Saturday, July 31, 2010

Sri Lanka 11 - Tsunami !!!!

The signs are everywhere. 

Go to high ground.

It can be a bit unsettling. 
I cannot even swim.

All of a sudden, on 26 December 2004, over thirty-thousand Sri Lankans lost their lives in a matter of minutes. Many were simply swept out to sea; their bodies never found. Many of the poor who died were buried in mass unmarked graves. 

It all happened so quickly. If you can bear it, here is a short (26 second) video from National Geographic that captures just a little of the instant destruction, terror and helplessness:

It is almost unimaginable. 

The high ground I am staying on overlooks the small fishing community of Mutwal.  The tiny thatch homes there were washed away.  All of them.  

79% of the fishing boats were lost - their only source of income. Vestiges of that fateful day are still around.
            That day, the villagers ran up to our school.
They lived here for a month.  
       They were afraid to return to low land. 

They had nothing to return to.  

144 families, over 600 people, ate, slept and prayed at De LaSalle College until their fear subsided enough to move on with their lives.

Sri Lanka is a small nation. For comparison sake, New York State alone is almost 4 times as big as Sri Lanka. But they have had more than their share of heartache.

I am proud of the work the Church is doing here.  Brothers of the Christian Schools, like Br. Tarcisius F.S.C. the principal of De LaSalle College, are humbly doing God's work every single day, not just when a disaster strikes. Their level of commitment is extraordinary because to them it is so ordinary.

Young Br. Anton F.S.C., pictured below in his white robe, is a religion teacher at De LaSalle College (what we Americans call  "high school"). Many of his students and their families still suffer the material and emotional effects of the 2004 tsunami.  Br. Anton and I have had many discussions about religious education; we compare and contrast religious education here and in the USA.  He would like to see America.  I hope he comes to visit soon!

Say a prayer with me for all the victims of the tsunami...
Eternal rest grant unto them O Lord,
And let perpetual light shine upon them.
May they rest in peace.

Blessings from the now tranquil Indian Ocean,
deacon bill+

Monday, July 26, 2010

Sri Lanka 10 - A Catholic Feast

Sri Lankan Catholics - about 7% of the population - celebrate their parish feasts with great festivity. The Catholicism on the Island comes via the Portuguese who arrived in 1505. They called the island Ceil√£o, thus the name Ceylon. [I have fond childhood memories of my mother drinking Lipton's Tea from Ceylon.]

I am in the parish of St. James Church, Mutwal.  They celebrate their patronal feast with grand exuberance!  Poles with crosses on top, like ship masts, are raised throughout the area. Red and white banners, like sails, fly in the wind. 

Even the streets and the church parking lot are decorated with banners in anticipation.

There is a solemn novena to St. James.  Hymn singing, a litany, the rosary and Mass are all broadcast over speakers every evening from 7 to 9 pm. It drowns out everything for about a mile around! An arch decorated with coconuts is constructed for the feast.

I attended the final evening Mass in Sinhala.  St. James' Day fell on a Sunday this year. Well before Mass, people were coming up just to touch the statue of St. James that would be carried in procession...

vendors lined the procession route...

and people stopped by to see the "boat" St. James would be carried in. (btw - I vote Sri Lankan women the best dressed of anywhere I've been in the world.  Colorful and elegant at all times. Whether in saris, salvars, dresses or skirts, they are always beautifully attired.)

After Mass, the procession through the streets began.  There were throngs of people vying for the best vantage point.

The procession wound its way, under lighted arches, to the sounds of loud fireworks and four marching bands. They pulled out all the stops for their parish feast day!

It was an amazing nine days.

I prayed for the people of St. Benedict's this week.  May our parish community be filled with exuberance too!

For more information about St. James, the parish or the annual novena, visit the website of St. James Church, Mutwal at:

Peace and blessings from Colombo,
your deacon.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sri Lanka 9 - Loudspeakers!

I am staying near Mutwal Jumma Mosque shown here. I can see the minaret clearly through my kitchen window.

More noticeably, however, five times a day the loudspeakers announce Allahu Akbar!  God is great! (and the rest of the adhan). Having visited Muslim places before, I am used to it.  But it can be jarring sometimes no matter how accustomed you are to Muslim practice.  In fact, that is the point - the announcement is supposed to jar you out of the secular sphere and into prayer. 

FYI - Muslims, like Catholics, comprise about 7% of the population of Sri Lanka.  For comparison sake, the USA is about 22% Catholic; Muslim numbers are notoriously difficult to pin down in the USA so I'll let you do your own research on that. Worldwide, Catholics and Muslims have about 1 billion adherents each.

It's always a good practice to quote Church teaching directly when dealing with another religion.  Here is what the Second Vatican Council taught in Nostra Aetate 3: The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.

Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.

Notice how many things we have in common with Muslims!  Our histories have taught us that we must work together diligently to achieve peace and freedom for all people.
God is great indeed.

