In climbing circles, he is called the “Third Man” — a mysterious, helpful companion who appears in times of great danger . Sometimes seen, sometimes unseen, he takes his name from T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land.” There, Eliot wrote:

“Who is the third who walks always beside you? / When I count there are only you and I together / But when I look ahead up the white road / There is always another one walking beside you. ”

Eliot himself borrowed the idea of the Third Man from the legendary explorer Ernest Shackleton, who claimed to have encountered the Third Man in 1916.

In May of that year, almost seven months after his ship was crushed by ice floes near Antarctica, Shackleton and two of the ship’s crew were on the final leg of a desperate search for help. During the last hours of their journey, each of the three men sensed the presence of another — a mysterious silent companion whose mere presence encouraged them.

Later, in his account of their expedition, Shackleton wrote: “I know that during that long and racking march of 36 hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.”

That same presence was with explorer A.F.R. Wollaston as he wandered out of the interior of New Guinea in 1912. Hungry and lost, Wollaston led his party back to civilization by following a mysterious white man out of the jungle. The man disappeared as soon as the group reached safety.

The Third Man also appeared on Sept.11, 2001, this time by the side of Ron DiFrancesco, the last man out of the South Tower of the World Trade Center .

On that day, DiFrancesco claims to have heard a voice and felt the presence of another man guiding him down from above the crash zone and out through all the smoke to the street below. As with Shackleton and Wollaston, the presence disappeared as soon as the danger passed.

These three stories, as well as dozens like them, are recounted by University of Toronto fellow John Geiger in his book, “ The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible ” (Weinstein Books, $24.95), a detailed chronicle of the Third Man’s appearances to climbers, deep - sea divers, astronauts and even Charles Lindbergh, all in the moment of each adventurer’s greatest need.

Mysterious companion

No two stories Geiger collected are exactly alike. However, Geiger sees three common threads connecting the encounters.

“First, the presence is always benevolent,” Geiger told Our Sunday Visitor. “Second, the person invariably is under great psychological or physiological stress. Third, there must be multiple triggers, a number of different stressors.”

Attempting to make sense of the phenomen on, Geiger posits several theories about what (or who) the Third Man might be. He dismisses outright, however, the notion that these appearances are a stress-induced hallucination of the ordinary kind.

“Inherently, hallucinations tend to be disorienting,” he said. “You see parades of squirrels waving banners. That’s delirium, and it’s not helpful. The Third Man is.”

Geiger doesn’t entirely dismiss a supernatural answer to the phenomenon, but he also believes other explanations are plausible, including the possibility that the Third Man’s appearance is triggered by a neurological response to extreme stress.

Citing a clinical study that shows the sense of another’s presence can be induced by stimulating certain parts of the brain, Geiger suggests the idea of an “angel switch” — an “innate human capacity” in the brain to summon psychological help — which appears in the form of another human being in times of great need.

It’s an interesting idea, but according to Dr. Joseph White, a clinical psychologist who works for the Diocese of Austin, Texas, many of the Third Man encounters Geiger describes “don’t jibe with what science has thus far shown the human mind to be capable of.”

“Parts of the brain can be stimulated to produce all sorts of sensory experiences,” White said. “But for it to happen in a real - life setting and in an organized enough way that a person actually has an experience of another person would be unusual. For it to happen to an adult during an isolated traumatic incident would be almost unheard of.”

Even more unheard of, he said , would be the experience of Shackleton and his men , where groups of people shared a simultaneous awareness of a Third Man.

Geiger himself concedes that the clinical study he cites differs in one important way from the encounters of the Third Man he describes: The sense of presence induced in the experiments had no sense of benevolence attached to it.

But according to White, even if clinical studies did produce that result, they wouldn’t prove the existence of an “angel switch” or disprove the existence of a “real” Third Man. “If, in a clinical setting, the sound of a bell can be reproduced by stimulating a certain part of the brain, does that disprove the existence of a bell? Of course not,” said White.

Guardian Angels

While Mike Aquilina, author of “ Angels of God: The Bible, the Church, and the Heavenly Hosts ” (St. Anthony Messenger, $12.99) doesn’t dismiss a neurological explanation for at least some of the stories in Geiger’s book, he also believes that the Third Man phenomenon might be more readily explained by a quick survey of what the Church teaches about angels.

“In general, the stories Geiger recounts seem to conform with what we know about angels from revelation and from history,” said Aquilina.

More specifically, he said , the stories conform to what we know about guardian angels — the pure spirits created by God to be our companions and helpers in this life, and who aid us in our quest for holiness.

“Each of us has a guardian angel smarter than 1,000 Einsteins, stronger than the offensive and defensive lines of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and created by God specifically to serve us,” Aquilina explained. “My guardian angel glorifies God by serving me ” — first by getting us to heaven, but rescue missions a distant second.

Geiger doesn’t dismiss the possibility that the Third Man might be a guardian angel: “If it walks like an angel, talks like an angel and behaves like an angel, you can forgive people for concluding it’s an angel,” he said. But, ultimately, Geiger has more faith in the idea of an “angel switch,” which he believes, if better understood, holds the potential to not only be a “survival mechanism” that can be switched on at will, but also an answer to the age - old problem of loneliness.

The Catholic Church doesn’t entirely disagree with Geiger. It just believes that we already know how to turn on “the angel switch.” “God has given us our guardian angel,” explained Aquilina . “And it’s up to us to call on him, to build a relationship with him. He is with us always.”

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.

Encountering the Third Man (sidebar)

To encounter the Third Man, we don’t have to wait until we’re nearing death on the top of Mount Everest. According to Mike Aquilina, author of “Angels of God: The Bible, the Church, and the Heavenly Hosts ” (St. Anthony Messenger, $12.99), our guardian angel can be called upon day and night for help, wisdom and guidance. In fact, he said, we should be calling on our guardian angel regularly and thanking him for all he does for us.

“After all,” he explained, “it’s only good manners to say thank you to someone who exists to serve you.”

To start building that relationship now, Aquilina advised the following:

  •  Check in with your guardian angel regularly through prayer and conversation.
  •  Greet others’ guardian angels (especially your children’s) when they walk into a room.
  • Before embarking on a journey, ask your guardian angel to keep you safe. 
  • Before a difficult personal or professional encounter, call upon your guardian  angel and the other’s guardian angel to help you communicate more clearly with one another.
  •  Pray regularly the traditional guardian angel prayer or other prayers to guardian angels.