle. Taps to find out who was alive and who had died inside that terrible cavern. Taps to encourage each other, "keep pulling, keep pulling. We're all pulling."
Twenty-three hundred feet under the surface of the Earth. Where does that bring you emotionally? Where does being literally down in the depths bring us in our souls? Lord knows we can get there well enough in our hearts and minds without literally going to that dark realm.
The psalmist expressed it this way thousands of years ago, in a psalm that is also known as the "De Profundis," (out from the depths)
Out of the depths I cry to you, LORD;
Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.
I wait for the LORD, my whole being waits and in his word I put my hope. I wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.
How do you wait for the morning when you cannot know when it is morning, and your experience of morning is just a memory? And so I prayed for them. I prayed morning to them. For me, a prayer is a kind of tapping on the wall. It is the soul's self-expression in a time of keen awareness. Keen awareness of gratitude calls for a prayer of gratitude. Keen awareness of pain calls for a prayer for healing. Keen awareness of conflict calls for a prayer of peace. Prayer, for me, is a way of being present to the moment -- all moments, even those of existential dread. Out of the depths we cry. Time passes so slowly from those depths.
And so this story of the coal miners also encouraged us to reflect on the meaning of time, the simple hours of our days and what we take for granted in them, how we blow through them, our minds often either on the past or in the future.
Throughout the days that the coal miners were interred, did you too ever find yourself marking the hours, the "seasons" of the day with them in mind? Stepping into the day, thinking about them not being able to see the day. Bustling about in the noon, wondering what were they doing down there. (It turns out that they were trying very hard to keep up some semblance of meaningful activity, a sense of an ordinary day, day after day when they could not distinguish day from night. After all, these men were in their workplace. They worked down there every day, and so they had the requisite emotional and psychological strength to deal with being underground.)
In the evening, preparing for a night that might include meetings, or writing, or watching TV, or going out to see friends, I thought of them. They could not gaze at the moon. They could not gather their children in their arms, bathe them, prepare them for bed. They could not fulfill any of the small rituals by which any of us ready ourselves for the nighttime. They could not "go out." With no separation of night from day, only clocks could tell the men how to observe cycles of rest and wakefulness. Such disorientation of circadian rhythms, and of the spirit.
It is to the miners that I owe a renewed sense of awareness of the passage of time from day to midday to dusk to nighttime. Not a day has gone by since they were rescued that I have not noticed how the energy of the Earth seems to subtly shift depending on the time of day here on the surface, and how beautiful each "season" of the day is unto itself. I am not doing anything new or original in this: what I am doing in pausing to observe, and give thanks for, each transition in the day is the core of the monastic tradition.
So move for a moment from the community of thirty-three men trapped in a coal mine to another group of men -- this one a community of Benedictine monks in an abbey in, say, France. They are also at work, living in a strictly confined environment in a hierarchical system where each man has his job and his ranking, and the days are spent in disciplined labor. They are there for one reason: to offer praise and prayer on behalf of the world. As the coal miners toil underground the monks toil on a farm, or perhaps making soap or jam or training dogs. The monks are not free to come and go as they please, either, and work and live removed from society.
One group of men, in the midst of crisis and threat, and removed from the normal ways of marking time, struggle to find a meaningful existence by creating a semblance of day and night down in a coal mine. The second group of men, living according to spiritual practices established over fifteen hundred years ago, do the same, but grounded by tradition, prayer and chanting.
At eight appointed times during the day, the monks stop what they are doing to participate in a short service of praise and worship. These appointed times are known as the canonical hours-- Vigils or Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. These are the seasons of the day, and they each have a focus and a function and a reason to offer thanks and praise. "The hours are the inner structure for living consciously and responsively throughout the stages of the day. The monastic relationship to time through the canonical hours sensitizes us to the nuances of time. And as this sensitivity deepens, we become more available to the present moment." (Music of Silence: A Sacred Journey Through the Hours of the Day, by David Steindlt-Rast with Sharon Lebell).
The observance begins with Vigils: the watch hour, the night hour for learning to trust the darkness and rest in its shining intensity. In Vigils we hold vigil for those who suffer in the night and wait anxiously for day.
The hour of Lauds is when the monks chant their praise for the gift of a new day at the sunrise. Gathering in the dark chapel, the light fills the windows as they sing the beautiful, joyful song of life that reminds us that it is not happiness that causes gratitude, but gratitude that causes happiness.
