In the Shadow of the Volcano

It was a sunny Sunday morning, and the cone of the volcano stood out clearly against the blue sky, with a layer of white clouds above it. This was a photograph that could not be ignored.

By the time we came out of church three hours later, clouds had lowered and darkened behind the volcano and a faint plume of black smoke was rising from the cone once more.

It was a reminder that the Volcán de Fuego is by no means dormant.

Is this startling? Not exactly. Does it mean the volcano is unpredictable? Exactly.

Does this worry me? Well . . . it’s not exactly news. And if we needed a reminder that there is always the potential for natural disaster in this area, the earthquake that happened while I was writing this will do nicely. There was another aftershock just a few minutes ago as I sat at the keyboard.

In the spring of 1966 when I was living in Guatemala City, we could stand on the flat roof of our house at night and see lava flowing down the side of the volcano. Many residents of this city have lived within sight of an active volcano all their lives.

It would be easy for others to take note from a distance, especially in light of recent events, and feel gratitude that they do not live with disaster poised on the horizon.

But it may not be very wise to feel complacent because of distance. We all live in the shadow of the volcano, wherever we are. We can’t see the telltale smoke or feel the occasional tremor in the earth, yet we live with the potential for disaster lurking on our horizon.

I’m not thinking only of the earthquake that comes without warning or the tornado that drops suddenly out of a darkening sky. I’m thinking of the times we live in, when hatred, bloodshed, or psychological catastrophe can boil up out of the simmering kettle of moral decay. One day we may feel life is going well and the next we might be dealing with unforeseen personal tragedy.

Do we have the emotional emergency kit to cope with what might come?

The most critical component in that kit will be our faith. Nothing else will be so important in dealing with disaster. But the kit will also need to include generous supplies of emotional stability and self-reliance.

Sunday morning on the street in front of our meetinghouse.

You don’t see people in Guatemala City looking over their shoulders every morning to check on the volcano. (“Will this be the day it blows?”) When the earthquake ended today, most people simply went right back to work—although some who had lived through the devastating 1976 temblor stood in the street for a while before they dared to come back into the building.

Maybe it’s easy to tell yourself that these things happen occasionally, you can’t do anything about them, so life just goes on. It’s certainly easier to believe that from 100 miles away than it would be in San Marcos, where walls fell today, people died, and thousands are still without power. And as for those personal, very emotional tragedies, we really can’t anticipate those either, can we? We can only try our best to handle them when they come.

You could easily develop a degree of fatalism about physical disasters when you look at the potential around the globe and realize it’s impossible to avoid peril completely, no matter where you live. The area where I grew up in South Texas occasionally is a target for killer hurricanes. Our home in Salt Lake City sits not far from the Wasatch Fault, and “they” sometimes say that “the Big One” is overdue.

Fatalism is not helpful, and it will certainly be of little comfort when “they” turn out to be right.

With the earthquake this week, we have an object lesson proving that physical disaster can happen in this area at any time.

I’m not going to spend my time here on constant volcano watch, or constantly checking out all the most solid doorways just in case. But it seems like a good idea to keep some food, water, and a few emergency supplies on hand, and to know possible escape routes. As for the other kind of disaster—the very personal, emotional kind—I’m working on those supplies of faith, stability, and self-reliance in my emergency kit.

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