December 23rd, 2011
06:00 AM ET
Editor's note: The Rev. Steve Rossetti is a professor of theology at Catholic University in Washington, and he's a chaplain this Christmas at the South Pole.
By The Rev. Steve Rossetti, Special to CNN
South Pole, Antarctica (CNN) – Modern men and women often live under the illusion that they are in control of their lives. Science and technology have brought us far beyond the superstitions of ancient civilizations. Confident in our abilities and achievements, we feel secure. Outside of the occasional environmental or personal tragedy, we feel self-sufficient and safe.
Antarctica blasts this illusion of control. As one of the managers at the South Pole told me, “Antarctica is boss.” Anyone who loses respect for this savage continent is in danger of paying the ultimate price. As local lore has it, “Antarctica is constantly trying to kill you.”
Normally, I teach theology at the Catholic University of America, and I am a priest of the Diocese of Syracuse. But for the second time, the first being 2008, the Antarctic "itch" got in my blood, and I volunteered to serve on the "Ice," as they call Antarctica here. My "parish" is the Americans at McMurdo Station and the South Pole, plus the New Zealanders at Scott Base, without forgetting the 211 scientists and support staff strewn across the continent, living in tents, at our 20-plus field sites.
This month we are celebrating the centennial of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his party being the first human beings to set foot at the South Pole. They arrived on December 14, 1911. Thirty-four days later, British naval officer Robert Scott also reached the pole, but on his return his entire party perished in a harsh Antarctic blizzard. And they were both traveling during Antarctica’s summer. In the austral winter, the weather is completely impossible.
I arrived at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station on Wednesday for a “quick trip.” The plan was for me to celebrate an early Christmas liturgy before returning to McMurdo Station on the coast of Antarctica the next day for its celebration of the Lord’s birth. When I arrived at the pole, it was sunny, no wind and a relatively warm -24 degrees Fahrenheit. Things seemed great.
It felt like an easy trip to the pole this time, but the next day the winds began to howl and everything turned white. All air traffic ceased. I spoke to the weather people. Things didn’t look good. I was locked in at the pole, and there was absolutely nothing I or anyone else could do about it. A common feeling on the continent swept over me – I was helpless.
Antarctica is the highest, driest, windiest and coldest continent on the Earth. The coldest temperature ever recorded on this planet was -128.5° F, in Antarctica. The old hands here tell me that each winter, the temperature at the pole will dip at some point to -100° F. Combined with the strong winds, winter on the continent is mostly about survival. Even with eight chemical hand and foot warmers working and bundled in our issued “extreme cold weather” gear, South Pole winter staff do not last long outside.
Antarctica puts you in your place. We are not in control here. Planning is difficult, and people are constantly adjusting. But on a larger scale, it reminds me that in general we have little control over much of our lives. Antarctica can remind you of that. Try as we might, we have little control over most of the events that impact so heavily upon our lives. This seeming arbitrariness can be frightening.
Some believe that their lives and very existence are a matter of random chance or simply the result of cosmic and biological processes. Behind such processes, they do not see any hand guiding it all. Much of the astounding science that occurs on Antarctica is immersed with understanding the origins and health of our planet. But it cannot answer fundamental human questions, “Why am I here?” “Is there a plan for my life?”
On this icy, frozen continent, we are humbled. It reminds us of our frail humanity. When I entered the South Pole station and I took off my thick goose-down parka, my clerical collar and lettering on my shirt saying “chaplain” were clearly visible. I walked down the corridor of the South Pole station, and there were more than a few faces that smiled and welcomed me. They said they’re glad I’m here.
This morning, as the flights out were canceled again, I walked into the manager’s office. We looked at the weather and she said, “Looks like you might be here for Christmas.” She told me that they have never before had a chaplain here on Christmas Day. She said, “We would be fortunate and grateful.” This morning, several people smiled broadly when they heard I might be at the pole with them for Christmas.
One could see this storm as a random event and my being weathered in at the South Pole simply as an act of nature. But it may be that, for the first time, a chaplain will be here on Christmas Day to celebrate the birth of the Son of God. I cannot plan it; I can only accept whatever comes. Each day, we will look out and see what has been planned for us.
Isn’t this the case for each of our lives?
Whether I am here for Christmas or not, I will be present for a few more days, and I will try to spend each hour meeting with the hardy souls who inhabit this southern end of the Earth. I will listen to them. I will pray with them. I will remind them that while we are not in control of our lives, there is someone who is. This divine someone loves us so much that he sent his only son, whose birth I will soon celebrate ... perhaps at the South Pole.
Maybe this was the plan all along.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the Rev. Steve Rossetti.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.