ON SABBATICAL: A pilgrimage to Mt. Banahaw (3)

As an attempt to have some insights into what is the mistica of the samahan, I returned that afternoon to be "immersed" in the solitude atmosphere of the compound. I was also invited by Nanay Isabel to join their evening prayer inside their church. There was a slight drizzle late that afternoon, so I just sat still at the big house's veranda. There was hardly anyone around so I enjoyed the silence of that hour. To my delight Nanay Isabel joined me and we sat in this long bench the length of which is an entire tree.

We could see the gate and so I asked her for the meanings of the symbols attached to this gate. The crisscrossing swords are not supposed to mean anything violent or war-like; instead, holding the swords is akin to an effort to struggle against sin which, in their teachings, refer not just to personal sin but social sin as in mga kasamaan sa mundo (evils in the world). The fire symbol bursting out of the giant pots are the fire from the kalooban that lights our paths. The flags of all nations suggest that the samahan's mission cover the entire world. And the angels are guardians for human beings.

The samahan members guard over the welfare of one another. Staying in the dormitory in Sta. Lucia are families displaced by the mudslides and floods that affected Infanta and Real recently. While waiting for full rehabilitation, they are staying here and their needs are responded to by the samahan.

I joined them at the Evening Prayer where 14 women, 6 men and three children gathered along with the prayer leader (a woman who knelt all throughout the more than one hour session) and Nanay Isabel (who sat in what looked like the Bishop's chair, but placed not at the altar but among the people). The men were on the right side and the women and children were at the center and the left sides.

The symbols on the altar easily attract the eye for the colors are vivid and the lines and textures of all its constitute elements are quite sharp and well-silhouetted. The altar's "boundaries" are what appears to be a huge pair of angel's wings placed strategically at both sides. Those that can easily be seen and read from a distance are the words: At the left – Pag-ibig sa Dios, Pananampalataya, Gawa at Pag-asa and Tiyaga (Love of God, Belief, Action and Hope and Industriousness). Above these words are the Roman Numbers for the Ten Commandments. At the right – Kalinisan, Katwiran, Kaliwanagan, Katotohan, Kababaan ng Kalooban and Pagtitiis (Cleanliness, Righteousness, Being Englightened, Truth, Humility and Suffering).

Above these words is a big heart with a cross at the top and on it the words – Aral ni Jesus (Jesus's teaching). There are plastic flowers all around the altar space and candles lighted at the center. During the prayers, a woman would offer incense. The prayers are spoken, chanted and sung. The singing was quite remarkable as the congregation blended their voices; with such good acoustics, the voices are strikingly clear and very pleasant to the ears. I thought: this was how our ancestors sang or chanted their prayers (at least the Tagalog ancestors); the music was most distinct, quite different from the kind of music that Tagalog liturgical songs have today.

I could not help but be struck by the irony of it all. Here was an indigenous model of a genuine Base Ecclesial Community in prayer (whose members also insist on showing through gawa – actions and deeds – their pananampalataya or belief in God). Here is where the Filipinos have truly "inculturated" not just their liturgy but the very essence of their faith. Here was where the believers celebrated their history as a nation and expressed their genuine cultural identity. Here is a religious ceremony in a mystical site where the language, the music, the symbols, all that which are linked together, manifest nationhood (understood as genuine solidarity in community) but also being Church. Long before Vatican II, long before PCP II, the members of this samahan were already practising theologico-pastoral terms such as inculturation, liberation theology, BEC, preferential option for the poor and the like. All throughout this time I kept on asking myself: how is the Local Catholic Church dealing (or inter-faith dialoguing) with samahans such as that of Suprema Isabel. (I should have gone to talk to the parish priest, but I intuited that it would only be a source of frustration so I didn't go see him. If I am able to return there, I really should).

Returning home after the Evening Prayer, I could sense the enchantment of this place. The rain had stopped and so the walk was quite pleasant as the climate turned cold. There were fireflies everywhere, reminding me of Kulaman. Despite the presence of the military headquarter, I felt no fear and did not have any sense of foreboding as in many militarized areas of Mindanao. There were very few street lights which made some of the streets quite dark but I knew I would be safe; the spirits' presence was quite palpable.

That morning of August 21 after our talk with Nanay Isabel, Allan toured me around my first pamuemuesto. This was the route towards the river. Fortunately, the local folks have cemented the trail, so despite the rains, it was not very difficult to follow the pilgrimage route. This included the stairway to take us down to the stream below. Pepay had to leave us since she had a meeting in Sariaya (she works as community organizer of the Luntiang Alyansa sa Mt. Banahaw). A group of students from a college in Manila came in the morning for a field trip and, thankfully, they left early leaving the few of us who were intent on having a pilgrimage. The pamuemuesto meant stopping at the various shrines within the pilgrimage route, lighting a candle and saying a prayer to the saint assigned to this spot. There were more than 200 steps of this staircase from the top of the hill down to where the small river flows. The Sta. Lucia waterfalls bring its waters down to this river.

Down at the bottom are huge boulders on which statues of saints are placed. On this huge one are the statues of our Lady of Lourdes and Bernadette as well as that of the Sagrada Pamilya. A very devout male pilgrim was sitting on a big rock facing this boulder where candles were burning as he meditated. When he stood up, one could tell that he was physically challenged and could have come to pray to make a panata so he could get well. After his prayers, he stood up and took a swim in the river.

Unfortunately, there are those who come to this place not as pilgrims but to have fun while swimming in the river. These include the local boys. Allan mentioned to me that when he came during one Holy Week the place was so crowded. And people were quite noisy as thewere eating, swimming, chatting and going on a picnic. Meanwhile they throw their garbage anywhere including cigarette butts, candy wrappers, the sachets of shampoos and other non-degradable garbage turning this spot in Mt. Banahaw into a dirty spot. [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).