Philippines sabbatical reveals a beautiful land, generous people

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GUEST COLUMN

By FR. FRANK REITTER

This past spring I traveled on a sabbatical to learn about the Philippines. It was one of the best experiences in my life and I’d like to offer reflections on finding God through the place, the prayer and the people of the Philippines.

El Nido in Palawan has been designated the best beach in the world several times and deserves the accolade. Raw limestone cliffs shoot up out of the sea; the sounds of hornbills echo off cliff walls; monitor lizards scamper down the beach while monkeys climb palm trees. Dawn and dusk, island and cloud, sea and sky, water and air, they merge into one changing kaleidoscope of color.

At Lagen a rock shaped like a hybrid between a three-dimensional ace of spades and the monolith from the “2001: A Space Odyssey” watches over the cove entrance like an ancient sentinel. The contrast between cliff and ocean are reminiscent of day five from the Biblical creation account where land and sea are separated. The boldness of the stone rising from the water speaks of solidity and permanence, yet the eroded bases of the cliff walls from lapping waves testifies that even what is strongest is subject to change and alteration. The merging of land, water and sky at daybreak and nightfall speaks to the connectedness amid diversity, of differing elements making a whole, of a sense of design and artistry.

True beauty speaks not just to the eye but also to the soul. I suspect the secret to El Nido’s attraction is not simply its natural beauty, but the supernatural God speaking to the heart and spirit.

One of the most important aspects of Filipino spirituality is physicality. Christianity and Catholicism permeate life with chapels in offices, on ships and in malls. Beautiful airbrushed religious images adorn the sides of buses. Many streets have Marian shrines. Statues, especially of Santo Nino (The Holy Child), are everywhere — in houses, market stalls, vehicles and throughout the churches.

Two of the most important churches are home to famous statues: Quiapo, which contains the Black Nazaero and the Basilica of the Santo Nino in Cebu. These statues are not merely for visible reflection. Filipinos take lots of pictures but not of themselves with statues. These images are more for touching and contemplation rather than selfie material.

This sense of physicality extends to the place of pilgrimage in the Philippines. The Santo Nino procession is a case in point as the faithful visit seven churches on Holy Thursday and Good Friday, often walking barefoot or biking for miles.

In Manila parishioners move with the music during Mass. Afterwards they clap and come forward to be blessed by putting the priest’s hand to their forehead.

The physicality of Filipino spirituality flows into a practical empathy for others. Filipinos are the most kind, hospitable and generous people I’ve ever met. On the subway young men routinely offered seats to women or elderly persons. Riding buses I had no idea where to get off. When I asked for help it was always given. At a procession of 700 Santo Nino figures, the person who invited me literally gave me the special shirt made for the occasion off his back. When I went to Magellan’s cross the taxi driver and I talked the whole way there, and the fare was 122 pisos. I pulled out 150 pisos and the driver said, “100…discount!” Waiting for the ferry two young women sitting across from me disappeared then came back having bought some food and offered me candy.

Following a path in Banaue taking pictures of rice terraces I came to its end. There an ancient grandmother came out of her house and led me through her hanging laundry to another path to take pictures from.

People in Legawe asked if the people in Manila were hospitable, those in Cebu asked that about Legawe, others in Palawan asked about Cebu. It is a point of personal and national pride. There is an awareness of others and a compassion for their needs that is engrained in the Filipino culture. I suspect it arises from a lived faith: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

The writer is pastor of St. Mary Church in Kodiak, Alaska.


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