Thursday, October 31, 2013

On Death and Fear

"The Scream" by Edvard Munch

These past few days have been utter bliss! I’m getting 8-9 hours of sleep each night, a rare luxury! And it’s SUCH a blessing to be able to continue reading that page-turner until past 9:30 p.m., to spend more time playing with our three romping rottweilers (who are too darn GIGANTIC nowadays to be called “puppies” any longer), to savor a cup of coffee and chocolate Belgian waffles with former students.

Even more luxurious, we got to spend some time at the beach during our faculty outing last weekend! However, I confess I didn’t get to go in the water at all because of two reasons: 1) I couldn’t put down my Patrick O’Brian books (a nautical theme to match the setting!), and 2) of fear. Specifically, I was afraid that the jellyfish and sharks would get me.

You see, that morning, a baby shark had been caught swimming near the shore, and one of my co-teachers also got attacked by jellyfish. Having survived a jellyfish attack myself, which occurred while snorkeling two years ago, I knew how painful and potentially dangerous another attack could be, especially when swimming in deep waters! So I was in no hurry to experience it anew. However, I DO regret passing up the chance to go cliff-diving with my siblings and some co-teachers.

“Put those books down and get in the water!” they said. It occurs to me now that I SHOULD have. I’ve been looking at it the wrong way. Not just because of the experience of exposing oneself to surf and sun (and sharks and other nasty sea creatures), but because the water is a metaphor for life itself. I passed up an opportunity to live my life more fully.

Yet another great Filipino passed away recently. THE F. Landa Jocano, the foremost anthropologist of our nation, author and a great educator besides, has gone on to a better place. He was a former teacher of our dad’s, and so my sister and I paid our respects at his wake. It was a solemn occasion, but I couldn’t help but reflect how wonderful it was to live out such a meaningful life! For as we gazed about the room, we saw joy, love, laughter and LIFE all around. We saw his beautiful family, his amazing son, his daughter, his grandson… we saw so many others like us who went to the wake of a great man who may not have accumulated a great deal of material wealth, but left behind something far better for his family: the legacy of a great name.

And with it being All Saints’ Day tomorrow (and All Souls’ day the day after), it is the great annual tradition of UNDAS for Filipinos, the time when families go back home to their provinces to hold grand family reunions over the graves of their loved ones. Cemeteries are filled to the brim with overnighters who feast, drink and often gamble while remembering their dearly departed. And while I may not personally agree with the practice of what (I think) is too much and unseemly merrymaking, I do agree with the idea behind it: that the way to face death is to celebrate life. That the best way to honor our dead is to live honorable, meaningful lives.

Tonight, as we were feeding our three romping rotties their dinner, we got approached by several neighbor’s kids in costume: “Trick or treat!” We apologized for our lack of candy, and thankfully our three huge rottweilers looked menacing enough that they didn’t pressure us any further. J But how do you say to your neighbor that this house’s inhabitants don’t believe in the Western foreign practice of Halloween?

Perhaps I’ll feel differently about Halloween when I have a child of my own. Dressing him/her up would be great fun, I imagine! But even then, I wouldn’t dress him/her up as a monster or fantastical creature. If she was a girl, I’d dress her up as Gabriela Silang. If a boy, as Macario Sakay or Andres Bonifacio (no Emilio Aguinaldo for me, thank you!). Heroes for their country… or perhaps, heroes for other people’s souls. But then again, walking around the village at night is no longer safe these days, so maybe we’ll just take pictures of each other in costume and have our family dinner and obligatory candy fest in the safety of our home.

Wouldn’t it be better to focus on the Feast of All Saints (and All Souls’)? It’s really worthwhile to pause and reflect on how much we owe the martyrs of the past. I think one of the most beautiful teachings of the Catholic faith is the Communion of Saints, of how the church triumphant in Heaven can continue to have a huge impact on the church militant on earth. It gives us comfort and hope to know that our departed loved ones continue to pray and watch over us, that we can communicate our love for them through prayer and make them proud with the way we live our lives.

And so, here’s wishing everyone a blessed All Saints’, and All Souls’! And may our lives be filled with more happiness and chocolate (yes, I firmly believe there is a direct correlation between the two!).

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Baclayon, Bohol

Image source:

There are few sights I shall never forget. One is the wonder that was Baclayon Church, Bohol, which I was lucky enough to visit after a seminar in Tagbilaran, two years ago. I can still remember the utter smallness I felt when I beheld its soaring arches as I entered into its dim interior, which made the sunlight streaming in its windows all the more dramatic. Centuries had not diminished its grandeur… not the flashy, gaudy kind in some modern churches in wealthy neighborhoods in Metro Manila where, as my dad puts it, “Jesus wears an Americana,” with their spotless, nigh-near-sterile white domed palaces and gold-plated decorations. But the grandeur of old churches like Baclayon comes from its sheer majesty, from their mere existence after centuries of storms and punishing tropical weather. Imagine… a place that was built in 1595! It boggles the mind!

