SR. MARY GRACE Llorca, is not a person who will be respectful, shy or shamed because she is concerned with what the other person will think or feel. She is direct and does not mince words to please. She says what’s on her mind because it’s what’s in her heart. I was honest when I told her that her candor is refreshing. She took it with a genuine smile as a matter of fact. This was last Friday when I first met her at the National Center of the Association of Mary Queen of all Hearts (AMQAH) in Madriñan. I will hear her repeat my remark at the recollection the next day in the same venue where, as guest speaker, she delivered the eponymous theme of her talk.
She thanked Kuya Arnel Cruz for the latter’s introduction and appreciated that she is getting the hang of calling everybody by an Ate or Kuya address just like the norm in the place. You can hardly trace her Romblon origin from her fluent English and Tagalog. The only hint of her Patmos Hermitage is the soft register of her voice even when she is holding a microphone. I must have missed a word here or a phrase there but it didn’t matter; the smile plastered on her wimple-framed face filled the gaps of her discourse.
Returning his favor, she recalled that back in school, Arnel was their errand boy when it’s time to buy binatog (a local snack of salted boiled corn grains with grated coconut) and fun to be with. Not one to overdo info, she moved on easily to credit her former classmate’s wife, Ate Relly, who was manning her power point, which was her admittedly untechie self’s first time to make use of. Then she asked the audience what they expected out of the exercise. The answers varied from “an encounter with Mary” and “deepened knowledge of her” to “to be closer to her”. The recollection was born out of a visit to Romblon by a group of TTJers which included recent AMQAH enrollee, makulit Ate Marivic Sayco who, when the nun visited Madriñan, brought up the idea. The latter’s visit was to reunite their first meeting in Romblon where Marivic was with a group of AMQAH associates invited by Romblon resident Sis Ana Marie Fondevilla, a fellow AMQAH and TTJ consecrant.
An innately solemn person, she anticipated a ruckus at registration so instructed the counter staff to tell the registrants to prepare their rosary on their way in, a cue that prayer (and silent action) is a passport to admission. An evident time manager as well, she announced the session start and segued to set expectations. Cued by her question, the participants gave their insights on what to achieve from the assembly: one joked that he was forced by his wife and hoped to know himself more; another to deepen his spiritual life; and yet another to get closer to Mary. Sr. Mary Grace compiled their collective consciousness into a metaphor. Of a train that goes through many tracks and stops at many stations. The mechanic goes down at each stop and checks the wheel, knocks on it a few times and listens. A passenger priest got curious and asked him why he had been doing that. The man said he doesn’t know but it’s been his job for the last 20 years. The obvious reason of course, the nun said, is that if he didn’t do it and the train malfunctioned, the passengers will suffer. And the real reason why he listened as he knocked is to find out if it is safe to go on or if there is a need to stop to fix a thing or two. Recollection, she chugged on, is stopping to knock on one’s heart to find out if there is something that ails it. And the sister ascribed to Marivic’s virtually nonstop industry ever since she conceptualized the recollection. While much is owed to her, she still needs to stop if only to ask if her train is still on the right track. Or check if something is amiss or missing. Because our body tells us to pause if only to look for what may be missing, or in excess. People need attention but we tend to disregard. Our body tells us to stop but we don’t listen. In a silent company, when someone talks too much, it’s a cover-up for something that unsettles. As an example, she cited a TV that is turned on by a host to entertain an already ongoing conversation. It is a curious phenomenon but people prefer to hear noise in malls, restaurants and public places – as they converse. And they resort to shouting because their voices are drowned by other noises.
During courtship, she paused, the man talks, the woman listens. During honeymoon, it’s the reverse. Afterwards both talk, and neighbours listen. She succeeded to illustrate that while it is true that before marriage, opposites attract, afterwards, opposites attack. Therefore, she posited, the reasons for a recollection are to update, learn, unlearn, relearn and renew. It is entirely up to us because, even if the Holy Spirit decides that it is for us, we cannot proceed if we are not open to share and cooperate, “if we are not stripped of possessions to defend our faith,” St. Peter Damian said that a retreat’s success depends on the silence we keep. St. Ignatius Loyola’s spirituality is all about silence. The saint said that the fervour in a convent is gauged by it (I thought it apt to modify a saying into “A water’s depth is measured by its stillness.” She made a difference between verbal and actual silence by saying, “It takes a habit to kill another.” And her directness left this imprint on my mind forever: “When we’ve been used to talking and one day you ignore me I won’t get offended.”
