Last Supper made from Molten lava C: Colm Meaney

COLM MEANEY: Nature: the power and the beauty

The Philippines, a nation of islands in South-East Asia, is nicely divided into three groups: Luzon (Luz), the large island in the north, where Manila is located; Visayas (Viz), a group of islands roughly in the mid-part of the country, where Cebu is located (where the explorer Magellan met his comeuppance in 1521); and Mindanao (Minda), the large island in the south. The three abbreviations are joined to form Luzviminda – a popular girl’s name that has made its way to Ireland. The winner of the 1998 Rose of Tralee was Luzveminda O’Sullivan, from Mayo. (The letters “i” and “e” are interchangeable in Filipino spelling).

The country lies entirely north of the equator, stretching about 700 miles from north to south, 400 miles from east to west. The south of the country is quite near the equator, so therefore we don’t have the glorious long summer evenings we have in Ireland, nor do we have the short days of darkest winter. No, because of its position on the globe, in the Philippines day and night are practically of the same duration throughout the year: sunrise is around 5.30am, sunset is about 5.30pm, with a brief dawn and dusk.

When you arrive in the Philippines, the first thing to strike you is the wall of heat, as you walk in from the plane to the arrivals area, and even more so as you leave the air-conditioned airport terminal and stand in line for a taxi. The heat is unrelenting, but so is the humidity. Even after taking a cold shower, one is soon perspiring!

The country has some notable geological features. Off the eastern coast runs the Philippine Trench, which is deeper than Mt. Everest is high. The undersea trench, which is over 700 miles in length, is the deepest place on the planet, and reaches a depth of 34,000 feet (Everest is 29,000 feet). After the Trench (invisible, needless to say), the next territories one meets, going eastward, are the islands of Guam, then Saipan, eventually Hawaii. In other words, the eastern flank of the Philippines faces directly the Pacific Ocean; and this can spell trouble. The two islands most exposed to the vagaries of the Pacific are Leyte and Samar. The former may be familiar as the landing site of General McArthur during WW2, who, having been temporarily bested by the Japanese, famously said “I shall return” – which he subsequently did, and the rest, as they say, is history (featured in an earlier Gript article).

C: Picryl: Clouds of ash pour from Mount Pinatubo as the volcano erupts for the first time in over 600 years.


Leyte and Samar experience regular typhoons, but Haiyan in November 2013 beat all predictions. It was the mother-of-all storms; it is difficult to exaggerate the effects. For example, a huge ship was somehow moved inland, simply by the force of the waves and the wind. Our monastery in the city of Tacloban was sturdily built in the 1950s, so it didn’t suffer any real damage; but practically every other house around it was reduced to scrap. Numberless trees fell due to the unrelenting storm winds. Electric poles similarly fell, cables snapped, so no electricity for many areas for many weeks. One isolated town, Guiuan, practically disappeared altogether as it endured being in the eye of the storm; hardly anything remained of any of the buildings of the town of 45,000 people.

I happened to be in Cebu at that time, (about 200 miles distant, on another island), and, in Cebu city, all we experienced were a few broken windows due to severe gusts. But on the same island of Cebu, people 50 miles north of the city texted me to say that being in the path of the typhoon was similar to being pummeled in a washing-machine, the winds were so chaotic, seeming to attack from every direction. Quite a graphic comparison. Maybe Irish readers can remember Hurricane Debbie back in September 1961, to imagine the force of such a storm.

Still, as devastating as a typhoon can be, I find the earth quaking under my feet to be more unsettling. It’s a really eerie feeling when the walls of the room you are in begin to tremble, furniture begins to move, articles to fall. This is the side of Mother Nature which is most disturbing because you don’t know how long it will last or how strong the tremor will be. Most of those I’ve experienced in the southern Philippines were pretty harmless, but there certainly have been major quakes in recent years. Is one safer under a door jamb or is it better to be out of doors?

There are really just two seasons in the Philippines, dry and rainy.  The rains are reminiscent of Noah, as if they will continue non-stop for forty days, thundering earthward in torrential downpours. Good fun for the children in the squatter areas in the cities as they frolic innocently in the floods.

Still, floods, for all the inconvenience they cause, may indeed bring their blessings. I was in a remote region of the island of Negros in mid-December 2012 when we heard on the radio that there had been serious flooding in Dumaguete (the city where I was officially assigned, about 100 miles from the mission area). We were celebrating the 9 days of pre-dawn Masses preparing for Christmas; I announced, a few days in advance, that I was going to Dumaguete on December 23rd, and if they wanted to send any food assistance, that would be welcome; they could bring their offering to the chapel. Well, the response was most heartening. Almost two sacks of rice were donated, which was gratefully received in the city.

The soil in the Philippines is especially fertile due mainly to the number of volcanoes, the spewing of lava over the millennia guaranteeing a perennially rich harvest, no matter what the crop. Most of the volcanoes are extinct or at least dormant, although there was a mighty eruption in 1991 of Mt. Pinatubo (on the island of Luzon). Volcanic ash reached 22 miles into the atmosphere and spread to many parts of the globe. Amazingly, global temperatures were affected for a few years, so dense was the spewed volcanic ash.  Incredibly, only about 350 people died due to the eruption, mostly due to collapsing roofs, then some others perished from subsequent diseases. Perhaps any nation can recover from a disastrous natural calamity, but Filipinos can do it with aplomb.

When Mt. Pinatubo erupted, a huge amount of volcanic ash was spewed over a large area; this ash is technically called lahar, a greyish viscous substance. It covered churches and other large buildings; in fact there was something biblical about the lahar’s extensive presence; like the plague of locusts before the Exodus from Egypt, it “shall cover the surface of the soil so thick that the soil will not be seen” (Ex: 10:5) – such was the lahar: ubiquitous. So, what do you do with such a vast amount of seemingly-useless sludge? The Filipino answer: use it creatively, which is exactly what was done.  Using the hardened lahar, various decorative scenes were sculpted as memorials of the eruption and also as much needed income. Lovely handiwork, proof that disaster is not the last word.

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