Right off the frozen ship, I am a minor Ernest Shackleton aficionado — fascinated and inspired by the famous explorer’s harrowing story of survival in 1916.
And the best time to share Shackleton’s story — about the fate of his vessel, the Endurance and her men — is in winter, albeit it has been a mild one this year for most of us. The trip to the south started in 1914, with high hopes of an exploration feat, and ended with the crew — by the grace of God — escaping with their lives.
Last month, with significant curiosity and anticipation, I attended 69° S (The Shackleton Project), a multimedia theater production created by Phantom Limb Company out of New York City. The show employed an innovative mix of live and vintage music, film footage, effective, minimal props and human-like marionettes deftly handled by costumed puppeteers.
This rendering is the latest in a lineage of stories about Ernest Shackleton and his trans-Antarctic expedition that has resonated with audiences over decades through different formats.
Particularly for men, Ernest Shackleton is an exemplar of a multifaceted leader, albeit with flawed motivations. In our Western culture — based largely on service industries and with an erosion of hands-on skills — the Endurance expedition evokes our sense of wonder, challenge and adventure, the perseverance to follow through. But it can also be a cautionary tale of flawed ambitions with respect to marriage and family life.
What happened on the expedition can provide poignant Lenten lessons about misguided passions, servant leadership and fraternal community, God’s protection through severe hardship and, quite simply, hunger.
Perhaps the best starting point to learn about Shackleton and the harrowing tale is the excellent documentary The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition by George Butler. (The film is based on a book with the same name by Caroline Alexander. Another highly reviewed book is Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing.)
Essential to Shackleton lore is the famous advertisement that the native-born Irishman posted in a London newspaper to recruit men for the trip:
Men Wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success. Ernest Shackleton.
More than 5,000 applied, and Shackleton chose 56, with the crew divided between two ships. With the South Pole already discovered, the goal of this expedition was to be the first party to traverse the Antarctic continent by way of the pole.
Shackleton hired Australian photographer Frank Hurley for the journey. Many will recognize Hurley’s images of the Endurance trapped precariously in the pack ice before the ship ever reached the continent.
At first, the men lived in the ship’s confines, busy with regimented duties. If a crack in the ice was spotted nearby, they would work furiously for a chance to dislodge the vessel, but her freedom was never won.
But as the Endurance could no longer take the immense pressure of the ice, which eventually crushed her, the exploratory mission changed to one of survival. Shackleton and his co-leaders ultimately showed their concern for their fellow crewmates through a series of grueling trials.
In Pope Benedict XVI’s message for Lent this year, the Holy Father speaks of charity, which he calls the “very heart of Christian life.”
“Even today God asks us to be ‘guardians’ of our brothers and sisters (Genesis 4:9), to establish relationships based on mutual consideration and attentiveness to the well-being, the integral well-being of others,” he said.
As they watched out for one another, living on the pack ice, the real hardship began: The men sledged their lifeboats across the rough surface, made a new home at a place on the ice called “Patience Camp,” shot their dogs for food, and, eventually, rowed through icy waters to a desolate corner of earth called Elephant Island. After a shift rowing, a severely cold and stiff man had to be unfolded by his mates “like a jack knife,” according to an account.
Throughout history men and women have discovered the power of lifelong fellowship forged in unplanned suffering. But there is much room in the everyday to leave digital isolation and build community in the tangible, present moment.
“Our existence is related to that of others, for better or for worse. Both our sins and our acts of love have a social dimension,” said the Holy Father in his Lenten message.
After landing at Elephant Island, the Endurance party was divided. A group led by Shackleton would make a risky open-ocean life boat journey seeking help at South Georgia Island; the other party would stay and wait.
These men give us a stark glimpse of true hunger and penitential eating that might give us pause about our regular food consumption.
Though much of their diet was based on penguin and seal, this wasn’t always available. At one time, when rations were very meager, a man described his daily intake as looking at a biscuit for breakfast, sucking on it for lunch, and eating it for dinner.
The men left at Elephant Island would listen to recipes recited nightly from a cookbook and offer adjustments and improvements before going to sleep in their makeshift hut in which rowboats served as a ceiling.
In an audio interview, integrated into Butler’s documentary, one man recounts, “You know it’s difficult to realize how hungry a man can be. When we’ve eaten our rations and such, seal and penguins … then and then, without any enmity, we looked to one another.”
Fortunately, it didn’t go farther. But by learning about an extreme case, we can be prompted to step up our Lenten fasting. Regular fasting has been largely lost in the United States among Catholics.
Substituting a meal with bread and water can really sharpen our priorities and dependence on God. It brings to mind those in the world who face hunger daily. Fasting draws up deeper into contemplation and gives weight to our prayer intentions.
Shackleton eventually returned to Elephant Island with help and found all the men alive. Preceding this were a number of other trials, some major steps in faith/risk and a mystical encounter. But I will leave that for you to find in those aforementioned excellent renditions. Though Shackleton wasn’t Catholic, both he and many of his men were Christian and certainly had a sense of the divine.
The whole ordeal shows God’s divine protection through some of the most extreme conditions. Certainly by studying the men’s crosses, we can realize the manageability of ours.
Practically, the lessons of the Endurance can provide an excellent vehicle for men’s group fellowship. We can live a bit of their story in 2012 — hopefully without frostbite — by taking advantage of these last days of winter.
Here are three activities for the Lenten season, which Pope Benedict calls a journey, “marked by prayer and sharing, silence and fasting, in anticipation of the joy of Easter”:
Entry level: On a Saturday afternoon, after fasting from lunch, watch The Endurance documentary, have a guided discussion on its lessons and virtues, then share a meal and pray a Rosary.
Intermediate: One day watch the documentary and discuss. Then on a following day, go for a winter hike. Let part of the walk be in silence. Finish the journey with a meal and praying together.
Advanced: Of course, watch the documentary and discuss one day. On a soon-to-follow weekend, go camping, taking time for silent prayer and a group hike. Conduct a number of discussions about virtues and other biblical lessons, such as ways to strengthen the family and other issues that men face today. Conclude the “Shackleton” weekend by attending Mass together.
As we make our way through Lenten sacrifice, let us recall what else the Pope said in his Lenten message: “Our hearts should never be so wrapped up in our affairs and problems that they fail to hear the cry of the poor. Humbleness of heart and the personal experience of suffering can awaken within us a sense of compassion and empathy.”
And St. Paul reminds us in Romans 5:3-5: “Affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
Justin Bell writes from Boston.