Life is full of surprises and unexpected turn of events. Just when I thought that I had everything planned out after my retreat in Bukidnon, that is, to spend a few days in Pagadian before proceeding to Zamboanga City on the 14th of March and finally fly back to Manila on the 17th when the urgent news of the lockdown in Metro Manila was announced by the president on television effective March 15 to April 14 in order to control the exponential spread of the Coronavirus 19. I was actually in the boondocks of Nanga Nangan, Tigbao, around 50 kms away from Pagadian City for an overnight visit at the upland farm of my couple friends Ren Ren & Josie Gualiza when my sister confirmed the news and that all public transport by land, sea and air will be cancelled by Sunday. She advised me not to travel anymore and just remain where I am. I could not have agreed any better because time and distance was of essence for me to be able to reach Zamboanga and make the needed flight changes if there were still any available since Cebu Pacific already cancelled their flights even before the lockdown announcement made by the government. Once again, I felt that the Lord wanted me to stay put and simply forego of my plans and let Him take over. “I alone know the plans I have for you, plans to bring you prosperity and not disaster, plans to bring about the future you hope for.” – Jeremiah 29:11
According to Lao Tzu, “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” Likewise, Alan W. Watts aptly describes the purpose of change as an opportunity to plunge into it, to move with it and join the dance. And true enough, everything became like a dance for me after all the pandemic of the COVID-19 has caught the whole world totally unprepared thus falling off balance as each nation struggles to rise above this crisis. And just like that, everything is suddenly so different. It is no longer business as usual for we all sadly feel the devastating loss of human lives that continue to threaten thousands more with each passing day. In fact, the sad news of the death of my brother-in-law yesterday at dawn hit me hard in disbelief. Even though he was tested negative of COVID-19 by the RITM, the thought that he suffered and died a lonely death in the hospital without my sister and their children and grandchildren by his side due to the strict observance of the lockdown and social distancing is so painful. There are no words enough to describe the sorrow of grieving and mourning for a loved one in such a circumstance when we can not be physically present to comfort them especially in this time when they need us most. But there is nothing else I can do but to offer my prayers for them from a distance that God bestow upon them the needed strength and courage they need to go through this difficult time of letting go and to allow Him to take over with the thought that Kuya Duds is now in a better place resting in eternal peace in the bosom of God’s love.
And so for some strange reason, I have been locked down here in a hidden sanctuary where life is evidently more laid back and the sight and sound of nature is so refreshing and healing to one’s body, mind and spirit inviting me to tune in to stillness. “Be still and know that I am God.” Ps. 46:10. I realized that this scripture passage is actually more of a valuable reminder for us to be in awe more than a gentle call to rest for it has been almost three weeks now since I have been here and yet there has never been any dull or boring moment. Nature has a way of teaching me basic lessons in the school of life that I have simply forgotten or taken for granted. It has also quenched my thirst for a deeper connection with my inner self and with the crystal clear water of God’s boundless love and compassion flowing constantly like a river. “…come whoever is thirsty; accept the water of life as a gift, whoever wants it.” (Rev. 22:17)
Nanga Nangan is so remote for it is found at the end of the road, it being the last barrio of the municipality of Tigbao, Zamboanga del Sur, almost two hours away from Pagadian City. In fact, I never imagined that it was quite far and the road so rough and difficult especially beyond Lison Valley until the day I took the habal habal (motorcycle ride) last March 12. We were three women passengers cramped so closely with sacks of provisions tightly secured on both sides. Despite the heavy load however, the driver somehow expertly maneuvered his way along the rocky and winding roads with ease and confidence while I was holding on to dear life entrusting it to God each time we trekked up and down the steep hills with the ravine sloping a few meters away.
Nevertheless, I could not but be carried away by the breathtaking view of the countryside with its verdant hills and valleys, scenic rice fields and rivers flowing along side. It all felt like I was crossing a totally different realm where suddenly the materials things in our highly consumeristic society are nothing compared to the beauty and wonders of God’s creation. I am awed in many surprising ways by our God of life and grateful for bringing me to this hidden sanctuary far from the haste and noise of the fast-paced life in the city. It dawned on me too that gratitude anchors us to the present moment, reminding us of what matters most and what matters least. In so doing, we are called to count our blessings every day and to live life worthy of the blessings received. Matthew Kelly in his book, Resisting Happiness further states that without gratitude, what was ordinary yesterday becomes ordinary today. Without gratitude, a sense of entitlement takes over and begins to rot our soul. Without gratitude, we get old and grumpy or still young yet grumpy.
The English novelist Henry Fielding says that “Great joy, after a sudden change of circumstances, is apt to be silent, and dwells rather in the heart rather than in the tongue”. This is precisely the experience one goes through when one finds a hidden treasure. One is wrapped with unspeakable awe and delight, as if standing on holy ground. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Exodus 3:5. Consequently, there is a quiet urgency to take possession of the said find as recounted in the parable of the treasure in the gospel of Matthew 13:44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in the field which someone has found, he hides it again, goes off in his joy, sells everything he owns and buys the field.”
