This is a chapter from my original Meadville/Lombard thesis. I need to type it out again anyway, since I did it last time on a red Selectric I bought from an African-American female minister who belonged to the South Side Chicago “Prayer Tower.” I really hated to sell that red Selectric! She hesitated to sell it to me because I wasn’t “Christian.”
This is about a near unsurvivable event and how religious understanding became a life-saving near-liturgical way of going outside normal behavior.
“On October 12, 1972, a Fairchild F-227 of the Uruguayan Air Force, chartered by an amateur rugby team, set off from Montevideo in Uruguay for Santiago in Chile.” (from the book entitled “Alive!” about the incident) So begins a story that is both terrible and inspiring. The airplane crashed very near the top of the Andes. Sixteen young men survived for 72 days and two of them eventually walked for ten days down out of the mountains. Their means of survival was cannibalism.
Not only did the youths survive well enough to recover good physical condition after their rescue, but also they managed to maintain sanity and morale while living jammed into the remains of an airplane fuselage with no amenities or even enough clothes to keep warm, since the tail section with all the luggage fell far from the rest of the plane. The source of their real strength was religious.
The first suggestion of cannibalism was when one of the boys, seeing how short the food supply was -- only accidentally carried snacks in pockets or luggage -- threatened half-jokingly to fortify it with chunks out of the dead pilots, since they had made the mistake that caused the crash. This kind of ironic fierceness was characteristic of the boys. They were fighters, partly because of the South American macho tradition and partly because of their athletic training. Many were descendants of people displaced by WWII who had endured much hardship. Also, their minds were shaped by their schooling with Irish Christian Brothers until they were a remarkable and resilient mixture of matter-of-fact practicality and poetic confidence in other-worldliness. The boys were the cherished sons of large, conservative, closely-knit families. Rebellion and scorn were not directed at their parents, but at those who fell short of family standards. Many of the families were ranchers, so the boys were used to coping with emergencies and knew meat for what it was. Two boys were first year medical students who immediately turned their attention to the wounds imposed by the crash.
For some days several of the boys had realized that if they were to survive they would have to eat the bodies of those who had died in the crash. It was a ghastly prospect. The corpses lay around the plane in the snow, preserved by the intense cold in the state in which they had died. While the thought of cutting the flesh from those who had been their friends was deeply repugnant to them all, a lucid appreciation of their predicament led them to consider it.
... Finally Canessa brought it out into the open. He argued forcefully that they were not going to be rescued: that they would have to escape themselves, but that nothing be done without food, and that the only food was human flesh. He used his knowledge of medicine to describe in his penetrating, high-pitched voice, how their bodies were using up their reserves. “Every time you move,” he said, “You use up part of your own body. Soon we shall be so weak that we won’t have the strength even to cut the meat that is lying there before our eyes.”
Canessa did not argue just from expediency. He insisted they had a moral duty to stay alive by any means at their disposal, and because Canessa was earnest about his religious belief, great weight was given to what he said by the more pious among the survivors.
“It is meat,” he said. “That’s all it is. The souls have left their bodies and are in heaven with God. All that is left here are the carcasses, which are no more human beings than the dead flesh of the cattle we eat at home.” [pp82-83]
The argument among the boys had the searching depth and progression of a sermon. One of the deeply Christian elements that emerged was a sense of oblation: willingness to give their bodies to the others.
“I know,” Zerbino went on, “that if my dead body could help you to stay alive, then I’d certainly want you to use it. In fact, if I do die and you don’t eat me, then I’ll come back from wherever I am and give you a good kick in the ass.”
This argument allayed many doubts, for however reluctant each boy might be to eat the flesh of a friend, all of them agreed with Zerbino. there and then they made a pact that if any more of them were to die, their bodies were to be used as food. [p 84]
The first eating of meat was ritualistic. Canessa, the medical student, cut twenty slivers of meat from the buttocks of one corpse and laid them on the roof of the plane to dry. He invited the other boys to begin and when no one would, he prayed and then forced down the first piece as an example.
The boys wrote letters to their families and novias constantly and there was a testimonial feel to what they wrote.
“One thing which will seem incredible to you -- it seems unbelievable to me -- is that today we started to cut up the dead in order to eat them. There is nothing else to do. I prayed to God from the bottom of my heart that this day would never come, but it has and we have to face it with courage and faith. Faith, because I came to the conclusion that the bodies are there because God put them there and, since the only thing that matters is the soul, I don’t have to feel great remorse, and if the day came I could save someone with my body, I would gladly do it.”
