Mission Musings

by Fr. Colm Meaney, CSsR

Double for Holy Week

From the town-center of Jimalalud (105 kms. north of Dumaguete), you take the habal-habal to the hills. I was in Brgys. Mahanlud and Uwakan for Lent & Holy Week. Mahanlud is about 45 minutes on the back of the bike, Uwakan is an hour. The two villages are hardly 5 kms. apart, but the state of the “road” is so decrepit, that travel is not easy. So I decided to celebrate all the liturgies of Holy Week twice, which meant commuting between the two barrios on the back of a bike, gingerly cradling my trusty overhead projector (not to mention Mass-kit, change of clothing, etc.), as the bike passed over boulders worthy of a place at Stonehenge.

And Then There was Light

I have to record one incident: one sitio of Uwakan is quite a distance from the center and is still without electricity; there are 18 Catholic families there scattered around the hills in sitio Cansualing. We gathered as usual at 6.30pm (intending to get under way by 7pm), and there was fog as thick as pea-soup. So there we were with our Manila-paper hymns hanging on a peg and our rechargeable flashlights straining against the surrounding, enveloping darkness. The situation was looking dull: hard to penetrate the engulfing gloom, hard to generate some kind of tune. Then, Lo and Behold! a voice from the outer darkness: “We have arrived!” Well, it was reminiscent of the gospel cry “The bridegroom has arrived”! It was the moment to re-think our reality: not darkness-engulfed, but promise-expecting. The voice was a group of 15 or 20 from another part of Uwakan, at least 45 minutes walk over hills and dales, in pitch-black darkness, in the dead of night. One of the men had a petromax (hurricane lamp), a most welcome addition to our gloomy assembly. It saturated the encroaching darkness with a luminosity that enlightened our hearts and our gathering for the next two hours. And then around 9pm the 20 “prayer warriors” set off again to return to their homes. As I walked to the house where I was sleeping (10 minutes away) I could see the glow of the petromax as the group wound its way over the hills: “the darkness could not overcome it”.

A Different Story

I visited a house, but more like a “hovel of unhappiness”. Those scare quotes are not an exaggeration, but any unhappiness in the place is my interpretation, not the family’s testimony. This was misery incarnated, although as I say, any discontent is my own perception; from my brief visit, the family seems to be “coping” mightily. The parents are in their mid-50s (I’d guess). The father was extremely taciturn, and I was correct in my private prediction that I wouldn’t be seeing him later that evening at our gathering. But the mother was more effusive: she had lost 3 of her children when they were still infants, and (if I understood correctly), a married child of hers had fallen down a step soon after giving birth and both mother and child had died in that tragedy. The mother also had a child, about 20, who was lying behind a curtain; he was severely handicapped, physically and mentally.

Another married daughter who was in the house said that she wouldn’t be able to attend the gathering later as she had an aching foot. That evening we gathered at 7pm, and, as usual again, outside the house (due to the crowd): we projected the songs onto the wall of the house, using a bed-sheet as a screen. All worked perfectly. Anyway, our gospel that night was the Lord’s healing of the paralytic lowered down through the roof. A few shared, then I gave my “few words”. In the course of my sharing, I mentioned that this gospel’s healing was somehow miraculous, but what about those who look after the long-term sick or terminally ill? I asked (aloud, because I couldn’t see clearly in the dark) if the mother (of my earlier visit) was present. She was; I spoke directly to her. I said that the (long-term) care of the sick is a Christ-like action, citing Matthew 25. In the obscurity, I’m almost sure I saw some kind of recognition in the mother’s face. At least, I hope I did. Hopkins wrote “this seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears” (“Felix Randal”). I often find the anointing of the sick to be a very moving occasion: it’s a time when those concerned (the sick person, the family, etc.) are truly present, where their hopes and fears are tightly concentrated in this simple, poignant sacrament.

That particular house was dreadfully inadequate (yet they were coping), and something of an exception in the hills of Jimalalud; there is not really any serious poverty or widespread indigence – mind you, there is nothing that you would call “wealth” or “magnificence” either. They manage, through hard work and good fortune, to make ends meet and enjoy the occasional luxury. Not “luxury” as we understand the term, of course, but nonetheless an extravagance for them, according to their place in society’s range from pauper to prince. If your regular fare is dried fish, then fresh fish is something of a treat! Their lives have a bareness and simplicity, they just don’t seem to have the interest, and certainly not the wherewithal, to accumulate possessions.

The Horror of Waste

But in the cities, pockets of squalor are not difficult to find. I was exposed to them during the missions in Cebu & Mandaue: people living on next-to-nothing, trying to make do with a squalor-space wherein you couldn’t swing a cat, let alone a kitten. I think it’s this experience of such lack, this (even passing) acquaintance with such deprivation and need that gives me a horror of waste. When I see food wasted, when I see money being spent recklessly (and we have profligate spenders among us), when I see animals being treated better than humans, my reaction is almost visceral.

Walking the Walk of the Poor

Enclaves of destitution are not far from any of our houses, but you can’t see them from the common room, and it’s not sufficient either just to alight from the sweet-scented Honda Jazz or Adventure at the chapel door to celebrate Mass in the barrio. One must be willing to muddy one’s patent leather shoes or dirty one’s Nike or Crocs, walk along the pathway and cross the threshold and touch and sense, even fleetingly, the abasement.

“Here is your footstool and there rest your feet where live the poorest, and lowliest, and lost. When I try to bow to you, my obeisance cannot reach down to the depth where your feet rest among the poorest, lowliest, and lost. Pride can never approach to where you walk in the clothes of the humble among the poorest, and lowliest, and lost. My heart can never find its way to where you keep company with the companionless among the poorest, the lowliest, and the lost” (Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali #10).

2013 is the bi-centenary of Blessed Frederic Ozanam, the founder of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, whose members are resolved to giving personal service “to God in the persons of the poor, whom they are to visit at their own dwellings and assist by every means in their power”. He said “ten times a day a sister will visit the poor, ten times a day she will find God there” and “knowledge of the poor is not to be obtained from books or studies, but by visiting him in his upstairs garret in coldness”.


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