The heart of love, a shepherd

by Jean Marie Fernandez


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I have been curious about and intrigued by the story of the 12 boys and their soccer coach who were trapped in the Tham Luang Cave complex in Northern Thailand. As I reflected on this story, I was deeply moved by this profound experience of the boys and their coach and, in particular, the symbolism of the cave.

Imagine being lost in a cave or a dark labyrinth! Trying to find their path through it represented a spiritual journey of nine days for these boys and their coach, swimming through the waters from darkness into light.

They were afraid as they dug tunnels with a stone, trying to find a way out, but found strength in each other and formed a close bond among themselves as they waited to be rescued.

In the videos of the British divers who arrived on the scene, the boys' faces showed little trace of trauma and fear. In fact they were smiling — their shepherds had come to their rescue. The whole world breathed a sigh of relief. Prayers of gratitude and solidarity came from the four corners of the Earth.

Symbolically caves are often associated with water, representing spiritual energy. But this story also spoke to me of the symbolic heart.

The boys had little food and drink — they survived using water dripping from the cave. Ekkapol Ake Chantawong, the 25-year-old coach, was the weakest of the group at their rescue because he had shared most of his limited share of food with the boys early on. He loved the boys more than himself. This is truly the heart of love — a shepherd; one who lays down his life for others!

Ake taught the boys meditation and deep breathing techniques which helped them remain calm and centered in the cave of their hearts. He had learned it in a Buddhist monastery which he entered as an orphan of 10, after a traumatic loss of his parents and brother. He knew the meaning of suffering, loneliness and grief.

As I watched the story unfold each day, my heart shifted and slowly expanded, knowing that it was the heart of love that made all things possible. Our shepherd God found a way and led them through dangerous waters to valleys of green.

As a Good Shepherd Sister, I have prayed Psalm 23, the shepherd's Psalm, multiple times. "Even though I walk through the valleys of death, I fear no evil for you are with me. Your rod and staff comfort me." This story brought me to a deeper understanding and appreciation of Ake the soccer coach, who was a true shepherd.

I saw parallels between Ake and our foundress, St. Mary Euphrasia. She experienced the loss of her sister and father at about the same age has he had, and had to move away from her family to a boarding school where she suffered deep loneliness.

But this deep spiritual experience gave her faith and trust in the heart of our shepherd God. Her inspiring quote, "I only loved, and I have loved with all the strength of my soul," is the legacy I carry in my heart — that of love in the heart of our shepherd God.

Only through contemplation and stillness can our hearts be transformed. Freed from the weight of our negative emotions and with our hearts full of compassion, we can understand how connected we are with all of creation and humanity. The soccer coach and the 12 boys revealed to the world the face of divine love in new ways.

I wonder if these encounters were just for the people on the soccer team, or is it a message for all of us today? Can we be transformed by encounter with God in the cave of our hearts? I know deep in my heart how this extraordinary story has changed my life.

As a religious vowed for 25 years in consecrated life, I know the value and deep purpose that meditation, stillness and silence are for me. I sit for at least an hour daily, experiencing a sense of God's presence. I reflect on the daily Scripture and feed my soul by other practices. Only through this centering — finding a "home" within me — can I find balance, equanimity, strength and courage to carry out the mission of the Good Shepherd Sisters.

Love is at the heart of the universe. All the decisions of the international rescue team that worked with the Thai government were focused on the dignity and value of each of these boys. All persons who helped in this daring mission had the heart of a shepherd.

I was saddened to hear that one Thai Navy Seal died during the pre-rescue operation. But even in death, the Thai community — volunteers, the international rescue team, neighbors and friends, the parents and relatives of the boys — grew strong together. They became a resilient community, sharing power, strength and support with each other. Most importantly, they joined hearts and hands, praying and keeping hope-filled vigil. This collective resilience kept them grounded in love in the heart of the shepherd.

When people come together in right action, love abounds no matter how complex the situation is. I ponder on this:

  • What happens when we meet God in the cave of our hearts?
  • Do we see God in all things — throughout each ordinary day?
  • Do we have a profound trust in our shepherd God who loves us?
  • Are we able to tunnel our way out of roadblocks, remembering that our God journeys with us, even in times of darkness?
  • Do we believe that our shepherd God can move mountains and bring us out of darkness into the light?
  • Can we experience the power and presence of Love that connects all of humanity and creation?

Today, the soccer coach and the 12 boys are living a life of their experience of transformation. Recently, the boys were ordained as novice monks to honor their fallen rescuer. Their lives are forever changed — and I am changed! God can make a way, where there is no way. I see life through a new lens and from a whole new perspective, rewriting the narrative of my life.

[Good Shepherd Sr. Jean Marie Fernandez is an Indian who was born in Malaysia, raised in Singapore and currently lives as a missionary in San Francisco working as a counselor and case manager at a center for the homeless. She serves on the provincial leadership team and is vocation director for the Good Shepherd Sisters' Province of Mid-North America.]