4th January 2018

This Christmas I had the wonderful privilege of visiting the beautiful Caribbean island of Martinique.

A relatively small island with just over 386,000 people, but a place that boasts magnificent scenic views due mostly to its mountainous terrain. One of those mountains is actually a volcano. Known as Mount Pelée, it reaches an elevation of 1,397 metres.

I was intrigued about this volcano not only because it was the first time I had literally seen one, but more so the remarkable story surrounding its major eruption in 1902. It is the story of Ludger Sylbaris, claimed to be the only remaining survivor of the volcano, that killed an estimated 30,000 -40,000 people and flattened the city of Saint-Pierre (then known as the 'Little Paris of the West Indies') on the island of Martinique.

In reality, his claim of being the only survivor isn't entirely true. Still, his story is astonishing despite this detail.

Ludger was not a nice guy. Born in 1875 on Martinique, Ludger (his actual name was Louis-Auguste) was a convicted felon who liked to drink and to fight. So, it was no surprise when he was arrested for getting in yet another fight on 7 May 1902. Irritated by his antics, the police threw him into solitary confinement, a tiny, half-underground cell with no windows and only a very narrow slit in the door facing out to sea. The police didn't realize it, but they had just saved Ludger's life.

The next morning, destruction came to Martinique.

Mount Pelée exploded and superheated volcanic gas and dust rolled out of the volcano at hundreds of miles per hour, destroying everything in an eight-mile radius. Within a single minute the 1,075 degree pressure wave had flattened every building in the city of Saint-Pierre. Anyone unlucky enough to be in its way instantly caught fire and burned to death. Nearly all 30,000 residents of the island were killed instantly, and the city burned for days afterwards.

Ludger couldn't have been luckier. He was found four days after the eruption by a rescue team who heard his cries. Although he was in a prison cell in isolation, it proved to be the safest place on the island. Ludger described the experience of seeing the light coming through the slit grow dark, and then superheated ash flying in. He urinated on his clothes and stuffed them in the slit, but it didn't stop the heat.

Ludger wasn't the only one to survive the eruption, however. One was a little girl named Havivra Da Ifrile. She is said to have seen the volcano beginning to erupt, and escaped by climbing into a boat and rowing to a cave where she and her friends used to play pirates. In her words: "Before I got there I looked back ‒ and the whole side of the mountain which was near the town seemed to open and boil down on the screaming people, but I got to the cave." She was found floating unconscious in a burned and broken boat two miles out at sea.

It's interesting to know that both people were saved by the very surroundings they would probably describe as being an unpleasant place to be. Your present circumstances may seem like that. Life may have treated you unfairly in 2017; there may have been dark and dismal days encountered, and even as you enter 2018 your present circumstances may not have changed too much. Trapped in a situation that may be described as being in a darkened cell, feeling isolated with no one who really understands what you're going through…yet while your circumstances may be uncontrollable and it seems the heat of life is too much to bear, the truth is you still made it through to 2018!

Have you ever thought that the unpleasant situation you may be in right now may inadvertently be the very challenge that God is using to save you? It's during times of difficulty that we recognise our need for God more, and whilst God does not purposely cause us to go through trials He does permit them to happen for the purpose of refining us and purging un-Christlike traits that need to be severed.

There were countless people in the Bible who were saved by their seemingly, unpleasant surroundings, Noah and his family in the Ark, Elijah in a cave, Jonah in the whale. You can be assured that as you enter 2018, that if you find yourself in a 'darkened place' like Ludger in his prison, you are still being protected against the forces of evil that may not be visible to you. Be assured also as the Psalmist said, "For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock." Psalm 27:5

Ludger's luck, on the other hand, couldn't have been better. After surviving the volcano, he was pardoned for his crimes, and hired to tell the story of the horrific events he had experienced and survived.

Today, the prison cell which saved Ludger's life can be visited in Saint-Pierre as I experienced. The town never recovered from the devastation. Mount Pelée is still one of the most active volcanoes in the Caribbean, and it will likely erupt again. What lessons will be learnt from the past? 2018 is a new year of new opportunities for spiritual growth and to learn from past mistakes; go forward in the full assurance that He that is in you will help you get through.

[Richard Daly]

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