Matara, Sri Lanka, December 26th, 2004, 9am.
Charles Hewawasam looked out through the front door of the church. One large wave was rising just beyond the shoreline and moving swiftly towards the island. The people had their backs to the onslaught oblivious to what was coming their way. In all his years looking out on the Indian Ocean, this Sri Lankan priest had never seen anything like it. The sound was deafening as roaring torrents crashed in around them. Terror gripped his flock as they gasped in disbelief. They rushed out of pews with arms flailing, voices screaming, hands grabbing children, legs stumbling, tripping… torrents gushing through the double doors, bodies flung against pews and pillars.
Charles directed the people to take the steps to the balcony beyond the sacristy to the rear of the church. The higher level offered their best hope of survival. Some followed; others fled the building, fearing for their lives, hoping to outrun the relentless surge. Men in the 80s, children as young as four, all in a race for their lives. Of the 28 who fled, none survived! The raging sea waters churned and swallowed everything in their path. A car ploughed through the double door and pinballed against the stone pillars inside. Those who stayed behind and made it to the balcony… they were the lucky ones!
Charles knew there was more to be done. Piercing screams alerted him to people in trouble outside. He waded through the waters trying desperately to reach as many as he could. The current was strong. One by one, he carried them inside. Frenzied hands and petrified faces struggled to withstand the pull as they drifted downstream. There, amid the chaos, he noticed his mother. He could see her face as the waters swirled with ominous intent. Time was not on his side. He waded through the torrent once more and managed to catch her hand. He pulled her towards him and wrapped his arms around her. The receding tide dragged them both towards the sea. They clung to each other and to a lamp post close by. It saved them…
The Peace Choir visited Matara 2 years later and sang for the same people who were in the church that morning. Charles welcomed us with open arms. Our harmonies merged with the hushed tones of the waves as they rolled gently into shore. Pain and courage oozed through the smiles on faces we had never seen before. We listened to their stories. Many recalled the aftermath of the tsunami. Christians, Buddhists, Muslims came together to bury their dead, to feed each other, just to mind their neighbour. Their tragedy was their stepping stone to a sacred space they might not otherwise have known. Their common humanity is what carried them. Their solidarity for one another found expression in kindness. Nothing else mattered!
Something about my time in Sri Lanka has stayed with me ever since. The people have a spirit that no wave could reach. There was a bravery in how they picked up the pieces and started all over again. Their grace is of a kind that invites you in. When you give a gift to a child, it is not opened for days. The gesture alone is what pleases. The simplest of things take on a whole new meaning; a cricket match by the shoreline, a walk along a sandy beach as the sun sets, a visit to a Buddhist shrine that is precious to them, laughter and song… you being with them has a value beyond rupees. When the child speaks, it pays to listen:
The day was clear
The sun shone bright
Upon my island home
When all at once wailing echoed from her shores.
And it came whirling, swirling, churning and sweeping
A monstrous twenty-foot wave
With a booming voice and mighty hurt
Destroying everything in its way.
Father and mother grieving
For their loving children lost.
Little children searching everywhere,
Searching for! their parents lost.
The waves shattered Sri Lanka
Yet humanity it could not break.
Compassion, love and kindness reached out to all,
And gave hope in every way.
Oh Tsunami you ! hit us
Expecting us to fall.
But we will rise stronger,
Much better than before.
(Excerpts from ‘Tsunami you hit my island home’ by Ivan Corea, Sri Lanka)
How we emerge from our darkest hour defines us as people. Life is not always an easy free-wheel downhill. Tough days bring us to the edge. We unearth what we need to carry us the rest of the way. Time of tragedy can become a time of hope. The Chinese have a term to capture this. The ‘Kintsugi’, or that quake out at sea, can bring pain and possibility in equal measure. The broken pieces from the tremors assume their past through the trauma, and, land on safe ground paradoxically more resilient and more beautiful than before the shock. We grow through our hard times. As we wade through the darkness, we discover the true strength of the brilliant light within that can never, ever, be dimmed.
Time has stood still for us all over the past year. We’ve felt it in ways we could never have prepared ourselves for. Maybe as we re-emerge from the other side of this pandemic, it is not a time to look back and try to have everything we once had. We all have a choice to make here; to retreat or to advance, to fall into old habits or to allow our deepest instinct guide us the rest of the way. You have to trust your gut. It aligns your life with where you need to be. Invest your energies wisely. It pays to to have a purpose that is yours and yours alone. Seize it lest it pass you by!
You would rather find purpose than a job or career… purpose is an essential element of you. It is the reason you are on the planet at this particular time in history. Your very existence is wrapped up in the things you are here to fulfill. Whatever path you choose, remember the struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose.
(Chadwick Bosman [1976-2020], Actor, Howard University Address to the class of 2018)
This piece is dedicated to Agnes and all our friends in Weligama, Sri Lanka.
Phil and Elaine are planning for later this year to roll out their signature Camino experiences. We are taking group bookings from mid-July in the hope that the vaccines will have worked their magic by then. You assemble the group, leave the rest to us. September is fully booked. Check out our range of Camino offerings on www.waterfordcamino.com and if you have any specific inquiries email Phil and Elaine directly at email@example.com