ON SABBATICAL: A pilgrimage to Mt. Banahaw (5)

Jose thought that things were fine with them; besides they have no aspiration to be rich. Mt. Banahaw has been good for the samahan and they certainly have done their best to protect Mt. Banahaw by looking after the trees, the springs and stream and the soil. He laments, however, that today's pilgrims are no longer as devout as the ones before and he is glad with the DENR's action to ban parts of the mountain to outsiders.

After my conversation with Jose, I went down to the pamuemuestohan at the back of the church. There is a stairway from the base of the church down to where the spring is from out of which flows waters that merge with a nearby stream.

The water sprouting out from the spring is considered holy water and it is known for its miraculous cures. Here sick people take a shower for healing purposes. I drank from the spring and felt relief from the humid heat. I also blessed myself with the crystal clear water.

As one walks through stones and boulders gathered all over the riverbed, one notices the various puestos by the riverbanks. Here one sees a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, one of a seated Sacred Heart (which has been hit by falling debris) and crosses. Here pilgrims place their lighted candles and pause to pray for their intentions.

Before noon, I decided to exit out of Kinabuhayan. I walked back to Sta. Lucia. Along the way, one can gaze at one of the peaks of Mt. Banahaw which was wrapped in mist despite the noonday sun. One good view is from the elementary school campus near the gateway of the barangay. It was a short visit to this village, but a sweet one; easy and cool, delightful and envigorating.

That afternoon, I said goodbye to my host – the Mendoza family – whom I profusely thanked for their hospitality. I told them I was on a search for a shrine honoring Hermano Poli (or Apolinario dela Cruz), the legendary young hero (he died at age 26) whose life and heroism – especially connected with founding the Confradia de San Jose (covered lengthily by Ileto's book) – helped to inspire the setting up of the revolutionary Katipunan. If not for the events that took place in l841, I would have wished to see his graveyard. It seemed impossible to look for his graveyard considering the circumstances surrounding his death. Once captured by the Spanish forces after a battle with Tagalog rebels, they chopped off his head. Pierced with a bamboo, the head was stuck to a ground in front of his family home in Lukban, Quezon. The different parts of his body were also chopped, pierced with bamboo and placed at strategic sites of his hometown "to warn the people not to follow his revolutionary example".

After travelling for close to two hours from Sta. Lucia in Dolores to Lukban, Quezon (involving two jeepneys and a bus), I found the historical shrine at his home village in Sitio Pandak, Lukban. The National Historical Commission had carved out a space, built a monument in his honor – a more than life-sized bust painted to gold – and planted pomelo trees, San Francisco and other red-colored plants to encircle the monument. The plants chosen are well-inspired as their dominant color is red. Red as the blood that Hermano Puli shed for the sake of his ka-bayan, long before the bayan ever became a construct in the minds of those who populated these islands, long before we could think of one another as kababayans.

Since I was in the  neighborhood I also played the role of a tourist. I walked on foot around the poblacion of Lukban impressed with how the local folks have built and maintained a solid statue in honor of Gat Jose Rizal, an illustrado building beside the statue and a more than a century-old church. Later I took a ride to nearby Tayabas and went to see its basilica.

The churches of Lukban and Tayabas are, indeed, impressive with their antiquity, architectural style and appearances both from the outside and inside. But – no offense please to those who build and continue to maintain these edifices – they leave me cold after having gone through the churches and puestos of Mt. Banahaw. I sat inside these churches to do meditation but my mind remained shallow and my heart could not find its center. Something was missing: could my soul feel like a stranger in this alien and alienated religious space?

Or was I just too tired after the three days of my intense sojourn?

As I travelled back to Manila and while the bus meandered through the Province of Quezon, I could see snippets of Mt. Banahaw gazing my way. They are a haunting sight because no one leaves Mt. Banahaw remaining the same kind of person before one's pilgrimage to this holy mountain, this enchanted spot.

I could tell that I had gained new insights into my history as Filipino while being affirmed in my Pinoy identity. I sensed a deeper communion with the ancestors who had simply wished that they be set free so that they could simply live as people with dignity. Since that was not possible with the oppressive colonial masters, they knew the only way to be free was to fight for that freedom and they persisted until their heads were chopped off. I knew that something stirred deep in my soul because of this pilgrimage. Once again, but this time after facing the lead agents – like Nanay Isabel – up close and personal, I am impressed with how the simple, poor people of Mt. Banahaw had prefigured many things we now take for granted in the Catholic Church because of Vatican II in the l960s, the MSPC in the l970s-80s and PCP II in the 1990s.

Their churches were always locally-based; they've had BECs long before such ecclesial communities arose in Latin America, especially in Brazil. They've always relied on the important contribution and participation of ordinary members of their pol-eco-religio-cultural associations. Their leaders never made decisions without consulting the members. They've inculturated their liturgies, celebrating the richness of the Tagalog language and their indigenous music the strains of which parallel the flow of streams and evolving symbols whose meanings could produce scholarly dissertations but areeasily understood by even the unlettered. Their theologies were always soteriologically holistic devoid of the binary oppositions of pre-Vatican II, grounded in the aspiration to be liberated from shackles of the colonial rule of an Empire, nature-based and women-centered. While our Church continues to exclude women from priesthood, their women priests have taken the center stage for almost a century already.

So, who are the truly blessed by the God we believe in? (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).