Sri Lanka 8 - Tamil Children

Every child has a story to tell.
I travel to hear them.

I will not tell their stories here.
They will.

Read about war and peace, fear and love in their young eyes.

All photos were taken in ministries run by the Brothers of the Christian Schools (F.S.C.) in northern Tamil areas. Thank you for supporting their work and mine.
[I will tell some of their stories in a later post.]

Peace and blessings from Mannar.
Your deacon...

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Sri Lanka 7 - "All experience is an arch..."

Studying a map in California!

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink 
Life to the lees...
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro' 
Gleams that untravell'd world, whose margin fades 
For ever and for ever when I move. 
- Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

My High School English teacher, Fr. Robert Cregan, SJ, now of blessed memory, made us memorize Tennyson's entire poem.  It is still stuck in my head after all these years.

I love travel because it is another form of learning.  While I travel to teach every year, I really travel to learn. Travel humbles me. It makes me more human, thus it makes me more catholic.

I traveled to a Hindu Temple Monday. It is only a short walk from where I am staying. There are many Hindus in Sri Lanka.

Once my shoes were off,
and I crossed the threshold,
a world of gods and goddesses awaited.

There is the playing of instruments, chanting, movement, blessings and offerings....

And lots of bell ringing!

The Hindu priest moves fire in a circular motion around the deity (aarti).

Here are some close ups of the god/goddess shrines

Nandi facing Shiva linga.

After offering their gifts of fruits to the gods/goddesses, the faithful carried coconuts with camphor burning on top, as they circumambulated the shrine.

As I watched these faithful Hindus,
I thought of all we have in common:
sacrifice and reverence,
     intercessory prayer,
          holy shrines and images,
               pilgrimages and priests,
                    bells and smells,
                         humility and humanity,
but mostly I thought of how
all experience is an arch wherethro' gleams the untravell'd world.
I cannot rest from travel.
I have too much to learn.

from the Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate 2, 1965.
Religions, however, that are bound up with an advanced culture have struggled to answer the same questions by means of more refined concepts and a more developed language. Thus in Hinduism, men contemplate the divine mystery and express it through an inexhaustible abundance of myths and through searching philosophical inquiry. They seek freedom from the anguish of our human condition either through ascetical practices or profound meditation or a flight to God with love and trust...

The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself.(4)

The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Sri Lanka 6 - Kandy: The Buddha's "Sweet" Tooth

On Saturday, two of my students - Umesh and Isuru, both Catholic - took me to the famous city of Kandy.  It is in the hills, or what is called "up country" here.  It is most famous for the Buddhist Shrine that holds one of the Buddha's teeth.

Buddha is a title meaning "awakened one."  When the title "Lord Buddha" or "The Buddha" is used, they mean the famous Siddartha Gautama. Sri Lanka is primarily a Buddhist country, although it has active Hindu, Islamic and Christian minorities as well, all living in close proximity and in peace.

Both Buddhists and Catholics appreciate the spiritual journey. So here is my little journey into a corner of Buddhism...

We took the seven am train. The boy in front of me kept poking his head out of the open train window the whole trip. He got a little too close for my comfort to the train coming in the opposite direction! The very young always want to know when they will arrive. "Are we there yet?"  But a big part of the spiritual life is learning to love the Way as much as the end.

The train was full. Umesh and Isuru stood for half the three hour trip so I could have the one available seat. Umesh hung out the open door most of the time. He asked me more than once if I wanted to join him. He certainly had the best view! Whenever we would go into one of the numerous tunnels, the train would fill with acrid diesel fumes and the school-girls on a field trip in the car in front of us would let out a loud scream! Young people have so much of the journey to look forward to and so much joy ahead of them on the Way. As a teacher, I am truly blessed to be in their company so often.

We arrived on time. A short walk and we were on the path to the great shrine at Kandy.  We were joined by hundreds of other pilgrims as well.

Soon we were in line.

Lotus flowers and jasmine were for sale everywhere along the route.

Shoes off.  This is holy ground!
Many devout Buddhists carried lotus flowers to place in front of the statues or relic of Lord Buddha. I did not.  I find the line between custom and worship difficult to figure out in my experiences with Buddhism. I come always as an observer and a friend.

There is a beautiful entrance way, befitting a holy place.

Now a flurry of activity as we are whisked by The Buddha's sacred tooth!

I did not see it!
It all happened so fast.
I glanced in the direction, but it was too late. 
The line had to keep moving.

But,there was a beautiful Buddha hall afterward where we rested for a bit...

and monkeys all around the place...

and wonderfully aromatic camphor and incense...

and an elegant elder who lost her Way. Umesh and Isuru helped her in Sinhala....

Heading back.  Holier for the journey together.

from The Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate 2, 1965.
Buddhism, in its various forms, realizes the radical insufficiency of this changeable world; it teaches a way by which men, in a devout and confident spirit, may be able either to acquire the state of perfect liberation, or attain, by their own efforts or through higher help, supreme illumination. ... The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself.