I have been thinking a good bit about “the why” of mentoring and spiritual friendship in the Christian life. And as I let my mind go with this question once again, I found myself circling back to an essay I read years ago by Annie Dillard entitled “An Expedition to the Pole.” 

In her essay, Dillard tells the stories of 19th-century polar explorers. In each of the scenes, she recounts the determination, the ideals, the sometimes-foolishness, and the courage of these men who traveled to the edges and extremes of our world. Some survived the expeditions, but many died. They all faced severe conditions: cold and snow and loneliness and freezing rain and hunger and ice. Dillard writes, “Polar explorers must adapt to conditions. They must adapt, on the one hand, to severe physical limitations; they must adapt on the other hand—like the rest of us—to ordinary emotional limitations.”

She recounts one expedition in which the cold took such a physical and mental toll on the men, so simply putting on their boots required over a half-an-hour. Ship after ship would get stuck in the ice, and in time, would be abandoned. The realities of the polar conditions subverted any of their Victorian ideals of a dignified journey. For example, the captain’s china and silverware have to be left behind on the frozen ship. Survival necessitated a singleness of purpose.

Throughout the essay, Dillard draws a comparison between the polar explorers and the local congregation with whom she worships. As 19th-century explorers, our congregations are often ill-adapted to the severe conditions they face. For example, the intensity of our busy lives, our inner realities of loneliness and anxiety, most often knock the feet out from under our ideals of a victorious and peaceful Christian journey. 

During such conditions, we must honestly face our limitations. Dillard writes, “Wherever we go, there seems to be only one business at hand—that of finding workable compromises between the sublimity of our ideas and the absurdity of the fact of us.”[2] In this regard, one such compromise is clear:

“There is no such thing as a solitary polar explorer, fine as the conception is.”

If we are to persevere to the pole and back, if we are to connect good intentions with faithful living in Jesus’ name, then we must travel together. The conditions require it. Our limitations necessitate it. We humans are not the sorts of things that survive or flourish on our own. God designed us for a way of life shared with him and with others. There is no such thing as a solitary Christian, fine as the conception is.

God sustains us, in part, through the people who come alongside us, reminding us who we are and who God is, confirming where we are heading and how we might get there.

So, with whom are you traveling? With whom are you walking on your journey? 

“The Christian spiritual journey is a journey we take with others. Each of us must take our own journey, and for each of us that journey will be unique. But none of us is intended to make that journey alone. The myth of the solitary Christian making his or her own way alone flies in the face of everything the Bible teaches about the church as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-31)…. We cannot make the journey apart from spiritual companions and community.”

David Benner