What do you say to a friend who is the only surviving member of her extended family, a total of more than 50 persons? Just what do you say?
Do you express gratitude for her survival… or sorrow for her unimaginable loss? What words can truly speak to such immeasurable shock and grief?
Somehow, the standard responses we know so well pale against the enormity of last week’s Asian tsunami disaster — “it could have been worse” (how could it?), “hold onto your faith” (what does faith mean anymore?), “there is a hidden wisdom behind every calamity, but sometimes we can not see it” (what is "wise" about the sudden deaths of more than 120,000 men, women and children?).
It is a struggle for anyone to find words that will even begin to bring healing and meaning at a time like this. How can one even cry in response to a mounting sea of grief that has flowed into the wake of 20-metre waves? There are not enough tears on the entire planet.
Fear for the daily survival of millions affected by the Boxing Day cataclysm feels overwhelming, even from the safe distance of Canada.
But much more difficult to overcome is the fear of going to pieces both individually and collectively as we come to terms with the prolonged aftermath of this unprecedented natural disaster.
It is a fear that preys upon both religious and non-religious among the global human family, although the religious can claim to be better prepared to seek spiritual guidance in calming their fear.
Even as I write, millions of dollars in individual and governmental donations are flowing into southeast Asia to help numerous traumatized and grieving survivors to meet basic daily human needs of food, potable water, shelter, and medical care.
But no one is expecting now to restore anything like a semblance of normal living; it will take years — perhaps decades — just to reconstruct a "new normal" for people, their governments, culture and economies.
Looking ahead to that certainty brings another concern to my mind, one that few people are giving much attention to right now.
I sincerely wish that the international community could gather dedicated teams of people from different faith traditions and clinical vocations (such as social work, crisis counselling, psychology, grief support, etc.), who could be deployed in the field anywhere, to work in parallel with the long-respected Doctors Without Borders-Medecins Sans Frontieres.
Perhaps called "Spiritual Healers Without Borders," these new response units could address the very deep and real needs of survivors’ minds and spirits while DWB was taking care of their bodies.
Workers with SHWB would be trained in how to heal a broken heart, how to restore faith to a doubting soul, how to reintroduce hope to a despairing spirit, and how to nourish all of the non-physical being.
I am not concerned here with theology, doctrine, or dogma, but with renewing disaster survivors’ individual and collective wills to live in their changed futures with a sense of hope, purpose, and even eventual contentment and enjoyment.
The healing spirit is not one that can forget its wounds, but one that can live through the seemingly impossible.
Many religions teach that death is not an end, but a new beginning, that it is not a punishment, but the hope of elevation to a higher form of life.
To be prepared personally for our moment of translation from the life we know here on earth to the life we hope for is the most difficult spiritual task of all.
It is equally so when we are dealing with the physical departure of a loved one — and how much more so when that loved one is torn away by the unforeseen horrors of an overwhelming natural disaster!
Perhaps the magnitude of losing all of one’s family is beyond anything we can consciously prepare for. When such sudden and unthinkable "natural" things happen, time and again we blame God, not humankind.
Yet life itself, like all beautiful things, cannot be appreciated in a hurry. A great poem must be read over and over again to be appreciated at its deepest and most enduring level. A beautiful landscape must be observed long and quietly for one to truly love it. A fine work of music must be listened to as a total aesthetic experience, not as the vibration of separate strings.
Similarly, the true beauty and wonder of life must be lived through success and failure, joy and sorrow, health and sickness, in community and alone.
So now it is time to think and act seriously about the lessons of this "natural" disaster which has caused such unnatural — or should I say, unnecessary — suffering.
Imagine how different the outcome might be if even a tiny fraction of the trillions of dollars spent annually on deadly warfare to design and construct buildings better able to withstand earthquakes and flooding? Or to allocate higher and less-crowded coastal areas for the poor to live and work in both safety and dignity?
It is easy to say that "a thousand difficulties need not make one doubt." Some have the gift of faith, a well-developed inner sense enabling them to see truth and meaning, even in the worst of calamities.
The majority of us, however, have to work very hard to discover, to know, to nourish, to keep and to develop our faith. But faith is also a verb — it is capable of impelling great acts. And that is where all of us "ordinary" people can make a difference.
Perhaps an ounce of preventive spiritual medicine is worth it here and now for we who are blessed to live in Canada, thousands of kilometres away from the disaster area. We must both be and do, just as "the happiest heart that ever beat was in a quiet breast that found the common daylight sweet, and left to Heaven the rest." Amen.