Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, principal figure of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration, in his book “South,” described a certain traumatic occasion when it seemed that he and the other two with him included one more member than could actually be counted. Shackleton wrote that “during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia, it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.”
Encouraged by Shackleton’s candor, other survivors of “edge-of-the-world” scenarios have since come forward and reported the same experience — always the presence of another.
The alleged presence of this “Other” was the subject of a book by John G. Geiger, “The Third Man Factor.” Skittish of the supernatural, our minds angularly suggest, “A way of coping perhaps?”
More wisely, let us allow that we do not know … only that “such has been reported.”
The poet T.S. Eliot alludes to this “Third Man Factor” in his narrative poem, “The Wasteland,” further associating it with the story reported in Luke’s Gospel of Jesus joining two disciples walking to Emmaus:
Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
— But who is that on the other side of you?
Helen Keller, very soon after she was able to speak in her new and strangely indirect language allowed that in her silent world she already knew of this Other One, though she did not know His name. She counted the others and herself but then came up with a Third always beside her.
Her knowing was a heart-knowledge and not a knowing. Just so! The Christian’s heart-knowledge, though already interiorly sensed, takes further compass bearings from the Bible.
Still, in doing so, even Christians are cautioned that the Bible is often agnostic: “Now we see in a mirror dimly … now I know in part.”
So the biblical story is only a partial telling — never giving us the whole story or telling it exactly.
Suffice us to know that Earth is our personal place — possibly the only personal habitation in the universe. Mystery underlies our lives. Here we are besieged by wonders that shall always astound us and by truths that will continually confound us.
Yet, on this one and only known personal planet “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” We live on a visited planet.
God, invisible as god, whose ways are not our ways and whose thoughts are not our thoughts, has become present to us in Jesus as the Third who is always near. Invisible to us, yet present to the heart.
“The essential is invisible to the eye,” is what the fox said to the Little Prince. What is essential to our wholeness is the faith that our lives are held and valued by a love encompassing both our whence and our wither.
What is essential to our wholeness as the poet Wordsworth wrote is the conviction that we have come into this world “trailing clouds of glory.” What is essential to our wholeness is being possessed by the hope that having come from God we shall also return to God, who is both our joy and our home.
The first Christians saw in Jesus God’s answer to the question, “Who are you?” Jesus was God’s speech about himself as the Lover of our souls. His name shall be called Jesus, “for he shall save his people from their sins.”
Already we know both our need and the truth of that. On a New Jersey mud flat there is a sign with a twist: “Our erasers rub out mistakes in any language.” We may add, however, “Not in the language of personal need.” Nor can they rub out all that soils and spoils the planet. It is God’s speech from the height of that middle cross that speaks both in the language of our need and the need of our planet.
But what kind of planet? Our times are set in crisis. P. D. James alludes to the dilemma of our planet so mixed with evil and good in her novel, “The Private Patient,” through the silent musings of her main character:
“And she had Clara. She slipped her hand into Clara’s and felt the comfort of her responsive squeeze. She thought, the world is a beautiful place and terrible place.
Deeds of horror are committed every minute and in the end those we love die. If the screams of all the Earth’s living creatures were one scream of pain; surely it would shake the stars. But we have love. It may seem a frail defense against the horrors of the world, but we must hold fast and believe in it, for it is all we have.”
Just so! We have love! More! We have Calvary Love! God’s love in the Christ is our defense against all in life that would take us down.
This love of God is everywhere available to us in the Third who is always within hailing distance.
The Rev. Merle G. Steva is minister of visitation at the First Parish Church in Saco.