Even in such extremity the boys could say the equivalent of Prayers of Intercession for others.
“I don’t know how you, Mama, Papa, or of the children can be feeling; you don’t know how sad it makes me to think that you are suffering, and I constantly ask God to reassure you and give us courage because that is the only way of getting out of this. I think that soon there will be a happy ending for everyone.”
The salvific image of the experience came spontaneously from one of the boys, probably the most unlikely one of the bunch, certainly not like the others. “He was shy, introspective, and a socialist, while they were boisterous, extroverted, and conservative.” Some of the boys and an older married couple could not force themselves to take the flesh, in spite of progressing weakness and neediness.
Marcelo Perez having made up his mind that he would take this step, used what authority he still possessed to persuade others to do so, but nothing he said had the effect of a short statement from Pedro Algorta. He was one of the two boys who had been dressed more scruffily at the airport than the others: as it to show that he despised their boureois values. In the crash, he had been hit on the head and suffered total amnesia about what had happened the day before. Algorta watched Canessa and Fito Strauch cutting the meat but said nothing until it came to the moment when he was offered a slice of flesh. He took it and swallowed it and then said, “It’s like Holy Communion. When Christ died he gave his body to us so that then we could have spiritual life. My friend has given us his body so that we can have physical life.”
The young men -- or at least some of them -- were sophisticated religionists and oddly enough Algorta was the most humanistic of the lot.
They were not induced by the extremity of their situation to talk at length about the more fundamental philosophical issues of life and death. Inciarte, Zerbino, and Algorta -- who were the three most politically professie among the eighteen who were still alive -- once discussed the relationship between religious faith and political responsibility. On another occasion Pedro Algorta and Fito Strauch discussed the existence and nature of God. Pedro was well trained by the Jesuits in Santiago and could explain the philosophical theories of Marx and Teilhard du Chardin. Both he and Fito were skeptics, neither believed that God was the kind of being who watched over the destiny of each individual. To Pedro God was the love which existed between two human beings, or a group of human beings.
Exalted landscapes stretched away from the improvised camp, which soon became a foul and stinking charnel house since the boys had no strength to do more than a minium of maintenance. At night the boys clasped each other tightly for warmth and reassurance, but in the day time they sprawled carelessly in the sun, half-blinded by the dazzling sweeps of snow. Every night Carlitoes Paez led Rosary.
After their rescue the young men’s decision to eat human flesh and their justification of it through the image of Communion was accepted, despite their fears. A Catholic curate arrived at the hospital where they were first taken, confirmed their wisdom in saving their lives, judged the cannibalism necessary and not sinful, and gave Holy Communion to those who wished it. Later the Roman Catholic church simply cautioned them that it was not a true “Communion” since the flesh was not in any sense the flesh of Christ. Thus they maintained their ownership of the concept.
Coche Inciarte was the first to seek and find reassurance.
He told Father Andres about the mountain -- not in the cold language of a detached observer but in lofty mystical words which more accurately conveyed what the experience had meant to him. “It was something no one could have imagined. I used to go to mass every Sunday, and Holy Communion had become something automatic. But up there, seeing so many miracles, being so near God, almost touching Him, I learned otherwise. Now I pray to God to give me strength and stop me slipping back to where I used to be. I have learned that life is love, and that love is giving to your neighbor. The soul of a man is the best thing about him. There is nothing better than giving to a fellow human being.”
Ironically, Algorta, the man who had the original insight connecting flesh and communion bread, was the one who refused the priest’s ministrations. Perhaps his intellectual irreverence, which allowed him the freedom to use religious metaphors unconventionally, also denied him the emotional directness of accepting comfort. Or perhaps he was arrogant or depressed or simply needed a different kind of religious ministration than formal Roman Catholic liturgy. Or perhaps he believed that the Christian communion was a people’s rite, not one to be dispensed by officials.
There was one question the priest could not answer for any of the boys. “Why was it that he had lived while others had died? What purpose had God in making this selection? What sense could be made of it?” “None,” replied Father Andres. “There are times when the will of God cannot be understood by our human intelligence. There are things which in all humility we must accept as a mystery.”
Coche Inclarte said simply, “I’m full of God.” Who could argue? No one did.
This terrifying experience took place directly on the boundary between worship and profane life.
[To be continued tomorrow.]