She was visibly pleased when she asked what can others tell us by to say we are Catholics and someone answered “The Creed”. Proper disposition, she disclosed, is acquired through prayer, otherwise a psalm for shedding pretenses. Integrity is shedding masks upon masks until the only true self remains. She recalled our conversation with my comment on her refreshing candor and coupled it with an anecdote on directness. A woman was obviously smitten by her and remarked, “Sr., mukha po kayong birhen!” Which she quickly appreciated by, “Kayo naman, talaga namang birhen po ako.” Another gushed, “Sr., ang ganda n’yo po!” To which she replied, “Siyempre naman po dahil kamukha ko ang nanay ko (our Mother).
She said that Mary, our Mother, teaches us the proper disposition before retreats, baptism, confirmation, marriage and prayer. For grace to prosper, she said, there is a need to Unahin Natin Lagi Ang Diyos. And proper disposition, to be acquired through prayer, needs silence. The kind that stilled the waves when Jesus commanded it.
On ejaculatory prayer, she told of a factory worker, Jimmy, who would daily pass by a church like clockwork. He never went to a regular Mass but he never missed standing in front of the crucified Christ either and leave after ejaculating, “Jesus, Jimmy is here.” The parish priest worried when Jimmy didn’t drop by the church for three consecutive days. So he went to the worker’s house to check on him and found him sick and dying. Before Jimmy gasped his last, the priest gave him communion but before the priest could say “Body of Christ,” a voice from the Host said, “Jimmy, Jesus is here.”
Actual grace, Sr. Mary Grace offered, is when you have an event and pray for fair weather and the sun shines throughout the day and, as soon as the event comes to an end, it rains. I related very well to that because I experienced it twice. First when we had a Legion Awareness activity and we stormed heaven to give us no rain; it fell right after dispersal. The next time was when I prayed and offered an egg to Mary (requesting her to proxy for St. Clare) because we were going on an ocular trip to churches in Tarlac and Nueva Ecija the next day. The intermittent showers did not dampen our happy, jocular outing. When it poured, we were done with 5 churches already and well on our way home. Sanctifying grace, on the other hand, is what makes our soul acceptable to God. It is persevering to be holy so that when we die, we are ready to reunite with Him. Both graces are comprised of knowledge, understanding and wisdom, like what filled Mary at the Annunciation. When the angel Gabriel announced that she was going to conceive by the Holy Spirit, she asked how was that to be when she didn’t know man. Gabriel explained that she was favoured by God; she understood. Then she had the wisdom to accept it to be done unto her according to His Word.
Before halving the assembly into Group A and Group B, Sr. Mary Grace asked them to bring out their blue bandannas. Then asked Group B to leave the room while she gave Group A the mechanics of a dynamic. When Group A returned, the game began. When it was over, the roles were reversed. The Silence-and-Trust energizer went like this. In the first round, Group A blindfolded Group B and, at the sound of the first bell, took them out of the room using only voice. At the sound of the second bell, they held and led them using no speech. At the sound of the third bell, they used voice and touch to instruct them. I was blindfolded at first and was at the mercy of Sis Becky, my partner, but it was a cinch. Her instructions were exact I did not have to worry, even if my blind mobility was quite restrained. When it was my turn to lead her, I gave as good as I got. We were a team.
During that processing, it was discovered that not all went through what my partner and I high-fived to. The naughty and the pranksters gave their blindfolded partners a hard time. Expectedly, the partners got even by subjecting their counterparts to the same, if not worse, difficulty. Difficulty meaning doing a limbo dance.
According to the exhilarated players, the exercise proved that it was hard to be blind; instructions are important; listening is a skill that serves well; and it pays to be silent but it’s more important to be trusting.
As a last act, she and Marivic distributed pens and round pieces of bond paper and asked us to draw the lesson that we learned from the recollection. Matet showed her drawing of hands clasped in prayer and a cross beside it. She could not contain the dread she had that she is scheduled for 20 procedures for cancer diagnosis and tried to hold back tears in vain. A brother drew a bucolic sketch of Cebu and essayed his struggle in the seminary because folks back in his province didn’t believe he can hack it. Sr. Mary Grace seemed satisfied with the seriousness of the two intuitions she accepted them as a consensual representation of her audience and enjoined everyone to apply what they have just learned. The silence to dispose prayer and the confidence that the prayer will redound to the likes of Matet and the brother.
Then she raised everyone in thanksgiving before requesting Fr. Richard Magararu to render the final blessing. Which ballooned to a bounty during the picture-taking frenzy.