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A song and prayer for Leyte

I was out of the country when Supertyphoon “Yolanda” (international name: “Haiyan”) hit the Visayas.  The distance did not lessen my concern and anxiety, and I was glued to the TV set every morning and night for five days, closely following the hourly updates on all the cable news channels.  I appreciated the CNN’s extensive coverage throughout the day and applauded its reporters for braving the rain, stink, heat, and danger to be able to report straight from ground zero—Tacloban City.

“Haiyan” are Chinese characters for “sea gulls.” The harsh wailing and squawking calls typical of the sea gull are exactly what we heard from the footage of the supertyphoon in real time. The disturbing images on TV in the past several days of devastation and death were just overwhelming.  I remember watching a young man trying to pull out a corpse from the debris. Another man, older, was helping him, and when they succeeded the older man (probably just a passerby) gently patted him on the back, comforting him as he wiped away his tears.

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On the plane returning to Manila I tried to relax. I clicked the flight’s selections of classical music. One of the albums on the menu was George Frederic Handel’s “Messiah” conducted by Georg Solti, the same version that I have at home. I picked the opening tenor recitative and aria, and the words, heard a hundred times before, suddenly sounded so timely and relevant, if not strangely provoking:

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God…

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Prepare ye the way of the Lord,

make straight in the desert a highway for our God…

Every valley shall be exalted,

and every mountain and hill made low,

the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.

I couldn’t help but sigh deeply. Comfort. How do we comfort those who survived the horrible disaster alone and now have lost the rest of their family? How do we comfort those who have given their best talents and resources to the city now lying flat and deserted? How do we comfort those who had no food or water for days?  Where do they go next?  What will happen to them next?

But yes, we shall comfort them, and yes, they will find comfort, if not soon, then slowly.

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As I listened to the oratorio aria based on Isaiah: 40 again, I acknowledged that we cannot contend with the sovereign God who has the power to make the valley and mountain change places, or question His wisdom to make the straight and crooked be their opposites. God’s ways are, indeed, mysterious.  When God speaks and rules, we can only tremble in awe. I always feel the awesomeness of God the most when I’m thousands of feet from the ground. It gives me a proper perspective of the divine and the human, as the next piece on Messiah will continue to say, “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it.”

As we neared Manila, I looked out the plane window and saw a most beautiful display of clouds and colors.  The sun was setting. And the sky became a magnificent canvas of blue and orange. I quickly took out my small camera and from a small window captured a few frames of this wonderful exhibition of beauty.

Enjoying this splendor of nature, I clicked the next album, “Libera,” and listened to the angelic boy choir as it sang my favorite hymn, “Abide with Me”:

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;

The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide;

When other helpers fail and comforts flee,

Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;

Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away;

Change and decay in all around I see-

O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;

Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies;

Heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;

In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me. (Henry Lyte, 1847)

As darkness deepens and when all comforts flee, the one who changes not still abides with us, in life or in death. May the words of this hymn bring a degree of comfort and hope to our fellow beings who are grappling with sorrow and despair amid the massive destruction.

I dedicate this song and prayer most especially to an unnamed mother who I saw on TV today. She had folded her dead baby aged a few months neatly inside a jacket and she sat on a bench of a now deserted hospital, looking helpless and hopeless. She looked at the lifeless body and was saying sorry for not being able to save her baby, and now not being able to take away the smell of the corpse.

There was no one to soothe her pain, no way for her to embalm and bury her child. There she waited—unsure, for what or for how long. My heart goes out to her.  May You, O Lord, abide with her.

Grace Shangkuan Koo, PhD ([email protected]) is an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of the Philippines College of Education.

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TAGS: Commentary, Grace Shangkuan Koo, Haiyan, Leyte, opinion, Tacloban, Yolanda
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