It was surely praying at their ‘makeshift shrine’ that kept the Chilean miners sane

Four miners carry a statue of San Lorenzo, the patron saint of miners, to the rescue shaft at the San Jose mine in Chile

As I write, the Chilean miners are being brought to the surface. It has been a “miracle”, many say; first that they were not killed, second that they were found, and now a miracle of human skill and ingenuity that they have so far come up safe and unharmed; please God this “miracle” continues to the end of an amazing story.

Of course, the word is being used, especially by journalists, as a way of speaking, a metaphor. Probably none of these are miracles as the Church understands the word. But the religious faith of the miners has undoubtedly been playing a part in all this.  There has, of course, been almost no coverage of this fact in the secular press, though on Monday the Guardian (of course) had a mean little piece with the headline “Chilean miners: Rival churches claim credit for the miracle” and the standfirst “Evangelical, Adventist and Catholic clerics are vying to stamp their own faith on the expected rescue of the trapped men”.

What nobody has done so far – that I have seen (I may be wrong of course, there has been vast international coverage of this story) – is to give a convincing account of what it is that has kept the men sane and united and undespairing, what has sustained their hope of deliverance from this truly appalling ordeal. And I have no doubt at all that it was their religion and that that there weren’t that many Adventists or Evangelicals down there.

Consider the following CNA report from Santiago, which appeared on August 27: “The 33 miners trapped in the San Jose mine in Atacama, Chile, have requested that statues and religious pictures be sent down to them as they wait to be rescued… Chilean officials say the rescue could take months but that they hope to reach the miners by Christmas… A small passageway has already been put in place so messages and supplies can be sent to the trapped miners.

“Although a crucifix has already been sent down, the miners are continuing to request more statues of Mary and the saints… to construct a makeshift chapel. ‘The miners want to set up a section of the chamber they are in as a shrine,’ Chilean’s Minister of Health, Jaime Manalich, told CNN.

“This week, President Sebastian Pinera spoke with the miners by phone and then placed a statue of St Lorenzo, the patron of miners, in the presidential palace together with 32 Chilean flags and one Bolivian flag to represent each of the miners trapped since August 5.”

One of the first things the miners’ relatives did at the pithead, while it still looked as though they must be all dead, was to set up a statue of St Lawrence, patron saint of miners (see above), who in statues of him in this role movingly wears a miner’s hat and carries a miner’s lamp. And the whole rescue mission was placed under his patronage: it was called simply Operation San Lorenzo.

The rescue, as I post this, is not complete; not everyone is out. But whatever the final outcome, there has already been one vastly moving outcome among the miners themselves: the whole thing has been a massive spiritual triumph, a glorious victory against despair and loss of hope, against the quarrelling and division which naturally and inevitably break out, so the psychologists tell us, whenever men are confined together for prolonged periods of time. And surely even the Guardian can hardly argue that this great human achievement had nothing to do with that beacon of hope, the shrine set up in a corner of that unspeakable underground hell.