Running away to the Carmelite Monastery reminded me of a distant childhood memory when my playmate and I ran for our lives.
The decade of the 70’s in the Philippines marked the Martial Law regime of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
As a result of the oppressive rule, many impoverished people ran to the mountains of Mindanao and joined the New People’s Army (NPAs).
Every now and then, these rebels would attack our town. The resulting aftermath of the clash between soldiers and rebel would leave slaughtered bodies on the road. I have never witnessed one, but the gory details never escaped my young ears when adults talk about it during dinner or the drive to the city.
One day, my parents left for the city. These are occasions when we break the rule of not biking beyond our street.
My sister and I decided to go around the town where the road was much wider and paved. We didn’t think the buses were too dangerous. Papa was being too cautious and protective.
But just as we were about to turn around the corner to return home, armed men in combat boots and military fatigues came rampaging towards us shouting, “ Kids! Go home! Go home! We are under attack. The rebels are on their way!”
We leapt off, discarded the two-wheeled machines in the nearby ditch, and decided our feet would carry us faster, cutting through houses and backyards than the main road.
Panting and heaving, we ran to the clinic screaming, “The rebels are coming!”
In no time, the clinic staff scampered and shut the doors and windows, while my sister and I closed the store that we were supposed to be manning.
We all rushed to the kitchen, entered the store room, and climbed over the piles of sackful of rice.
At that time, the pile was high.
We had a rice mill that supplied and replenished the store room on a regular basis. “This room is bullet proof,” Papa often said.
Surrounded by pure concrete walls, without windows, and located in the middle of the kitchen, the rice storeroom was the perfect hide-away.
Inside those walls, I felt safe.
Looking at the massive solid walls of the monastery, this same security returned.
I inserted my hands in between the iron grill of the tall gate and pried the bolt open from the outside. It was close to midday and the sun was high against the blue sky.
Papa’s parting words still echoed in my ears. “This is all my fault. God is taking you away from me as a penalty for my sins.”
I didn’t see it that way, but whatever.
Seeing him teary-eyed, for the first time when he said goodbye made me scratch my nape. This wasn’t like the Papa I knew.
Mama shushed him. “Don’t be so dramatic. She’s literally just a few miles away and will be coming home every weekend.”
Having lived away from Papa and Mama for the most part of my life, I too was used to hellos and goodbyes and was as detached as Mama.
The past few months after his heart surgery, Papa had slowed down from his medical practice. He and Mama spent more time in the city than in the province, but still not enough time to witness my frequent nightmares during the day, or my state of misery for the last five months.
But now, I was leaving that chapter of my life behind.
I rang the small bell hanging near the entry and Ate Jee greeted with me with a warm hug and a huge smile. She was a tall woman with curly hair, a lay sister who manned the store of religious articles and helped the out-sister manage the area outside the cloister.
“Come, I’ll tell Mother Superior you’re here. They should be done with the mid-day prayer.” She led me to the waiting area for visitors and closed the door.
I sat with my backpack on my lap. I had everything I needed in the small bag: the breviary, Bible, a week’s supply of underwear, a pair of rubber slippers, and basic toiletries. I wouldn’t be needing much. What a freedom to be rid of all superfluous things.
For the past months when I had stayed in the comfort of my home, Papa and Mama watched me with pain as I slept on the floor with just a woven mat. I had refused to sleep on the big soft bed.
“I have to get used to hard floor, Papa. Mother Superior told me that they didn’t have a mattress in the convent.”
It was part of their vow of poverty.
That thrilled me. It reminded me of those Chinese Kung Fu movies that I watched as a child, when the student had to undergo hardships, training, and discipline to master the martial arts craft.
I was ready for this boot camp. If I endured the heat of the sun, the push-ups and duck walks as a trainee in Citizen’s Army in high school, I can withstand this and embrace the Cross after my Lord in Calvary.
That day I entered Carmel, God consoled me. The curtains were drawn away. And although the iron grille separated me and Mother Superior, I felt honored to talk to her face to face. Her face resembled that of a 40-year-old woman, yet her age was close to Papa, who was her classmate. It was a pleasant discovery. She wore a smile that never left as we conversed.
“Are you sure about this? We don’t eat meat here.”
I shrugged my shoulders and smiled. I’ve been on perpetual abstinence for the most part of my life anyway. Eating ricefield frogs was a feast for our family of seven. It tasted like chicken. Catfish and mudfish were peddled to our house on most days. So what’s the big deal? There was nothing to be missed.
“I have to warn you too, that we depend on donations,” she said. “In the past, we had to serve host cuttings for dinner for lack of food. That and then an Ovaltine drink.”
I loved the cuttings. These holed rectangular wafer, scraps from the hosts that the nuns baked and sold to the churches for communion, served as my snack these past months.
I often bought three packs from the store whenever I came to visit. Food was the least of my worries. I looked forward to embracing that vow of poverty with rosy eyes.
Ate Jee soon led me to the other parts of the convent. The stone walls made the whole place cool and subdued. We passed by the small dining area with chairs and tables by the side window. “That’s where we make scapulars and rosaries, and where we eat, right after the midday prayer.”
Beyond the dining room was a mid-sized kitchen. “We cook the food for the in-sisters. You can help out here or do other tasks. We call these morning tasks ‘office.’There’s only one hour during the day that we can talk, and that’s during lunch.”
The vow of silence was a welcome thing. I wasn’t much into small talks anyway.
The wisdom of this vow dawned on me when I realized just how many nuns were in the cloister. It was a small community of less than twenty. Can you imagine the chaos and fire the tongues would cause if it were left free to wag?
God be blessed for the vow of silence that served to minimize drama in the monastic life.
We walked up the stairs and Ate Jee led me to the end of the hallway. The whole front wing with four rooms were vacant. Ate Jee went home at the end of the day.
At the farthest end to my left, a corner room waited for me. The floor creaked as she held open the door. I entered and faced a bed against the window, topped with a woven mat, a white pillow and a thin white blanket, as I expected. To the left was a small wooden table and chair facing the crucifix hanging on the wall. By the door a small wooden cabinet stood.
“Come down after you’ve rested a bit. The nuns are on their siesta. Afternoon prayer follows. You’ll get to know more of our routine.”
I put down my bag and opened the cabinet. Two sets of uniforms hung inside, consisting of brown skirts and white blouses. It fit my 117-lb, 5’3” frame just fine.
After changing into the uniforms, I sat on the bed and took out my copy of The Story of a Soul.
The young nun on the cover stared back at me as though saying, “Welcome to Carmel. You may call me Ate Therese.”
I smiled and gazed out the window. With a spiritual mother in St. Teresa of Avila, and this other Carmelite adopting me into the family, I was home, at last.