Grand old churches and cathedrals, “places between heaven and earth,” inspire awe in us not just because of the visual and sensual feast they provide, but because of what they stand for. They are the work of generations. Throughout the years, the workers toiled unceasingly as they cut stone and laid them lovingly onto places so high that no mortal man would ever see them again. But then, these workers didn’t mind. They knew that their labor was for the sight of God. Their perfect bricks and tiles were their loving prayers, their offerings borne out of love and toil, blood and sweat. Each man knew he wouldn’t live to see the finished result of this labor of love, but worked hard all the same, knowing that his children and children’s children would be baptized under the roof of his labors, would be married before the sacred altar he lovingly crafted.

I thought those thoughts as I quietly meandered from one end of Baclayon to another, envious of the lucky Boholanos who could pray and visit this historic monument, this place that seemed to make souls bigger simply by one’s entering. The idea that this historic church is now nothing more than a pile of rubble is heartbreaking!

The other sight I cannot ever, ever erase from my memory is the sight of our family’s favorite priest overcome with emotions, weeping in front of the congregation during today’s homily. You see, he hails from Tagbilaran, Bohol. And this past week, Bohol was one of the hardest hit areas in a devastatingly powerful earthquake (with a magnitude of 7.2) that not only claimed hundreds of lives, but also destroyed national heritage churches like Baclayon. Apart from being known for being a musical province, Bohol is also famous for its old churches. Boholanos IDENTIFY themselves with their churches! Their loss is a terrible psychic scar, comparable to what the Jews felt upon the destruction of Solomon’s temple.

I can’t forget how Father Ted had to pause several times, to collect himself, but tears streaked down his face all the same as he recounted the damage his hometown had endured. “Churches that took generations to build… all gone in 30 seconds,” he lamented. People have lost their homes, centuries old buildings are reduced to mere rubble, and they lack even drinking water and food. The homeless are sleeping beneath the ruins of their old churches, simply because they have no other place to go.

He appealed to us for help, of course, but he did it in a very powerful way, not from a position of weakness, but from strength. He was confident that fellow Filipinos would come to the aid of fellow Filipino, and reminded us that faith is not identified with orthodoxy, but with orthopraxy: faith is made manifest in action.

I remember seeing Father Ted on TV on the fateful day of the earthquake. One of the news reporters asked him: “Father, has this terrible incident made you lose faith?”

“Of course not!” Father Ted said, “It has increased it.”

And in his homily today, he reiterated his message: “We have faith in our countrymen, in Bohol. God has given us this opportunity to arise from the ashes like a phoenix, to come together to rebuild His church. And just like in today’s homily (Luke 18:1-8), we are asked: But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth? Oh, when he comes to Bohol, he will… he truly will. He will find Bohol overflowing with faith.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

For those who are interested in helping Bohol directly, here are some numbers and contact information that you might find useful. They are from Father Ted, the musical priest from Bohol, whose weekly sermons give strength and guidance to so many.

Metrobank-Tagbilaran Branch
Account Name: Social Action Center- Diocese of Tagbilaran
Account Number: 712-3-712-04324-6

Metrobank Account Name: The Roman Catholic Bishop of Tagbilaran
Account Number: 123-3-123-51030-6

Donations through “Kwarta Padala” are welcome. Please address them to Fr. Valentino U. Pinlac, Director of the Pastoral Program of the Diocese of Tagbilaran)

M-Lhuiller-Tagbilaran 1 & 2 Branches
Cebuana Tagbilaran Branch

Saturday, October 12, 2013

On Aristocracy and Vulgarity

Author Muriel Barbery once wrote: “What is an aristocrat? Someone who is never sullied by vulgarity, although she may be surrounded by it.”

As a young girl, I thought being an aristocrat involved material wealth. And so my six-year-old self gazed in rapture upon bejeweled matrons with earrings and fingers dripping with gold and jewels, closely shadowed by uniformed body guards and maids… thinking to myself that these were aristocrats going about their daily business in Makati.

As I grew older, I felt that aristocracy had more to do with wealth of the mind, of intellectual ability and “elevated” tastes in all things artistic, literal, mineral and vegetable. Going to U.P., I was surrounded by such aristocrats and felt so lucky and proud to walk amongst them on a daily basis. U.P. was and will always be that golden haven where my horizons were broadened, intellectually and spiritually. I learned never to judge people solely by what they wore, for that tambay with the mohawk, in a wife-beater sando and slippers might turn out to be your brilliant-if-a-bit-eccentric professor for the semester. At any given time in any class I was in, I’d be sitting with a high school valedictorian in front of me, a high school salutatorian beside me, and a genius-classmate-who-needed-no-notes-because-he-had-a-photographic-memory sat behind me. It was where I learned humility, and where I learned to accept the harsh reality that, no matter how awesome you think you are, there will always be someone better, brighter, prettier, younger, than you.

