A SAUCER WAS what I drank from last weekend. Sister Liza sponsored me to a weekend retreat which started Friday evening until Sunday morning. They could not have chosen a more conducive place. St. Paula’s Retreat Center in Philand, Tandang Sora, was just a corner away from San Isidro Labrador Church. It is a quaint structure nestled in lush vegetation and trees, and run by an affable, gracious Maltese nun, Sister Annie Catani a from the Order of the Sisters of Dorothy of St. Paula Frassinetti.
The hour-long registration was followed by dinner at 6 in the evening to allow for fasting and thus prepare the participants for the Mass at 7:15. It was celebrated by a Malaysian missionary, Fr. Francis Teo, who was also the facilitator of the first session that immediately followed the Mass. His opening salvo at the eucharistic celebration was, “We just had dinner, now we are going to have a banquet with the Lord Himself as Host. My gut felt like I was going to have a fruitful encounter. His English was easy but educated and he exerted an effort not to be erudite so as to get his message across simply. He described fasting as not only from meat but also from sin that separates us from one another and God. Our view of the forest, he a dded, should not be blocked by one tree, alluding to superficial attention to things that don’t matter (like the Jews of old did) but we should be profound with one another and God. Like what Jesus said, “I did not come on my own but by the One Who sent Me with a mission.” we should be, too, if we want to attain His humility, listening and obedience.
Session 1. Fr. Francis used a white board to essay the common symbols of Lent, which are as follows.
1. 40 years/days. The number represents the people of Israel’s suffering in the desert, Noah and the great flood (after which a new creation emerged), Moses’ days and nights in the mountain communing with God, Elijah’s escape to Mt. Horeb to resist Jezebel’s temptation and the time Jesus spent in the desert deflecting Satan’s enticements. All of which point to the need for us to go through a struggle to prepare us for a special event, underlining that it is only after resurrection that Easter follows, whence the Church began.
2. The wilderness. Fr. Francis shared his mission in Kenya, a hardship post, because it rains only twice a year and the heat is almost unbearable. We all must have our own wilderness, come out of comfort zones and respond to basic questions of spiritual life in order to reconcile with God.
3. Time of journey. The flight of the Israelites took them from Egypt to Canaan. They were tempted to stop at every oasis they pass by but Yahweh told their leader Moses to move on and keep taking risks, one of which is nostalgia for the past. Their sufferings, notwithstanding, the only help their past can do is to connect it into the present for them to go to the future, not to go back and avoid it.
4. Place of covenant. Mt. Sinai was where the Israelis learned to worship Yahweh. But when they were freed, they became oppressors of their own kind. Israel was persecuted by the Nazis, now they persecute Palestinians. Yahweh wanted to reshape them in that holy mountain but their sinfulness took the better of them.
5. Place of testing. Israel’s faithfulness failed many times in the desert, where needs became temptations too hard to resist. Like a priest faces temptations daily, but is saved by fealty to his alter ego.
6. Place of presence. The desert was a threat, but I AM WHO AM was always with them, in the tent and in the ark of the covenant under it. Our witness is to nurture the faith that God is with us.
Session 2. Fr. Daniel Godefroy, of the Order of Sons of Charity, facilitated the morning part.
The French missionary humbly admitted that he is not skilled in conducting retreats but for Mother Mary’s sake, he allowed Sister Liza to persuade him. He recounted his early years in the Philippines when he had to use 3 dictionaries to be able to relate to his new environment. In fluent Taglish, he introduced his talk with the jubilee of mercy.
1. Compassion and mercy. While different from each other, mercy is God’s name and compassion, damdamin ng tao, derives from it. To feel for the suffering of others, pagdamay, to be in solidarity even with strangers,nis a Godly attribute. Citing the parable of the Good Samaritan, he told the story of a man who had tuberculosis whose wife and their 6 children went to their neighbor and asked for help. Without question, the neighbor, owner of Botika sa Laura, a depressed community, took care of them, a practical gem in the gutter. Fr. Daniel attributes the neighbor’s goodness as a product of Basic Ecclesial Communities (BEC) whose aspects are bible-sharing, devotional meetings and damayan.
