ON SABBATICAL: A pilgrimage to Mt. Banahaw (2)

The signs and symbols in the villages located at various levels of Mt. Banahaw show the convergences of the many facets of this locality that try to peacefully co-exist with one another.

There are the religious signs along with ecological exhortations (Linis Labas – Clean outside) and religious aspirations (Linis Loob – Clean inside).

Across the Barangay Hall in Sta. Lucia is the headquarters of the military which suggests that Mt. Banahaw – like many mountain areas in the country – has its share of modern-day rebels, namely, the NPAs. Is this the case of history repeating itself? As there were rebels known as colorums (as well as tulisanes or those with sharp – tulis – arms) during the height of the Spanish colonial era, are there still rebels in this area until today?

The most ubiquitous, dominant and striking of symbols in Mt. Banahaw is the triangle with an eye. It appears everywhere from the landscape design to altar-shrines, above two pieces of cement on which the Ten Commandments are etched and the murals inside the different churches. Here its reference is, of course, God's all-seeing eye. (I wonder if anyone would think of Big Brother's eye as in the novel l984). In my reflection as I walked around, I was reminded of our own logo as Redemptorists, where this eye refers to Jeremiah 1:11. It is supposed to be the eye that makes us able to see "the signs of the times" long before others see them.

First major stop of my pilgrimage is to visit the Suprema dela Ciudad Mistica de Dios, Inc. Fortunately, the Suprema – Nanay Isabela Suarez – was around to receive Allan, Pepay and myself.

The gate of the samahan's compound is quite dramatic. It towers to about more than 70 feet, the equivalent of a 12-storey building, dwarfing people who pose for photographs. A flag, two crisscrossed swords and fire coming out of two giant pots are the symbols on top of the gate. The gate itself is plastered with colorful flags of all nations in the world. At the bottom on both sides of the gate are angels, big birds and jars. It is quite a sight!

Inside the compound is the big house where the Suprema lives, lines of dormitories used as lodging for those who need shelter on permanent and temporary basis and the church where the members gather to pray in the mornings and evenings. The Suprema, Nanay Isabel, was most solicitous and hospitable to our small group. We were immediately asked to sit in the big receiving room and served merienda. She was not well and was going to see her doctor in Lucena City the following day (she has problems with her stomach). However, she still sat down with us and was willing to have a conversation until we run out of questions to ask.

I actually began by just asking the simple question: how did your samahan arise? Having been "interviewed" a thousand times, she could tell their story with eyes closed and her command of the Quezon Tagalog was remarkable as one could tell by the richness of her vocabulary. There was hardly any English word that was uttered. I only interrupted where I needed to be sure about the facts or didn't immediately catch what she meant by the words she said. But no amount of interruption could disturb the flow of her narrative. She was actually reciting the epic story of their samahan from her heart.

It began with the birth of their Foundress with the name Maria who when she was born from her mother's womb was inside some kind of an "egg" on August 12 many moons ago. A trusted man was asked to throw this "egg" away. However, he couldn't do it and eventually returned it to where it came from three days later. There and then, someone broke the egg. Lo and behold, there was a little girl inside the egg. This is why August 15 is a big day for the samahan and on this day is their yearly celebration that draws the participation of members from far and near. The Suprema claims that they have about 50,000 current members spread throughout the archipelago.

Given this "mysterious and enchanted" (she used the term mahiwaga) beginnings, the Foundress would manifest extraordinary actions since she was three. Later in her life, she reached Mt. Banahaw and it was here that the samahan was established. After she died, other women were appointed supremas. (Nanay Isabel said that the samahan do not discrimate against men who could also be appointed as Supremo; however, leadership of the samahan has always been with women until today). Since its beginnings, they have had women priests in the samahan who are tasked with officiating their liturgical celebrations. (Again, men could be priests, but most priests in the samahan have been women). Priests do not necessarily have to be celibates, but Nanay Isabel chose not to marry.

She took over as Suprema when she was 22 years old again many moons ago. (One finds it difficult to guess her age today as she has such a serene face; except for her hunched back, one would think she is only in her late fifties). She was in school then and had wanted to proceed to Medicine. Despite the strong exhortations of her father – who served as guardian to the samahan – and the elders of the association who were unanimous in choosing her as Suprema, she refused and continued to live in Manila hoping to become a doctor. Then she got sick and for 20 days she was confined to a hospital where the doctor could not diagnose her illness.

Ultimately, her father visited Nanay Isabel in the hospital and did a healing session. Slowly, she got well after realizing that her illness was connected to her refusal to become the Suprema. She left the hospital with a resolve: she was going to accept the samahan's offer to be their Suprema.

It has not been easy for her to look after the needs of their members, run the shrine and lodging places and manage all the samahan's properties. The heavy responsibilities have taken their toll and today she has a heart problem. One could tell she is a hands-on CEO of the association; everyone in the compound all defer to her when one has a request or a question. If she is around and is well, she will be the one to entertain guests and do so without rushing.

One word that fascinated me during our conversation was her use of the word – Mistica. She herself translated the word to "mahiwaga" in Tagalog. One could tell that mahiwaga has such depth of meaning that would come very close to the etymological meaning of the English word -"mystical". I doubted if Nanay Isabel used the word mahiwaga as we do today which is bereft of the deep nuances of her own usage of the word. [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).