From the daily barrage of news, certain stories stick with me. When my daughters were small, the reports of children abducted from campgrounds or snatched on their way to school haunted me. As they grow older, accounts of teenage drivers wrapped around trees or spread on freeways resonate. But for some reason, the story of the Russian submarine Kursk has taken up permanent residence in my heart.
The stories of those who attempt communication even as they await certain death have always drawn and repulsed me, fascinated and horrified me. The Japanese passengers on an ill-fated jetliner who wrote to their loved ones, knowing their crippled plane would crash as soon as it ran out of fuel. The injured climber on Mount Everest, speaking by cell phone with his pregnant wife as evening overtook the day he knew would be his last. And then, last August, the Russian sailor aboard his submarine, recording his thoughts in the dark, surrounded by his doomed and dying fellows.
The knowledge of impending death seems a crushing burden to me, which may be why I so admire these stories of grace and acceptance on the part of those who face it. We are not supposed to know the hour of our death: Jesus admonishes us that we know not the day nor the hour. By this he means we should be ever vigilant, ever ready to meet our maker. I’m afraid my brain instead translates his warning into something more like: Oh, well, why worry? Don’t think about it. In my worldview, there will always be another day, another sunrise, another chance. After all, the odds have been right on so far.
I try to picture myself aboard the Kursk. Serving on a submarine requires several leaps of faith: that the hatches will seal, that the hydraulics will function, that the instruments will read true, that one day you will again kiss your loved ones on dry land. In the case of a nuclear submarine like the Kursk, there is even more: that the reactor won’t experience meltdown or poison the sub’s inhabitants. Deep under the ocean is an unforgiving workplace. Whatever caused the double explosion on board the Kursk, a few sailors survived a while to ponder their fate. They knew the hatches would not open and the breathable air would not last. Most of those with whom they lived and worked were dead. They were, in essence, buried alive in a frigid sea.
And yet the will to live, the need to communicate, railed against the reality. Early reports cited a tapping from within the Kursk up to two days after the explosions, the tapping of code being a sailor’s mode of communication with other ships. Later reports dismissed the tapping, a series of pings, as something inconsequential, caused by collapsing equipment, without a human source. The authorities insisted that death aboard the Kursk had been swift and sure. But then came the discovery, with the retrieval of the bodies, of a note.
Imagine Lt. Dmitry Kolesnikov, one of 23 survivors out of a crew of 118: his fingers frozen, his pen scrawling on paper in the darkness, yet determined to communicate. None of us can get to the surface, he wrote, recording the time as several hours after the reports of the explosion and numbering the survivors. I am writing blindly. The rest of the message from Lieutenant Kolesnikov to his bride remains private, as it should. The initial survivors, including the lieutenant, are now thought to have succumbed to drowning, hypothermia or high pressure. How long can one live in the dark, perhaps wounded, air dwindling, surrounded by a 35-degree sea, without hope?
I wonder about the pings and what the tapping sailor wanted to say. Perhaps it is our most human instinct, the need for contact. I wonder if the contact he sought was human or divine. Was God known to him, palpable to him? Imagine sending up that prayer: for rescue, for deliverance, for an end to suffering, for peace. Imagine the faith of someone trying to be heard from under the weight and dark of the ocean, with only pings. And still, he tapped. I am writing blindly. And still he wrote. And he had enough faith that someone would come looking for him that he wrapped his last writing into plastic and tucked it into his shirt pocket.
We take communication for granted. In our society, we are connected even when we are alone. Our cars, phones, e-mail and neighbors give us the ongoing possibility of communication even when we choose a few hours of solitude. This perhaps detracts from prayer, from our contact with the divine. It is easy to hide from God within the noise of daily life. There are too many distractions to hear the call. Perhaps tomorrow. Perhaps at church. If we were deprived of all possibility of human communication, stranded on a remote island, adrift in a spaceship, trapped in a sub on the floor of the ocean, would we feel more in touch with God or more alone? Faced with the direst of circumstances, do we either find the holy or despair?
I have not yet faced death. In this I too am writing blindly. But surely we have all experienced moments when, in our hearts, we have felt as if we were aboard the Kursk, when we have felt abandoned, forsaken or alone in threatening waters. We have sunk into the icy Arctic of hopelessness. We have felt that no one would come looking. And yet the way in which we grope for the faith and grace to find communion with God speaks to who we are as humans. It moves us forward on our journeys. I pray that the lieutenant and his comrades, from the tomb of the Kursk, finally faced God in light and peace.