There’s something formidable about stone walls. It makes you feel secure for awhile. And then, it becomes confining.
On that afternoon of December 1993, I walked to the garden for fresh air. The room had become too small for my muddled thoughts.
The roses were in full bloom. Thanks to the tropical weather, each delicate petal received nourishment from the sun and rain in predictable intervals. The garden never ran dry.
I wished I could say the same for my soul.
Three months had passed and Christmas was in the air.
I had been wondering what to give the nuns which would be personally useful yet easy to buy.
“Underwears,” Ate Mar, one of the lay volunteers suggested. “They are in dire need of it. Buy XLs and XXLs.”
What a great idea.
“You’re so pragmatic,” Mother Superior said after receiving my Christmas gift.
Was I pragmatic? Perhaps.
This could be the reason why St. Therese of Lisieux’s book made sense to me.
Her view on spirituality was so practical and down to earth, even a child can practice it. And she called it her elevator to heaven.
When I entered Carmel, it was to assuage this thirst for the highest honor. Pursuing the most ascetic form of spirituality was a challenge I couldn’t resist.
St. Therese’s words didn’t draw traction at first. Why would I pursue a spirituality that will make me little? Why should I not be noticed in the eyes of men so that God can notice me? It ran counter against the grain of vanity in my hair and skin.
Was this the reason Fr. A handed me The Story of a Soul. Did he see the spirit of vanity hovering on my head the day he interviewed me?
They say that learned spiritual directors read a soul like an open book, and know what pen and ink to use to write God’s guidance on it.
“Forget the mystical Teresa and her supernatural powers. Focus on the extraordinariness of the ordinary.”
The more I read Therese’s book, the more it made sense to me. If I can achieve something so lofty—sainthood, without lifting brawn and bones, then that would be my road. This road although narrow led straight to heaven, St. Therese promised.
So whenever I was told to cut grass, I prayed, “Lord, cut all my vices and weaknesses, and trim my soul to perfection.” I imagined each blade of the grass I snipped with the garden scissors as my weaknesses and sinful ways.
Each day that I refilled wax inside the candle holder after mass, I prayed, “Lord, fill me with all the grace I need to keep my light of faith, hope, and love burning.”
Every time I mopped the floor, I prayed, “Lord, clean my soul of all sins and remove all the dirt in my life.”
In the walls and confines of the monastery, I basked in the ordinary and saw the mystery behind the simple action when done in the deepest love. With prayer, the task became mindful, purposeful, and sanctified. Every movement, no matter how trivial and mundane became a movement of the universe, a communion of souls in the greater scheme of things.
All these I did in the spirit of silence and prayer.
I looked forward to siesta because I was free to do as I pleased. I read all the other books that Fr. A gave to guide me in my spiritual journey. Such books included those on why we should pray, on the lives of the Carmelite saints I’ve not heard of, like Blessed Edith Stein.
Like a hand pump, the spiritual reading primed my spirit to draw water from a dry well, and spurt it out of my pen, like an ink.
I wrote poems and painted with acrylic on canvas, usually after a cat nap.
Yesterday, I drew the Crucified Christ. I copied this from a stampita, one of those little cards that bore a holy image on one side and a prayer on the other. The nuns used it as bookmarkers.
I loved this particular image of the Crucified Christ. It was a snapshot of a bust. His carved face looked so real. The blood trickled from his forehead pierced by a thick thorny crown, and his sallow cheeks revealed the same agony written in those glazed eyes. It seemed to beg me to love Him.
I could almost hear Him whisper, “I thirst for your love.” I wanted to comfort this good Lord of mine. By painting His image, I shared in His suffering. By recreating the sacrifice he gave on the Cross, I felt I was giving Him my immense gratitude for what He had done.
It was like immortalizing an act of love and sacrifice by honoring Him with an act of creation on my part, my re-creation of the stampita.
And that was what I received in Carmel—the gift of prayer, and not the kind that would require me to pump water in rigor and sweat like a beggar constantly asking for things. It was the kind that the ten virgins experienced when the bridegroom found them waiting at the gate of meditation, and he invited them into the gate of contemplation, the passive way of drawing water from the well that never runs dry. It was a road where children can tread. Nothing supernatural.
And then the desert came.
