ON SABBATICAL: End of a sabbatical

It was a most amazing sabbatical, truly a gift of the heavens. Considering various constraints, I can't believe I managed to go where I could truly be a Redemp-tourist! And a mystic-wanderer as such, since I was really more of a pilgrim than a tourist. I can only

thank God for the rare privilege of a long period of  rest, relaxation, recreation, rejuvenation and revival.

On July 15, after a wonderful two-week stay in Thailand, I boarded a Thai Airways jet and landed in Manila.  My sabbatical came to an end as I reached the homeland.

Finally, I am back home.  There were mixed feelings as soon as I hit Philippine

soil.  I felt elated that I am in familiar grounds for, indeed, there is no place like home. There were deep feelings of deep gratitude as I could look back and be thankful for endless moments of euphoric joy and contentment as experience after satisfying experience unfolded in the actual meeting of friends and strangers ("there are actually no strangers, only friends you haven't met!") and encountering events and happenings of all sort.

As much as I am excited to go back to work, there is the lingering wish to remain on a holiday framework, to be frozen within an endless vacation scenario.  I felt ambivalent about embracing back the reality I left behind a year ago, one of being under the pressure of work, assignments and various tasks.  Fortunately, my conscience dominates convincing me quickly that I've had my fun, now it is back to a post-sabbatical life.

The news of recent events in the country immediately drove home the need to face the reality squarely.  The recent ambush of a convoy of Marines in Basilan resulted in the killing of 14 soldiers (with 10 of them beheaded) and the wounding of nine others.  Allegedly, the ambush was conducted by Moro armed rebels.  The Marines had penetrated the rebels' lair in the hope of freeing Fr. Giancarlo Bossi.  The tragedy complicated further the rescue operations.

The day I landed in Manila was also the first day of the implementation of the Human Security Act or the anti-terror law. I could feel palpably the fear among those who have reasons to worry about the consequences of this Act. Later I would see this sign on the street:  MARTIAL LAW NOON, SECURITY ACT NGAYON!

The taxi driver who brought me from the airport to where I was to stay in Manila for a few days before flying to Davao City immediately made me realize that perhaps there was little change since I left a year ago.  He complained as to how high the fuel prices are now and how difficult it is for him to send his son to college; meanwhile his eldest daughter is processing papers to work overseas.  He expressed how angry he was at the beheading of the Marines and wished there was a law to send all the Moro people in the country back to the Middle East. (I had to tell him that the Moro people had always lived in the islands for centuries and he asked me:  Are you a Muslim?).

Because I spent some time in Bangkok, I was ready to face Manila with its pollution, traffic, traffic violations, the oppressive humidity, the crowds competing for precious space in the sidewalks and all the ills of this metropolis. Bangkok, however, seemed more able to deal with the social problems better, just as Thailand is already years ahead of the Philippines economically.  There were, however, some disturbing scenarios in Thailand, including the drive to get Buddhism to be a State religion.

Still, it is good to be back.  After having been a stranger in many a foreign land, now I can feel at home in a land where I acknowledge the gift of being a native.  After missing all the food that were not readily available out there, here I am satisfying fully my taste buds.  After living in a suitcase, it is now time to settle down for a while.

After a few days in Manila, I returned home to Davao.  While I did feel I was already home when I reached Manila, still, when I arrived in Davao, I just felt I truly belonged to a place I could call my own! 

One's heart leaps at the familiar sights from the airport to Bajada, and, later to Maa. Very little has changed, but somehow, my view of these day-to-day familiar things seemed different.  That's when I realized how deep was my feelings of homesickness and how intense my delightful feelings are now that I am back.

The warm welcome of confreres and family members heighten the joy of the itinerant who has returned.

Slowly, however, I get to return to the spaces that haunted me while I was away. Yes, Fr. Bossi has since been released, but Basilan has become like Springfield of the Simpsons movie.  Since she wishes to be the strong leader that she projected at her SONA, GMA and her caboodle of armed men plan a punitive action against the rebels ensconced in their lairs in the battered island of Basilan.  The D-Day is supposed to be any time soon!  And there was news in Philippine Star indicating that the Catholic Bishops of the Bishopo-Ulama Conference was supporting such an action.  Even if The Star is not known for its journalistic excellence, still the news report made a lot of people cringe, especially peace advocates and inter-faith practitioners.  The bishops immediately issued a statement denying a support of such action.

Then an article was published in The Mindanao Times regarding the alleged creation of a Christian armed group; certain influential and wealthy individuals supposedly are talking about the creation of such a group  as  "Christians have always been on the losing end in the fight of the government versus all the armed Muslim groups” and that… the  proponents "believe that they can garner enough funds form the citizenry to start up and maintain such a movement."

(Earlier, when we were in Kulaman, there were moves on the part of some Christians – including leaders of Base Ecclesial Communities (GKKs) – to arm themselves as a way of protecting themselves from "armed rebels" who they perceived were Muslims and Lumad.  In the event that there is going to be such a movement that brings bring us back to the days of the ILAGA (this time with a broader mass base), then God help us all!

I was hoping that the death squads have taken a vacation like I did. While the data I gathered is still quite limited, it seems there is no rest for the wicked and they are still out there lurking in the dark!  The small success of environmentalists to stop aerial spray cannot yet be celebrated as the banana planters' move to stop the implementation of the law has created a snag and there are still court hearings to settle the impasse.  As to the result of the elections?  Haay, what is there to celebrate?

So what is new?  I have to admit, inside me, there is something new. And it is captured in T.S. Eliot's poem:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Thanks for having journeyed with me through this last year of my wanderings.  And with this letter, this SABBATICAL column takes an exit. (Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar is also author of several books including “Mystic Wanderers in the Land of Perpetual Departures.” He will return with another column soon)