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The cave, the monk and spirituality

We were taken in a whirlwind of emotions when we saw 12 teenage boys, members of a Thai soccer team, and their coach trapped in a cave for two weeks. When out on an excursion, the team explored a cave, which, in a freak turn of events, flooded and left them trapped. Maria Clara Bingemer, a popular Brazilian theologian, reflects on the experience that seems to have kept them alive during the harrowing 10-day ordeal that ensued before they were brought to safety. 

For those who find their belief in humanity waning the recent episode of the rescue of twelve Thai teenagers from a flooded cave was beautifully surprising. A wave of solidarity was seen from one end of the planet to the other.

Streams of well-wishes and positive feelings from all corners of the world found their way to the cave where the boys and their coach were trapped. The heroism of so many, who travelled from other countries to assist in the rescue was admirable. In a time as troubled as our present one, this is truly a reencounter of humanity with itself, as the academic Rosiska Darcy de Oliveira said recently.

The twelve boys and their coach remained in the cave where the heavy floods overwhelmed them and kept them there isolated for days with very little food and in extremely precarious conditions. When they were eventually found, the whole world was impressed that they were in good physical condition despite the extreme situation in which they found themselves living. But, despite this, they drew the attention of the public even more by the calm and balance that they kept throughout the rescue operation, from the time they were found to the time they were removed from the cave

It would be normal to expect fear, panic and agitation from a group of teenagers, comprising a football team, who found themselves confined in a dark cave for several days, not knowing how they would get out to safety. Insecurity, coupled with food scarcity and the limits of dry ground in the flooded cave, would be justification enough to leave the children shaken and vulnerable.

In the meantime, what we saw was a group of calm children, living through the difficulty they were going through, with a smile on their faces and with great serenity. None cried or showed any signs of anguish or distress. And, they remained like this throughout the entire rescue operation – filled with expectations and endless postponements as it was.

What is the secret of this peace and equilibrium? What spirit hovered in this cave that was able to reassure twelve children in danger? I believe that the answer lies in something that accompanies the human being from its origins and that throughout history has taken diverse and fascinating forms and configurations: spirituality. That is, the capacity of the human being to rise beyond the sensory and the rational, and to experience transcendence.

In the case of the “Wild Boars” team, that moved the world, it seems that the immediate source of their admirable coping in such an adverse situation finds its roots in the person of their coach Ekapol Chanthawong. It was he who took them on the excursion that would take them “out” of the cave while they were still trapped in it. But it was also he, who led them in the process of resistance that allowed them to conserve their life and energies so that they could be saved and returned to their families.

The coach, before occupying himself with soccer teams, had been a Buddhist monk, living in a monastery from the age of twelve. He left the monastery to look after his sick grandmother. But it was there that, for over a decade, he also learned the method and techniques of Buddhist meditation. And when he left, he took with him the spirituality that he had lived in the monastery. The monastery had impressed itself upon him so much so, that to this day he makes a point of keeping contact with the community living there. According to the abbot of the monastery, Chanthawong continues to meditate regularly.

It seems that, when realising the situation of isolation in which he was with the boys, he began to teach them to meditate. The goal was to keep them calm and preserve their energies while they were trapped there. For two weeks, in the end. Each one meditated for an hour each day, and this helped them to resist, for the entire time that they were in the cave until they were found and rescued.

In addition to helping the boys by giving them the best that he had – his spirituality – the coach literally gave them life by taking from his own.   He fasted and did not eat during the days of seclusion so that more of the already little food available to the group would be left for the boys. And he was the last to be released and see the sunlight again. Certainly, his long years of asceticism in the monastery were central to this attitude and practice.

In this moment while we are still living, together with the euphoria of the World Cup, the relief and joy of seeing all those in the cave finally safe and sound, we are led to reflect on the importance of spirituality in our lives.

The rich, admirable and ancient Buddhist tradition aims to lead people towards enlightenment and peace of mind. It could have been another tradition. The important thing, in this case, is to realise the greatness of our human condition. So precarious and fragile that it has to rely on the little strength it has to survive in difficult situations. But, so incredibly beautiful and elevated that it is able to face great difficulties thanks to the spirit that enlivens a finite and mortal corporeality.

The team of the Wild Boars and their coach point us to a greater importance. It is necessary to cultivate the spirit, to invest in the spiritual life, be it in whatever religious tradition it is. It certainly makes life more worthy of its very name. And it can help us tremendously when we find ourselves isolated in some dark, flooded cave without even having a glimpse of a possible exit.

*Published in Dom Total, a Jesuit-affiliated news portal in Brazil. The article is by Maria Clara Bingemer, Brazilian theologian, noted author, professor and dean of the Theology Department of PUC-Rio (Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) and is translated into English by Ricardo da Silva SJ.

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* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.