ON SABBATICAL: A pilgrimage to Mt. Banahaw

Finally, the opportunity arose with my sabbatical year. Since pilgrimage is some kind of a leitmotif of my sabbatical, I planned to include Mt. Banahaw in my itinerary. As I waited for the approval of visas to the countries I would go to as pilgrim, I took off to Quezon Province on August 20 to 22, 2006.

Thanks to the FMM Sisters' community in Sariaya who hosted me, the Mendoza family who provided me hospitality while I stayed in Sta. Lucia, Dolores, Quezon and my guides, Allan Abesamis and Pepay Mendoza,  I had a wonderful pilgrimage in Mt. Banahaw.

A pilgrimage to Mt. Banahaw is a most unique spiritual experience as it combines a number of what ordinarily are opposing elements in today's society. Here the politics of a nationhood forged in revolution co-exist with the spirituality of liberation; the culture of folk Catholicism rests gently with the semiotics of indigenous mysticism. The symbols of a country that aspires towards lofty ideals of freedom and justice are at the same time the signs of a militant faith that seeks to build communities (samahans) of truth and righteousness.

There are places in the Philippines that every Filipino – if only all can afford to travel – should reach, visit, see and experience like Mt. Apo, the Cordillera's mountain terraces, Bohol's chocolate hills, Marawi's mosques by the lakeside, the Ati-atihan and Boracay, Lake Sebu, Palawan, Quiapo and Baclaran. Include in this list the mystical mountain of Mt. Banahaw.

I've been very lucky in terms of having visited many beautiful places, some of which bring the sojourner peace and joy because God's presence here is quite palpable. The days that I spent in Mt. Banahaw afforded such blessings.

The peak of Mt. Banahaw can actually be climbed at its various sides, either from Sariaya, Dolores and other places around the mountain. Since my interest was to spend time with the samahans (literally associations but referred to by the anthropologist, P. Covar, as social movements) and go on a pamumwesto (walk through the sacred spots and do what a pilgrim is expected to do) I decided I would go up Mt. Banahaw through Dolores.

Since my base was Sariaya, Allan (my guide) and I travelled by bus to Tiaong, took the jeep to the poblacion of Dolores and a tricycle to Barangay Sta. Lucia which is part of Dolores. The travel took about two hours including waiting for the jeep to be filled with passengers. The travel is actually quite pleasant as the roads are cemented/asphalted all the way to Sta. Lucia.

When we arrived in Dolores, Allan and I first went inside the Catholic Church. At the main altar is the patron saint, Our Lady of Sorrows. It is not coincidental that Dolores (meaning sorrow) would have as its patron saint, our Lady as one of sorrows. But since I arrived in Sariaya, I noticed now popular this title of Mary is around this province. Is there a correlation between the sad history of this province (with its long series of revolts and massacres) and Mary's sorrows? As soon as one steps down at Sta. Lucia, one immediately sees the sign – PATALASTAS ANG BANAHAW AY SARADO PA! (ANNOUNCEMENT BANAHAW IS STILL CLOSED!) It is prominently displayed near the Barangay Hall. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the Local Government have both declared some parts of Mt. Banahaw closed to mountaineers and pilgrims. The signboard indicates what these areas are on the side of Sariaya and the side of Dolores.

The closure of some parts of Mt. Banahaw – including the forested areas and the peaks – began on March 2004 and will last for five years. Through the past decades, there have been cutting of trees in these areas; mountaineers and trekkers have polluted these areas with the garbage that they brought along destroying the delicate eco-system of the mountain. Thus the ban for five years, much like what happened at Mt. Apo. Luckily, the places I wanted to see are not within the off-limits zone so my pilgrimage would not be affected by such ordinance.

However, when one is in Sta. Lucia one immediately notices the changes in the surroundings compared to the lowland areas of Quezon, including the poblacion of Dolores. Since Sta. Lucia is already more than half-way of Mt. Banahaw's more than 5,000 feet, this place is quite rustic and the various shades of green are greener here than in the lowlands. Around the area one is delighted to be confronted with scenic landscapes. And later that day as I walked around, there was even a small green snake that wiggled its way across the road. Lucky for me, I saw it before I stepped on it.

Those familiar with the vast Philippine (and even foreign) literature written on Mt. Banahaw(especially those written by the likes of Sturtevant, Covar, Ileto, Enriquez, Gorospe, Reyes, the Pamathalaan group) which traverse through the various social sciences to literary criticism to theology and spirituality, think of Mt. Banahaw in terms of the samahans that go a long way to the Colorum before the turn of the century.

As of today, there are approximately a hundred of them peacefully co-existing with each other. The most famous ones as they have been subjects of various researches are the La Iglesia del Ciudad Mistica de Dios and the Tres Personas Solo Dios. But there are also smaller samahans like the Bangon Bayan Banal (BBB), the Spiritual Filipino Catholic Church (with the statue of Rizal placed prominently in the frontyard), the Rosa Mistica, Nuestra Senora del Carmen, Samahan ni Tandang Sora and others. There is even a newly set-up Protestant denomination, the Jesus our Lord MBJM. There are all kinds of signs to be read along the streets of Mt. Banahaw apart from the name of the different samahans. There are also the signs indicating where the various places are so the pilgrim knows which road to take. (The road to Sta. Lucia Falls is for the pamuestos and that of Kinabuhan goes all the way to the last samahan – the Tres Personas – before one reaches the off-limit zones) [Continued tomorrow]

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar of Davao City, former head of the Redemptorist Itinerant Mission Team and author of several books, including “To be poor and obscure,” and “Mystic Wanderers in the Land of Perpetual Departures,” is on a year-long sabbatical).