Prime, the third canonical hour, begins with the words "The sun has risen." It is conducted in the chapter room which is where the monks meet to address the practical concerns of their community" (48) and given their work assignments for the day. "Prime is the hour of the day when we pray not to get it over with, but to make everything we do a prayer." (51) It is this attentiveness that liberates us from enslavement to our work and grants dignity.
Terce, which comes in the middle of the morning – say, a sort of spiritual coffee break -- focuses on the Holy Spirit, that transforming energy of the world that connects all things. The kitchen comes alive with the sounds of pots and pans clanking as those assigned to cooking the day's meals involve themselves to the sacred work of preparing food. In the Benedictine tradition as in the Buddhist tradition, the cooks are especially honored. "Food is a blessing, and cooks are channelers of this blessing."
Sext is the noonday hour where the men must guard against the temptation to laziness or despair, also known as the Noonday Demon. Steindl-Rast and Lebell write, "At high noon, the sun stands at its apex. But although this is the time of the full blazing of the sun, like a blaring trumpet, it is also a time of great silence. Even the birds are silent; often, you only hear the buzzing of the bees and the drone of the flies. At this turning point in time we decide the fate of our day, and cumulatively the fate of our lives. Do we renew our fervor and commitment, or do we let the forces of entropy drain our resolve?" (72)
Underground, the miners fought against despair, which they must have known would kill them if they allowed it to spread among them like a contagion. It amazes me, and stands as a testament to human strength and wisdom that they adopted as their central psalm not number 130, with its appropriate expression of crying out from the depths, but Psalm 95, a psalm of praise:
Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD;
Let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come before him with thanksgiving
and extol him with music and song.
For the LORD is the great God, the great King above all gods.
Here is the quote that was on the miner's t-shirts when they were rescued:
"In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him."
Porque en su mano están las profundidades de la tierra,
Y las alturas de los montes son suyas.
Whether the miners went down to work that fateful day of the explosion religious men or not, they all came up to the surface with some sense that they were not alone, and were being held throughout their ordeal by a greater strength than theirs alone. You may call that God. You may think of that as survival instinct. Perhaps the energetic field emanating from millions of people thinking about them and praying for them? Maybe those are all the same thing in some way that is a greater mystery than we can ever comprehend.
So although there are two more canonical hours, None at late afternoon, where the shadows lengthen and we contemplate the fleeting nature of time and life, and Vespers, the evening service that celebrates the lighting of the lamps, I want to pause and conclude here, at that noonday hour.
I think the miners survived without hurting each other or themselves because they instinctively understood the dangers of giving way to the noonday demon – to the horror of their situation. This is where the humanist spirit and the religious instinct come together so naturally and beautifully. The miners of Chile kept careful vigil over their time, not allowing it to claim them. They remained mindful of their predicament, faced it squarely, and organized their emotional and practical being around not succumbing to it.
In the spirit of the noonday canonical hour of Sext, the silent midday hour that bids us guard against torpor and despair, they kept careful vigil over themselves and over each other. From that dark place, they turned their faces toward the light. With no evidence to support it, they trusted their sense that they were not alone. Unusually strong and courageous men, with its accompanying machismo --they nevertheless allowed themselves to be sustained by the thought that others cared about them, would not abandon them --and they kept their minds on that in a spiritual discipline. They trusted people they could not see to help them in their fear and suffering, they trusted those same people to deliver them from the darkness to the surface of the Earth, and they came up from the darkness to the light rejoicing.
Meanwhile, in monastic communities all over the world, men and women stop what they are doing eight times a day out of love for you and me and God -- to observe the sacred nature of the passing of ordinary time, to sing to it, to praise it, and to offer their prayers on behalf of the world. When you cry out from the depths, de profundis, they are holding you to the light, too.
Thanks be to God.
The morning's reading and all of the quotes in the sermon came from Music Of Silence: A Sacred Journey Thorugh the Hours of the Day by David Steindl-Rast and Sharon Lebell
"DE PROFUNDIS" Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)
Why is heaven built so far,
Oh why is earth set so remote?
I cannot reach the nearest star
That hangs afloat.
I would not care to reach the moon,
One round monotonous of change;
Yet even she repeats her tune
Beyond my range.
I never watch the scatter'd fire
Of stars, or sun's far-trailing train,
But all my heart is one desire,
And all in vain:
For I am bound with fleshly bands, Joy, beauty, lie beyond my scope;
I strain my heart, I stretch my hands, And catch at hope.