ON SABBATICAL: A pilgrimage to Mt. Banaha

The following morning, I went through my second pamuemuesto. This time my guide was Eddie Bagtas, originally from Malabon but who has lived in Mt. Banahaw in the past two decades. He acts as a pamuemuesto guide for the pilgrims; he claims the best time is the summer months, especially the Holy Week,when thousands of people find their way to this holy mountain. During the raining months such as August, his schedule is not too hectic. He is already quite knowledgeable as to the legends, stories and significance of the sites of Mt. Banahaw. As he explains these to the pilgrim, one is face to face with a local historian-theologian, since he not only tells stories within the history of Mt. Banahaw but also theologize on these events.

In this second route, one goes up the steep surface of Mt. Banahaw which means manuevering through rocks and limestones, moss-covered trails and bushes. Along the route one is confronted with different kinds of caves which have been turned into shrines of the likes of Mary in her different titles, the Sto. Nino, St. Francis of Assissi, Peter and Paul and others. There were a few pilgrims we met at these puestos who lighted candles, stopped for meditation or read from their prayer books. The most impressive was that of Ina ng Awa (Mother of Mercy). Eddie told me that on Sundays this place was filled with people as they pay homage to Our Lady as well as offer their prayers to her. The most striking element of this puesto is the big rock at the entrance of this shallow cave. The rock is in the shape of a huge heart and is kept in place by other rocks. Eddie said that despite so many earthquakes in the past, this rock remains firmly ensconced. It hangs up there on the ceiling of the cave, serving as a sentinel for the pilgrim, reminding the pilgrim of Our Lady's big heart of mercy. In fact, if one's eye can see formations on the rock, there is a silhouette of a mother and child embossed on the surface of the heart-rock making the sight doubly mystical.

When Eddie told me that this was the shrine of Ina ng Awa, I intuited that inside the cave there would be an icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help. I was right, in fact there were two of such icons: one that was already faded and one that is relatively new with its bright colors. There is also a picture of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and a plastic Sto. Nino. Eddie and I stayed longest in this shrine as I collected my thoughts, as I remembered family, confreres and friends needing help and as I prayed for my own sabbatical intentions.

The rest of the pamuemuesto brought us further up the slopes of Mt. Banahaw. The last puesto had jars filled with water from the spring coming out of Mt. Banahaw, a refreshing drink for the tired pilgrim. One also notices these semi-permanent structures along the route. There are actually some houses that have been built further down. But as one goes up, one sees all these structures which are empty during the rainy months. According to Eddie, these tents are filled with pilgrims who stay for days and weeks in the summer serving as their temporary abode while visiting Mt. Banahaw. During my visit, they seemed like abandoned huts of some hamletted villages.

After this pamuemuesto, I said goodbye to Eddie and I proceeded to Kinabuhayan to visit the shrine of Tres Personas Solo Dios. Kinabuhayan is around five kilometers from Sta. Lucia and one climbs steadily the slope of Mt. Banahaw to reach this adjacent barangay. I walked from Sta. Lucia to Kinabuhayan as I thought it was the more natural way for a pilgrim to reach this place. It took about 30 minutes to reach the site of this other popularly known samahan in Mt. Banahaw.

It was a quiet day and I was the only visitor. I saw immediately the white-painted statue of the Samahan Persona Solo Dios founder, Mr. Ilustre who originated from Bantayan Island in Cebu. I sat there for a while and contemplated the symbols of this spot which serves as both shrine site and stage. There was a huge dove at the top, on the background is painted the name of the samahan and when it was founded. A slight drizzle fell and I heard the rustle of the wind across the leaves of the tall trees – narra, mahogany and the like – surrounding the shrine. After the quiet meditation, I went to the house beside the church to inquire if I could enter the church. There were women who were cleaning and washing dishes. I asked to be allowed to enter the church and one of the young girls opened the door of the church. Inside, I was immediately confronted with the image of the altar which has appeared in many a historical books, including Rey Ileto's Pasyon and Revolution.

It is the image of the Solo Dios (which is at the top of the blue triangle) hovering over three figures who all have the face of Jesus Christ (long hair, beard and all). But they are the God the Father, the Spirit and the Son. A dove figure is between the white-bearded figure at the top and the one who is the center of the three figures. Below the painted three figures is the statue of the three figures, providing some kind of a repetition of the same image as well as providing a sense of depth to the 3 figures. On both sides of the three figures are two angels. There are also other symbols on both sides of the backdrop including an ear, a hand writing, a judgment tableau, a figure that could be Mary and a prophet figure. It is, indeed, a picture with a rich imagery, no wonder it's been used as illustration in many history books.

I sat there quietly inside the church for some time to contemplate the image on the altar. It was possible to appreciate it at its different layers of meanings, as well as its aesthetics. It has a very distinct Filipino texture and design – a lot of putting together of signs and symbols and using bright primary colors. The paint used is the one that one can ordinarily buy in a hardware shop. The drawings manifest the rich popular religiosity tradition which incorporates numerology, komiks type of illustration and a sense of pang-fiesta pageantry. In short, truly an art form evolving out of the masa. However, there are many nuances of meanings in this whole art illustration if one were to include the plastic flowers, the candles and other artifacts. Filipino religiosity offers the element of sensual vision, touch, symmetry of lines and a child-like simplicity. 

After I left the church, I chatted a while with Jose Illustre, a son of the Founder. He had no major preoccupations that day so he was taking it easy. He was outside when I exited the church and we chatted while he smoked a cigarette. He told me the story of how his father founded this samahan beginning with his enlightenment in Bantayan and the subsequent departure for Mt. Banahaw. He also explained their matriarchal leanings: all their "obispa" and "pari" were women, they have always been governed by women, those who were ordained necessarily had to opt for celibacy. He said that there were more women priests in Tres Personas compared to La Ciudad Mistica. He invited me to their annual fiesta on August 27 when three more women will be ordained to the priesthood. They go through "formation" under the obispa who gives them lessons. [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).