FINDING THE HOLY SPIRIT IN UNHOLY PLACES (Acts 2:1-11): 11 May 2008 (Pentecost Sunday)
In 2006 a terrible tragedy occurred in Leyte, Southern Philippines, and an entire village was buried by a mudslide. Among the victims were about two hundred school children and their teachers who were trapped under the earth.
The rescue effort that ensued was nothing short of heroic, but what made the whole thing excruciating for the rescue team was that some of the children and teachers were sending text messages to their relatives, begging for help.
One of them said: ““Ma’am, we are still under the school. Please help us, ma’am. This is Edilio Coquilla. Please, ma’am.”
The messages continued for a number of days until they finally stopped coming.
I had lunch with a friend from high school, a guy named John. John is a “hydrogeophysicist”—essentially, a scientist who specializes in the study of water and uses his knowledge to help improve the lives of people. He was involved in the rescue operation in the 2006 Leyte tragedy.
The international rescue team felt they had failed. The rescuers later realized why. All along, while they were digging at the original site of the school building, they had actually been looking in the wrong place. It turned out that the school building, along with the other buildings next to it, had been swept to a location almost half a kilometer away. What was even more frustrating is that since the text messages of the children were getting through, the rescuers believed that they could not have been buried more than four feet underground. In other words, they could easily have been rescued if only the team knew where to dig.
In this Leyte tragedy, more than a thousand lives were lost. The rescuers who toiled from Day 2 to 8 found not a single live person. All in all, only twenty people survived—plus one chicken and one cat.
We can’t help but ask: Where was the Holy Spirit in this tragic event? If the Holy Spirit had been present, shouldn’t the rescuers have been given the much-needed inspiration or some sort of clue as to where or how to save the innocent mudslide victims?
When John came back to Manila, he attended Mass, and the Responsorial Psalm went something like this: “Lord, I called for Your help, and You answered my prayer.” But did the Lord answer his prayer? Given the failure of the rescue team to save the children, it certainly did not seem that way.
I asked John what he thought about that. I asked him if he felt God’s presence. His answer surprised me. He said: “There was an extraordinary outpouring of generosity. More than a thousand people were searching for the kids. The children and people who were buried became our kids, our brothers and sisters. We became one family, united with one goal.”
He said that each day the rescuers thought about the kids and the people who were buried. The evening discussions with the rescue teams were always filled with hope until finally they had to make the decision to stop all rescue efforts, if only to provide a closure for the family of the victims.
That’s not all. After the rescue operation, John was able to raise P120K from his high school classmates to start the construction of telemetric rain gauges that will help gather and monitor rainfall data that can serve as early warning device to prevent such tragedies from occurring again.
And so, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, the Holy Spirit was very much present in the Leyte tragedy—although certainly not in the way people had desired or expected. And the Holy Spirit was very much active during and after the tragedy through concerned citizens and NGO’s that worked hard and gave much to prevent similar tragedies in the future. It seems then that the Holy Spirit is present and active even in our unholiest experiences. Or maybe, it would be better to say that the Holy Spirit is present and active especially in our unholiest experiences, because that is, after all, when we need the Holy Spirit the most.
I think all this tells us something very important about the Holy Spirit: We can never stereotype the Holy Spirit. We can never put the Holy Spirit in a box. The Holy Spirit refuses to be contained and limited to the so-called “holy places.” The Holy Spirit insists on crossing boundaries and to be found where the greatest need is. The mystics like to say that the Holy Spirit is like the wind that blows where it pleases. We all know how the wind can surprise us, blowing one direction one minute, and going off to a completely different direction the very next. The Holy Spirit is like that. And why not? God, after all, is a God of surprises.
Is it possible then that the Holy Spirit is present in our lives much more than we think? Is it possible then that the Holy Spirit is active in ourselves much more than we suspect? Perhaps the reason why we don’t sense the presence of the Holy Spirit as much as we can is that just like the rescuers in Leyte, we have been looking in the wrong places.
On the Feast of the Pentecost, let us open our eyes and our hearts—and seek the Holy Spirit not just where and how we expect the Holy Spirit to be—and not just where and how we want the Holy Spirit to be—but everywhere—in the holy places of our lives, but also even and especially in the unholy places.
Here’s a Quick Question for you: Are there places in my life that I don’t expect to find the Holy Spirit? Or better, are there places in myself that I don’t want to find the Holy Spirit?
(image: Teacher showing text message from child)