But it is only now that I am realizing that true aristocracy is a matter of virtue. And all of us are called to it… not to be elitist snobs, to sneer at the vulgar, pedestrian mass of humanity. But as a matter of morality, for the sake of our souls. Because He, the Utmost Aristocrat, gave no less than His life so that we may all be aristocrats for all eternity with Him.

Daily, we all face the all-too human temptation to resort to maliciousness and pettiness of thought and deed. I confess I, with my passionate and rash nature, am still only beginning at my lessons in self-control, even at my advanced age. It is SO easy to let slip that uncharitable comment, that unforgiving remark especially among family and friends. And though it might do no harm in the sense that, given the private audience, the malicious thought will never reach the ears of the one being spoken about… the harm HAS been done, to me. To my soul. For each unchristian thought or word has marred my character, and has probably left an ugly blemish that will take eons to cleanse. Where charity enlargens the soul, pettiness and malice crush it. But we must always remember that we are all called to goodness, to be great souls in a fallen world.

I used to think having the stomach for speaking strong angry words was a sign of strength. But now I realize it is NOT strength, but weakness, to let Malice control me even if only for a little while. And is it not harder to bite one’s tongue, both physically and mentally? For as I keep saying to my students, “Hatred is borne of ignorance.” I myself am guilty of perpetrating that ignorance whenever I let myself be ruled by hate, whenever I allow myself to think uncharitable thoughts that render what little virtues I have for naught.

And so I dream my little dream… when as a child I once dreamt of fame and fortune (either by writing the great Filipino novel of my generation or by capturing the hearts of audiences in La Scala with my rendition of Puccini’s Tosca), now it is this: to live in such a way that I bring even the tiniest bit of joy to my students, to add even some small amount of beauty to their lives by helping them see the glory in art, in poetry, in music… and perhaps, someday, when I am worthy of him, to be the helpmate to my future beloved and help make his life happier and easier.

“To live more nobly,” as Anne Shirley says… is this not a wonderful dream?

                …Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
                Is our destined end or way;
                But to act, that each tomorrow
                Find us farther than today…

                … Lives of great men all remind us
                We can make our lives sublime,
                And, departing, leave behind us
                Footprints on the sands of time…”

We studied Longfellow’s majestic “Psalm of Life” in our Grade Six English class last week, and I thought the two verses quote above were quite splendid! And wouldn’t it be wonderful if the footprints we left behind, when we are gone, are hearts made happier, minds made clearer, souls left richer? Such is my prayer.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Tidbits of Heaven

There are golden moments that we hold on to, precious minutes that simultaneously pass all too quickly and yet are illuminated with eternity’s golden light. These “tidbits of heaven” are what we remember when we face their opposite: days when nothing seems to go right, when it seems the whole universe is conspiring against you. During these dark and gloomy times, we need to hold on to the golden times all the more, for they remind us of who we are, of our purpose in life, of why we do what we do, why we tread the path we’ve chosen.

Teacher’s Day is always full of these golden tidbits of precious time.

The chocolates are quickly consumed, the flowers will wilt in a few days’ time. But the precious cards (some written on art paper, some hastily scrawled on intermediate pad) will be treasured by the recipients forever. I have yet to meet a teacher who placed more value on the gift than the accompanying note. It’s those precious tidbits of paper that we keep hidden away in secret places, that we read whenever we’re down or feeling blue. We will NEVER part with these invaluable treasures, for these cannot be bought even with Napoles’ 10 billion pesos. These are expressions of love from our beloved pupils, and we teachers hold them to be sacred items.

They are physical manifestations of golden moments, of the time when a handsome ten-year-old boy danced with his much taller and older teacher under the heat of the sun, right beside the sound system that blared out a Miley Cyrus song. Of the time when a bespectacled third grader sweetly sang to her teacher how much she learned from us. Of the time when a dozen children surrounded their teacher and hugged her tightly, almost to the point of suffocation, and greeted her “Happy Teacher’s Day!”

We teachers may be considered “poor” in terms of finances, but oh, how rich we are in love. And how blessed we are to teach!

In my life, I’ve had several tidbits of heaven… afternoons spent talking to a kindred soul about poetry and philosophy… evenings overwhelmed by majestic, magnificent music performed live by the best artists in the country… but none can compare with a teacher’s golden moments spent in the company of innocent, loving hearts.

Happy Teacher’s Day to all the teachers in the world!
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