After my thirty days at the Benedictine Monastery in Bukidnon, a part of me resisted the thought of leaving my spiritual hiatus uncertain of my future once I was back to the world. However, there is that star in my heart that kept blazing telling me not to be afraid to embark deep into faith’s wilderness where strange things happen that is beyond the control of our rational mind. And so, to thrust oneself into a state of unknowing is a risk we need to undertake in order to grow and become the person God wants us to be in this world and in order to discover our life’s deepest meaning and purpose. According to Henri Nouwen, “Living a spiritual life requires a change of heart, a conversion. Such a conversion can be marked by a sudden inner change or it can take place through a long, quiet process of transformation, but it always involves an inner experience of oneness.”
The words of Catherine Delors struck me in the light of what is happening now with onslaught of the tragic pandemic affecting the whole of humanity when she said: “I came to understand that we do not change gradually, peacefully over time, but that we undergo sudden upheavals that overthrow our best-laid plans, change our character and redesign the shape of our life, all in a matter of moments.” In this regard, I believe that this is a wake-up call for us human beings and we can no longer turn a blind eye on the plain truth that we need to repent from our sinful ways, turn back to God and change our lives for the better.
Perhaps, for most of us, we have not come to the full realization of the intrinsic value of spiritual growth and transformation as a vital key to a happy and fulfilling life. We have been for the most part busy making a living not just to live decently and provide for the basic needs of the family but perhaps aspire for something greater in terms of possession, position and pleasure believing that they can satisfy our hunger for the good and a much better life. However, we have forgotten our true identity as children of God (“God’s Spirit joins himself to our spirits to declare that we are God’s children.” Rom. 8:16) and we are actually only fooling ourselves with the delusion that we human beings have the full power to be in control of everything in this world. On the other hand, nature reminds us otherwise, that we must learn to bend to the changing seasons of life. And that the power of prayer is the one that counts most. Each of us have the possibility to make a connection with the indwelling Spirit within us and to bring that connection within our bodies down into this Earth crying out for healing and wholeness to be restored.
Now more than ever, we are summoned to examine our lives and acknowledge the ways in which we have harmed God’s creation through our actions and our failure to act. We need to experience a conversion, a change of heart (Laudato Sí’ #202) , to a greening of our hearts, that is, to an ecological conversion. This means a change of mind and heart that involves a deepening respect for other species, and for their habitats, and a commitment to their flourishing in an interrelated global community of life. It involves a commitment to hand on to future generations the bounty of our planet. (Denis Edwards) “In our prayers and devotion, we need to reconnect with our sacred substance in creation, to place the Earth in our hearts and to nourish it with our love and offer it in remembrance of our God, our Creator.” (Llewelyn Vaughan-Lee, Prayer for the Earth)
Manny Bautista in his book, Living Laudato Sí’ also stresses the importance of a profound interior transformation that needs to take place in the human heart. Such a transformation would entail a move from a thoughtless disregard of the Earth to a more loving, respectful and more caring relationship with the natural world and all its living creatures. It means abandoning our view of the natural world as a collection of objects to be used and embracing an understanding of the Earth as a communion of subjects to be communed with. It also means looking at the natural world with ‘new eyes’ and forsaking the ‘old eyes’ that sees it purely in its usefulness to our selfish purposes.
While I find myself unknowingly in this hidden sanctuary, I have discovered that God has stopped me in my tracks for a reason and entrusted me for a new mission that only my heart can see what is invisible to my eyes. Finding time to be in silent communion with God in nature’s 5 enthralling beauty have helped me to find my true self again, to trust my feelings, to take chances and to be happy and at peace where I am now, to learn from the past and realize that it is never too late to start anew. “And suddenly you know: it’s time to start something new. Trust the magic of new beginnings.” (Meister Eckhart).
I will never forget that very first evening of my stay here, I looked out to the dark velvety skies and there I saw a solitary star shining brightly right above the temple forest. It sparkled in a way that gave me a quiet knowing as if by miracle that I have arrived at Him. My guiding star has gently led me to this place after all my endless wanderings and has welcomed me home with amazement. Hence, the dawn of God in my soul I feel with each daybreak when darkness still wraps creation with His brightness that casts no shadows.
The Dawn of God
Jesus, the dawn of God
You came in the midst of the world’s debris-covered heart,
From the fallen branches of anguish and despair,
From rocks and stones
Of fear and apathy
In these devastating times
Of coronavirus’ pandemic.
Jesus, Son of the living God,
You dwell with us
In this paradise lost,
In your suffering and agony In the garden;
A love so deep and wide,
A total surrender
To the Father’s will.
Til death on the cross.
Jesus, light of the world
Come and save us
Forgive us our sins
Teach us to follow you,
To die to ourselves
Even before we die
So that others may live
And may see hope restored
In this our darkest night.
– Marjorie Guingona, SAC April 1, 2020