It had been 23 years since I last attended a retreat. Having attended a Catholic girls’ school (known as St. Pedro Poveda College now although at the time that I attended it, it was called Institucion Teresiana and which later became Poveda Learning Centre), retreats were yearly fare during my younger years. Then it was off to the University of the Philippines in Diliman, the corporate world, and the demands of having kids and of family life, where the days became busier and more hectic with no opportunity to fully reflect and pray even for just a few days.
It was indeed providential that after more than two decades, I finally found the time and the opportunity to attend a retreat on my own. I spotted an ad for a “Spirituality of Stewardship” retreat organized by Claretian Publications, with Fr. Daniel J. Mahan as retreat master and since at that time, I had started to get involved in the stewardship activities in our parish, I thought it would be a good one to attend.
So, it was off to three blissful days in the Carmelite Missionaries Center of Spirituality in Barrio Iruhin in Tagaytay City. I say blissful as how else can you describe a situation where you are able gain a deeper understanding of stewardship; learn more about your faith; enjoy good food; and prove to yourself that God’s people are indeed happy people?
I met a lot of wonderful people during the retreat who generously shared their thoughts and insights with the whole group. Our sharing during the retreat actually provided the seed for this book that you have in your hand and to this day, I am amazed at how writing for a blog has turned into writing a book, with the encouragement of my co-participants in the retreat and Fr. Daniel Mahan, as well as the support of Claretian Publications led by its Executive Director, Fr. Benedict Dilag. The Lord truly works in strange, circuitous ways but who am I to complain?
Anyway, back to the wonderful people that I met during the retreat. One of them was Sister Maria Gracia Navata of the Medical Mission Sisters. Sister Maria Gracia is 83 years old and celebrated her 46th year in the professed life last August 15, 2007 during the Feast of the Assumption and during the last day of our retreat. At breakfast time on that day, she regaled us with her life story and told us about her life from the age of 14 to 83 in just 15 minutes!
Sister Maria Gracia, in her youth, started to suffer from varicose veins. Her legs would get really swollen and would be troublesome when wounded and this problem almost kept her from joining the mission since as a missionary, she would find herself in places far from regular medical services.
It was when she was about 14 years old (“Mga singtanda mo – I was about as old as you then,” Sister Maria Gracia said as she turned to look at me – well, fourteen and forty do sound alike) when she knew that she wanted to join the mission. Her legs though troubled her and her varicose vein problem led her to be rejected initially after having been accepted already. She had gone through the application process wearing stockings so her varicose veins went unnoticed. After the application proper, however, she could not hide her varicose veins and legs for long. Rejected the first time, she visited our Lady of Manaoag, kissed the image of our Lady, and felt electricity running through her body. Soon after, her legs and her vein problem started to get better.
She then applied at the University of Sto. Tomas to take up nursing. After finishing her college degree, a friend of hers sent her papers to the US, without her knowledge, and after some time, she received a letter saying that she had been accepted and that she had to comply with certain requirements.
She had no money to go to the US then but her siblings and relatives raised the needed funds to allow her to go. She worked as a nurse in New Jersey for 5 years where she had the privilege to make friends with numerous priests and the religious. At the age of 34, one of her friends told her that she had the vocation and when Sister Maria Gracia was still doubtful about having a vocation, a friend told her: “If God wills it, you will.”
Soon after, Sister Maria Gracia became part of the Medical Mission Sisters, serving in Bangladesh, India, and even in Alaminos, Pangasinan, her varicose veins notwithstanding. She works with farmers and fisher folks and states that her talent is in dealing with the masses and ordinary people and living with them. At the age of 83, she travels on her own, 4 times a week and she can travel by bus 5 hours in the morning and coming back in the afternoon for another 5 hours. So much for the initial rejection that she had go through because of worries about the trouble that her varicose veins might cause.
Asked about her secret to her strength and longevity, Sister Maria Gracia says it is walking. She states that she also eats a lot of vegetables now but in her youth, she also ate a lot of meat.
Pressed further by the younger participants at the retreat for her secret, she stops, thinks a bit, and then uses her index finger to point upwards to the heavens. Yes, Sister Maria Gracia has it right. Everything that we have is by God’s grace.
What’s in a name? Sister Maria Gracia’s name before she entered the professed life was Consolacion. Looking at Sister Maria Gracia’s white hair, friendly eyes, and strong body, I am reminded that God is gracious and He is always our consolation.
Before the retreat ended, I took a photo of Sister Maria Gracia and I kidded her that she was not smiling in the picture. She responded: “Ganyan talaga ang mukha ko.” (That’s how my face really looks.)
At the end of her “15-minute life story,” Sister Maria Gracia turns to everyone at our breakfast table and says: “Thank you for listening.” Thank you to you too Sister – for listening to the younger people around you and for inspiring us; for listening to the masses whom you work with regularly; for listening to the call of the Lord, varicose veins and all.
Coming home from the retreat, we rode the bus together with Sister Maria Gracia. It was a grueling 5-hour ride from Tagaytay but when Sister Maria Gracia was dropped off at her stop, she gleefully got off and then turned to all of us to say: “See you next year, everybody!”
In my younger years, a former boss of mine told me about the 10 most important two letter words in life: “If it is to be, it is up to me.” The statement is clever and highlights the fact that we must act in order to achieve something. It remains partly true although now, in all circumstances, I prefer to remember what Sister Maria Gracia’s friend told her: “If God wills it, you will.”
What about you? What is God’s will for your life? Are you listening? If God wills it, will you?
Be grateful for the people you encounter. They will all teach you something.
Live your life responsibly. Inspire someone.
Respond generously to God’s will.
This article is an excerpt from the book of Angela Viloria entitled Mom’s A Stewardess, 2009 Cardinal Sin Catholic Book Awards, Best Book, Family Category.