Differences no Barrier to Love

When Celine de Silva was a young woman she decided to leave her native Sri Lanka to study nursing in London.  It was there that she fell in love with Thilak, a Sri Lankan also studying abroad. In fact, Thilak’s family home was only a few kilometres away from Celine’s family in one of the suburbs of Colombo.  Once the pair decided to marry, Celine realised she would have to tell her father that she was going to enter into a “mixed marriage.”

Buddhism was not foreign to Celine and her family.  In Sri Lanka about 70% of the population is Buddhist, and only about 6% is Catholic.  When Celine announced to her father that she was to marry a Buddhist, he asked her whether the man would be converting to Catholicism.   Celine admits to telling him a small lie and she replied, “No Dad, Thilak’s parents have asked him the same question as to whether I would be converting to Buddhism and he has said “No!”  Celine’s father never mentioned it again.  And so it was that Celine married Thilak  in 1982.

Just as they were finding their feet, Celine and Thilak discovered that their first baby was on the way.  Financially things were tough, but they were overjoyed at the prospect of becoming parents.  They saved money by sharing one car and limiting public transport use.  Their regular routine would involve Thilak driving Celine to her early morning shifts, he would then sleep in the car until he had to be at work and Celine would wait in the ‘staff room at the hospital until Thilak finished. Baby Melissa was born in 1983 and with much encouragement from family members, the de Silvas made the decision to migrate to Australia – the land of opportunity.

It would be easy to finish this story here by saying that the de Silvas worked hard, had another baby, integrated into the Australian way of life and lived happily ever after.  Yet, their story is so much richer because of their different faith traditions and their struggles to make a good life for their family.  And by a good life Celine and Thilak wanted more than just financial security.  A good life for them has been one that has risen out of a respect for diversity and at times, adversity.

You see, Celine is no stranger to sadness.  When she was 14, her mum died of a stroke.  Of the eight children, she has lost two brothers aged 56 and 50 and one sister aged 61 owing to heart conditions.    Celine herself has had procedure three times to have stents inserted.  In many ways, it has been the love of her husband, children, siblings and her strong Catholic faith that has sustained Celine through these deaths and other sadness.    Celine was raised in a devout Catholic family with the rich traditions of rosaries, novenas, family prayer, pictures of the saints, holy symbols and of course, the Mass.  Many family members were priests and religious sisters, including Celine’s sister who became a Sister of Charity.

Sr Bernie was responsible for a home for the destitute in Colombo. “Samata Sarana”, which translates to “help for everyone,” provided practical and loving help to the poorest of the poor.  Celine likens it to the work done by St Vincent de Paul, in that “Samata Sarana” provided a “hand up, not a hand out”.

So given all this Catholic background, it seemed natural to ask Celine how she has stayed strong in her Catholic faith, and embraced her husband’s Buddhist way of life.  Celine takes me back in time to a few years after the birth of their second daughter, Samantha.  In 1990 the family moved to the southern end of Canberra and Celine met her Parish Priest, Fr Peter Gannon.  Celine was sharing the  difficulties and differences that exist when two people wish to stay both connected to their faith traditions and respectful of the others traditions.  Fr Peter gave her some sound advice and told her not to worry; reminding her that God is much greater than this.   And that, in fact, Celine had already done much of the hard work before she got married.  When she had met Thilak she had already demonstrated that Mass attendance, prayer and being “Catholic” was who she was.  Celine understood and respected that Thilak was Buddhist, and that was who he was.  It was now a matter of integrating the two traditions in a way that did not diminish either one.

So, Celine, Thilak, Melissa and Samantha got on with life.  The girls were baptised, went to Catholic schools and attended Mass with their Mum and on special occasions Thilak would join them.  He would also get involved in the practical side of “church things” such as putting out the chairs in the Mass Centre.  When there were special events at the Buddhist Temple, the family would attend.  They regularly participate in “dane” which is similar to the Catholic idea of alms giving.

Celine describes Buddhism as a very lovely way of life as it teaches you how to still your mind and to live peacefully.  Both traditions hold family life in high regard, and this means carefully balancing financial and emotional support for each other.  I notice that Celine and Thilak did not do either of these in half measures.  As an example, Celine realized that nursing was not going to be a good career if she was to be present for her daughters when they needed her in the evening and weekends.  Celine had done some accounting studies back in London, so she found herself a job in the public service and worked her way up the ranks.

In trying to juggle the demands of a working mum, she recalls her daughter being severely reprimanded by a school teacher because she had arrived in the playground before ‘official care’ commenced.  Celine was furious and somewhat guilty that her daughter had received the blame for this. But Celine recognises that this is the life of working parents  – constantly trying to do what is right for the children, and ensuring that work commitments are met.

It would seem that the girls did not suffer from a few early mornings in the schoolyard!  They prospered at school, went off to university and have now both married.  Melissa married Simon; a young man from London and Samantha married Lachlan, a country boy from Griffith, NSW.  Last year, a new generation began with the birth of Dylan, a baby boy for Melissa and Simon.  Celine has just retired and Thilak will soon join her.  The overwhelming joy that is expressed by “Archie” and “Seeya”, Sinhalese for grandmother and grandfather is contagious.

I take Celine back to my initial question about how a couple in a mixed marriage survive and thrive.  Celine says that first there must be respect, and then she relays a story about an ongoing spiritual journey that the two of them share.  There is a Catholic church in the little town of Mulgoa near Sydney.  Whenever they go that way, or whenever there is a major event taking place in their lives they go to this church.  Celine says that she lights candles and says her prayers and Thilak sits quietly in one of the pews.  She is not sure what Thilak does or thinks, but she doesn’t pry and accepts this as a shared sacramental moment of love.

And so what of Dylan – what will his future be?  Celine shares one more story.  Every morning she rises very early.  She drinks a cup of coffee, does her morning exercises and then goes to her “altar”.  This is a special place with candles, pictures of loved ones, prayer cards and holy symbols.  She prays quietly for her family and for people who have asked her to pray for them. She prays some time-honoured traditional prayers and then sits quietly with God.  As is the Sri Lankan way, she finishes by kissing the cross that hangs on a chain around her neck.  If Dylan is there, he reaches for the cross and kisses it too, and then presses it to Celine’s lips for her kiss.  As Fr Peter said, “God is so much greater than we can ever imagine.”