What I found inspiring had gone mundane and tiresome. Now, it took more energy to get out of bed and bring myself to do the routine tasks.
Waking up at dawn didn’t go well with my Circadian rhythm. The thought of having to wake up in this unholy hour to do a holy endeavor for the rest of my earthly life, Monday to Sunday, somehow filled me with dread.
That was perhaps the first sign that told me, I was not cut out for this kind of life.
A wise man once said, “God planted the purpose in your heart. You’ll know it’s right because it feels right, and you are at peace. It’s like a circular block fitting into a circular hole. God created you for a purpose and doing the purpose should feel natural and fill you with joy, although the task need not be easy.
Unlike this lush garden, my soul had turned dry as a desert.
I had turned and turned the dial of the radiofrequency of my heart, but I only hear static. White noise.
“That’s good. God speaks in the silence of the spirit,” Fr. A said.
This wise man had reduced me to silence, made me give up praying in tongues. “Try not to create any noise. Be comfortable with silence. Let Him speak, spirit to spirit. Holy Spirit to your spirit.”
But silence can be deafening. I needed something tangible, something real.
The great saints say that when you encounter the desert in your prayer and become as dry as a bone, it can only mean three things:
1) You have sinned and have left the presence of the Lord, the source of the living water,
2) The Lord is testing you to see if you’d persevere for better or for worse, as though the bridegroom wants to make sure the betrothed is worthy and willing to give the same sacrificial kind of love, or
3) He is purifying you in the dark night of your soul.
It is the latter that I hoped was causing my tepidity.
I had licked my wounds and healed. I found peace, silence, and solitude. And yet, amidst this seeming calmness of the water, a monster lay hidden, restless, and wanting to get out.
I had to admit now that it cannot be tamed in the confines of the walls of Carmel. I can only sing so much Psalters, before my voice breaks or my throat dries out. And then I am once again reduced to silence.
I had unraveled the catacombs of my heart and couldn’t find the Voice that led me here.
“Where are You? Why have you deserted me? Did you bring me here only to abandon me? You said you’d be here,” I cried.
I opened the black book, The Imitation of Christ, that served to transmit His message. It was the same book that St. Therese of the Child Jesus used to find her path to sanctity.
If it worked for her, it might work for me because my Lord had been reduced to silence.
The great Teresa of Avila often advised her nuns to grab a spiritual book to water their prayers and spur them to greater love for God.
So I prayed that a random page would reveal God’s message—the next direction I hope.
That day I found my oasis. He finally spoke and revealed to me why I was walking in this desert.
And then we talked. And then I cried. And from the deep recesses of my heart, a melody arose, inspired by the words from The Imitation of Christ.
I Lord, I wonder why You’re far from me I’ve always longed for Thy sweet embrace but the dryness within can’t be denied You’re so far away… I’m yours. I’ve tried to live my life for you. I’ve learned enough to know this life is short And I must strive to meet a certain goal ‘Coz there’s eternity… REFRAIN: My heart’s desire is to unite my soul with Your own So you may live in me That others only have to look at me And find you there But you say… CHORUS I: How can I be yours, how can you be Mine If you resist to trust enough And abandon your heart to Me How can you be Mine, how can I be yours If your life is still your own And refuse to give all your love to Me. II Lord, I know You’ve always wanted my heart To be fully united to Your own But you still find resistance in my will And fear in my soul… REFRAIN II Embrace Your life without complaint And to be receptive to Your will I guess that’s how a child of Yours should act Just believe and learn to trust CHORUS II Then I can be yours and You can be mine Be united with You, Lord, a life so divine When I am all Yours and You are all mine Then my world shall be enflamed with the heaven of Thine REFRAIN III I guess I’ll never be completely at rest ‘Til my heart finds the real happiness That you have promised to those who give all their life to You And you say… CHORUS III Yes, I can be Yours and you can be Mine ‘Coz I gave My life for you And you’re learning to surrender to Me Yes, that heart of yours Is destined to be My own And shall never be at rest ‘til united to Me… CODA: Forever… Ooooh…. For all eternity… I’m yours… You’re mine.
I wiped my tears. Did I actually compose a beautiful song in one sitting? Those became the lyrics and chords for my song, I’m Yours, You’re Mine.
