Antarctic Monasticism

Feeling a bit better today. But with howling winds pushing the falling and fallen snow, I don’t think I’ll be venturing out until much later today. They already closed the church office. Did I mention this was tabbed the worst blizzard since 1996, which happened to coincide with the day before Anita and I got married?

All of our windows are iced and snowed over. I was doing a lot of cooking last night–chicken soup and apple-cinnamon pan bread. I did manage to get a half-clear shot out the back door. But the rest of the kitchen windows are frozen fogged and whited out.

blizzard of 2012 2

Astronomy Today has a magnificent image from orbit of the remote Antarctic station Concordia. The closest human beings to the French and Italian engineers and astronomers are the Russians at Vostok base, 350 miles away. Even the International Space Station doesn’t orbit that high.

The station has a blog, which is fascinating reading. In particular, Dr Alex Salam’s reflection on the privilege of serving in Antarctica struck me deeply. There is a deep monastic opportunity, it seems to me, in this remote wilderness.

It wasn’t until the last plane of the summer season left that the feeling of living on another planet fully hit home however. Concordia is extremely busy over the summer, full of hustle and bustle with planes arriving and people coming and going. Over the course of a couple of weeks around early February numbers begin to dwindle however, until eventually one day you find yourself huddled amongst a group of just twelve of you, struggling to keep track of the last plane as it gradually disappears into the desolate distance.

And then it really hits home: you’re own your own, no matter what. This is when the adventure really begins, the challenge of living in a small group in a confined space, the sensory and social monotony that gradually builds up over several months, having to deal with medical and technical emergencies autonomously, prolonged separation from family and friends with limited telecommunications, and the inevitable darkness.

The Jesuits, about the most hardcore retreatants out there, don’t do more than thirty days. Several months strikes me as a deeply monastic opportunity. There is work to do. I imagine that for scientific minds, the routines of menial tasks needed for survival are a challenge. But that feeling of being “on my own”–I get that every time I park the car at a monastery or retreat house. There is very much the sense that I have left a lot behind, and I’m heading to an intimate encounter in a way I’m not usually attuned. When our surroundings, our usual routines do not support us, there is little else left but reliance on God:

O God, you are my God—
it is you I seek!
For you my body yearns;
for you my soul thirsts,
In a land parched, lifeless,
and without water. (Psalm 63:2)

Dr Salam lists many of the aspects of “normal” life that I would probably describe as “usual” to our modern sensibilities:

But despite all the factors that make Concordia a difficult place to live in, there is an absence of some of the stressful situations present in ‘everyday’ life such as commuting, shopping, queues, bills, excessive choice, advertising and information overload, rules and regulations and so on. And although everyone feels some of the psychological and social stressors to a certain degree, some experience the absence of “normal” life very positively.

What I see in this reflection is the innate human longing that is unsatisfied by consumption and indulgence. Living and working in a community of a dozen people with the distractions stripped away.

Indeed, with time most people who have spent a winter at Concordia (and often Antarctica in general) feel many positive effects associated with the privilege of having experienced one of the planet’s most spectacularly vast and daunting environments, such as: a profound sense of accomplishment, increased personal and professional confidence, a better tolerance and adaptation to stress, a clearer vision of one’s personal needs, limits and ambitions and a deeper appreciation of personal freedoms and the natural environment.

This list would easily fit for the goals of monastic life.

But I know what I would look forward most to seeing …

But despite the effects the darkness can have on sleep, mood and cognitive performance, there is something inherently special about the Antarctic night. The heavens present a view that many stargazers can only ever dream of. You just have to try and catch a glimpse of the stars before your eyelashes freeze together! Seeing the station from a distance with the Milky Way towering far above it never failed to make me feel both awe inspired and simultaneously insignificant.

The believer can get a flavor of this even without looking at the stars. The interior life always beckons. And while there are often inner terrors and demons to battle, the encounter with God is no less wondrous …

I think of you upon my bed,
I remember you through the watches of the night
You indeed are my savior,
and in the shadow of your wings I shout for joy. (Psalm 63:7-8)

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
This entry was posted in Monasticism, Other Places, Science, Scripture. Bookmark the permalink.

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