2. Mission of Jesus’ Divine Mercy. Mercy includes forgiveness coming from God, awa o habag. God figuratively and literally opens his arms and heart even to those who crucified Him and forgave them. Ang awa ng Diyos ay bulaklak at bunga ng pag-ibigNiya, said the French priest. According to John the Baptist, the prodigal son exemplifies great mercy of the forgiving father. The Pope said the church condemns sin, the return of the son was celebrated by the father, the just one, not one just, for the older brother did not feel the father’s missing his son, whom the brother despised. His brother’s sickness became a blessing when he ceased to think of himself and started to think of his sins and to ask forgiveness for them. Our foundation should be a firm faith, not hidden like a house built upon a rock. Satan came to God accusing Him of injustice, many sin but are forgiven but he only did it once and was unforgiven. God asked if he asked for forgiveness. We will not see His heart if we do not repent. Jesus is just and doesn’t judge; He only waits for us to reconcile with Him.
Fr. Daniel told of Frederich, a French youth who killed his friend, Jean Paul, whose Catholic parents did not judge but forgave him. Pope John Paul II did not only forgive his assassin but visited him in jail. After the Pope forgave him, he converted to Christianity, wrote a book and confessed that he was tasked by Khomeini to kill the Holy See.
The good shepherd reaches for the lost sheep on the brink of peril, and he illustrated this in a visual where the herder was hanging out on a limb to save his sheep from a cliff. The world, he said, should not always be expected to be in a good light, because there will always be darkness in life.
In dealing with the adulteress, Jesus bowed (a beautiful gesture of humility) and wrote in the ground, was silent because He knows the world’s sins; the 10 commandments were written in stone but were useless, it is not the writing but the written.
Like the image of His Divine Mercy, the sun reaches us through its rays. Like the Father and the Son through the Holy Spirit, the rays coming from the two hearts are directed towards us.
The Blessed Virgin Mary is the awa, pagdamay and charity of God, the fruit of Joaquim’s long and hard prayer for a child, resulting in Anne’s immaculate conceptionof her. Ergo, Jesus inherited His holiness from God and His virtues from Mary.
Session 3. Sr. Evelia Blanza was a zealous soul known to the Holy Spirit community for her active work in the various BEC kawans and MKKs there. She has served missions in Russia, Italy and Africa, which explained her fierce and feisty dedication to her apostolate.
Touching on the story of blind Bartimaeus, she raised a signage which read, “Ano ang ibig mong gawin Ko sa iyo?” It was the same question He asked of Bartimaeus. That set off volunteers to share their feelings and thoughts with their fellow retreatants.
To cap that moment, the School of the Holy Spirit nun showed a film on the parable of the pencils which she discussed briefly but made an impression on all: everything you do will always leave a mark; you can always correct the mistakes you make; what is important is what is inside of you; in life you will undergo painful sharpening to make you better; and to be the best, you must allow yourself to be held and guided by the hand that holds you.
As a penitential rite, she made us form two semi circles around a cross on a cloth where we put various daily crosses (life’s vicissitudes) in and around us and explained the process as we sang Pagbabalik-loob. She ended that moment with a prayer: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.
After hearing the confession of the first batch (the second he heard afterwards) Msgr. Ditan celebrated Mass. His homily recalled the adulteress where the anti feminists condemned the woman was and tried to trick Christ to contradict his forgiving preaching.
Afterwards, a film showed the life of Mary Magdalene, the woman whose quest for love made her go through a bitter roller coaster ride until it ended at Jesus’ feet, where she shed tears, which she wiped. And her sins were wiped out by His mercy and compassion.
Our last night was full of restful sleep, comforted by the experiences shared and lulled by lessons learned.
Sunday dawned and progressed with Sr. Evelia’s enthusiasm never ebbing and rubbing off on us as she processed the retreat. Insights offered by the retreatants were rife with meaning and moment. Sister Vikki shared that it’s not what Jesus can do for her but what she can do for Him. Brother Arnel’s feelings were touched by the recharging discussions and sharings. One Sister, whose load was greatly lightened by her letting go, recited a poem she composed the night before, what Sr. Evelia called as her own Magnificat.
That the retreat was a success is putting it lightly. Retorting to Sister Liza’s husband’s (who is my friend) joke (How do you hasten your ascent to heaven when you’re always retreating?), I said the word is one step backward but two steps forward which is a bwelo of sorts to equip us with reergenized faith to reconcile with the Lord. Amen.
Abraham de la Torre