I walked back to the chapel when a familiar figure stepped out of the door and called my name.
It was my high school friend (let’s call her Livvy for being so Lively, which made me livvied with worry). Wide-eyed, I instinctively raised my forefinger to my lips and shushed her.
“I can’t believe you’re really here!” Livvy’s words echoed through the hall and brought the birds flapping from the trees.
Inside I groaned while she bubbled with excitement. Why was she here? Most likely she was sent by her aunts on an errand to offer eggs to the nuns, a local tradition which the nuns had a hard time changing despite their cholesterols rising, for beggars can’t be choosers with the gifts given them.
In the olden days, farmers used to donate from the produce of their backyards. Of course, this was unknown to donors of today, who were less likely to have hens on their backyard and who thought eggs were the staple food in the monastery.
“So how do you like it here?” Her tone didn’t differ from the time when we shared juicy secrets about crushes and friend dramas back in high school.
I shrugged and forced a smile. Although her question sounded genuine, I knew our encounter would spread like bushfire the minute she stepped out of the gate.
Not seeming to notice my awkwardness and reservation, she pulled at my arm, “We were shocked when you joined the Carmelites. The others joked that you’d get struck by a lightning once you step inside or have a hay fever as soon as you smell the candle and incense in here.”
Touche. The comment served me right. Indeed I was bushwhacked by God. At that moment, I scratched a non-existing itch on my nape. When will the bell ring so I can have an honest excuse?
“So what is your routine here?”
“Well, I wake up at four in the morning,” and she didn’t need to know I had to drag myself to the bathroom for a cold bath, “and join the morning prayer at 4:30 am.”
Her eyes widened. She didn’t need to know either that I sat on the floor in the darkness of the church alone, while leaning against the iron grille and curtain that separated me from the cloistered nuns inside. On more than one occasion, I had dozed between chants and hymns.
“I hear mass at six, fix the altar after mass, refill the candle with wax, go to my “office” which could be any assigned tasks for me after breakfast?”
I made the routine sound wonderfully ascetic, as though mopping the floor had saved a soul somewhere across the continent from eternal damnation and helping in the kitchen solved world hunger and brought world peace.
At that moment, I was confronted with my pretentious and vain self.
“And—,” I added with a bit of a flair, “we have a vow silence. So...” I hope she got my hint, and even if she didn’t it was time to go.
Charity, I had none at that moment. My bruised ego needed to hide away from her amused eyes. I knew my friends were merely counting the days of my monastic sojourn, probably even betting on it. I wanted to prove them wrong. I could be determined and persistent if I wanted to, firm even, just like how I bid her goodbye.
But the road I took was no longer mine to tread. I had relinquished the rein to a bigger force. And the force moved when the time came.
A few days later, while I was mopping the floor, I stopped on my tracks.
What was I still doing here?
Somehow, I knew, at that very moment, with the last stroke of the mop on the corner of the parlor, my time was up.
The small voice echoed the stirrings of my heart. “It’s time to go. You’re done here.”
And just like that, I approached Mother Superior and let her know that I was leaving.
“So where are you heading now?” Fr. Alan asked from across the table a few days later.
“I don’t know, Father. If the religious life is not for me, then maybe single-blessedness or married life? Maybe find an NGO.”
Non-government organizations have sprouted like crazy after the fall of the dictator. These non-profit groups attracted me with their humanitarian efforts. It would be nice to earn while helping uplift the poor.
He nodded. “Keep in touch.” He smiled, his eyes emanating a glint of understanding. Those eyes held the wisdom of years more than his silvery white hair could attest to. “I want to know your progress.”
There was a note of finality to the sound of metal hitting metal. My heart ached as I gave a last glance at the vast expanse of the Carmelite Monastery and the tall cypress trees surrounding it. What I thought would become my permanent home was a mere stop-over.
I didn’t care anymore about what my friends would say. I had experienced ridicule. It didn’t kill me.
I hailed a jeepney and boarded, while the song of Maria Von Trapp echoed on my mind. “What would this day be like, I wonder? What would my future be, I wonder?”
Would there be a captain waiting for me down the road? God forbid that there’d be seven children as well.
But there was still one Teresa I had to look into, another religious congregation that may give me the clue to where God was calling me.
Once more I knocked, but this time my heart did not open.