No other reason but to be a saint

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We drove through a long road. Some parts had arching trees, some had upright ones, some had none, but most of the path made us feel protected.

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We were behind a tricycle carrying slender tree trunks (bamboo shoots, perhaps?) on top of its canopy. Behind us was another tricycle. As the one ahead turned right to a path going to another barangay, the other followed. We continued forward.

At a crossroads after a 10-minute drive from the town, we turned left, and the road rose to an open gate that led us to a silent monastery on top of a hill in between the mountains in Castillejos, Zambales.

This wasn’t the first time my Mom and I visited the Carmelite Monastery, but it was my Dad’s and Tita Bing-Bing’s first time there in its new location.

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Being here reminded me of The Sound of Music, of Maria the nun, of a song my Mom and I would sing together in the living room or in the car: how do you solve a problem like Maria?

The old location of the Carmelite Monastery was in Manggahan, which is roughly 20-30 minutes away from their present area. It is also a quiet, serene place, but with the absence of silence that one can only notice and hear on top of a solitary hill in the middle of vast fields and mountains. I remember bright mornings there in the garden in front of the convent and seeing Sisters that my Mom, Dad, and our relatives knew as friends. That was where I first knew of the Carmelite Sisters and St. Therese of Lisieux.

The saints in heaven are like friends to me, but St. Therese was perhaps like a sister. For some reason, I loved her very much up to now, and after reading her autobiography, Story of a Soul, last 2014, I came to appreciate more of her story of wanting to enter the convent where her sisters were already part of. I knew her story before as a child but not as much as today. I had a short comic of her story, given to me by my parents if my memory serves me well, and I can still recall, albeit not entirely or clearly, how it looked and what were some of the lines that St. Therese had uttered then.

Being in the monastery would remind me of the Little Flower.

The Carmelite Sisters moved from Manggahan to Castillejos not too long ago.

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When my Mom and I first visited in July 2016, Fr. Peace and Sister Albina warmly greeted us outside. The previous Sunday afternoon, the welcome seemed quieter. We walked to the shop where they sold books, magazines, novenas, rosaries, scapulars, figurines, a few refreshments, and baked goods from the Sisters themselves and their baker.

When I was younger, my Mom would buy us bread, oatmeal cookies, and a cinnamon bun from the old building in Manggahan for our merienda.

My Mom and Tita Bing-Bing talked with the kind woman who was sitting outside the store. Later, we learned that her name was Beth, and she cooked meals in the convent but was just keeping an eye on the store in somebody’s stead that afternoon. She informed us that Sister Albina was on retreat, and Fr. Peace had returned to Bulacan.

We wanted to meet them, but maybe that is for another time.

For this afternoon, my Dad asked if Sister Renee was there, and thankfully, she was. She used to ask for my father’s help before in the former building whenever something was needing fixing, I believe. They became good friends, and last Sunday, they were able to meet again with my Mom too and my aunt.

While we waited for her, we stayed inside the store and got to browse through the books on the shelves and other good things around us. I was trying to find if they had a copy of the book Defects of the Saints, recommended by my friend Tet, who was named after St. Therese!

Unfortunately, I didn’t find one, but I did find this thin orange magazine with St. Therese on the center and some photos of her and her family around her. I was suddenly brought back to my childhood – I had a magazine like this when I was younger! We bought it with Amoris Laetitia, because I wanted to read more on Pope Francis’ exhortation on love in the family.

The topic of family, the essence of it, and my love and yearning always for family ring strong within me and my values and desires. I did not have any plans of reading AL, but because of a Bible Diary that my Mom bought for me for Christmas, I had the interest to read. Some of the daily reflections had an excerpt from it, and I found myself underlining them, because I found them insightful and worth pondering on.

While my Mom and Tita talked with Ate Beth, I walked outside a bit and found the view beautiful.

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The mountains, pine trees, flowers, provincial air…

But through the lives and eyes of a cloistered nun, the view may be limited.

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You can see the beauty but not truly be in it. 

However, that is just in the physical aspect. In prayer and in our hearts, we are already in beauty, for God has made us in His image, and the Lord is indeed beautiful.

My Dad was sitting on a wooden armchair just next to the entrance. I held his hand and I said, jokingly but still with a hint of unawakened desire, “Mag-ma-madre po ako? (May I be a nun?)”

My intonation was high. I was asking if I could. I was waiting for his permission or blessing.

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St. Joseph, I learned days after our visit, was the patron saint of contemplative nuns. This is probably why a statue of him and baby Jesus were at the front.

I opened the idea of becoming a nun to my Mom before, if not once, then a few times already. My friend Julie and I too talked about it – that maybe we were destined to be nuns. Regarding my previous talks with my Mom, she said that she will be okay with it. I was her and my Dad’s only daughter, but she said she would be happy to offer me to the Lord in service.

When I was a child, I can’t remember how old I was, but St. Therese’s relics were brought here to the Philippines. My Mom and Dad had me dress like a Carmelite Sister in their dark brown religious habit, along with many other young girls in our community.

We attended mass and got to see the Little Flower’s relics in the chapel in the old monastery. I now remember having a necklace with a thick black string holding a silver circle where there was a picture of St. Therese. I used to wear it always after. My memory is a bit hazy now – just bits and pieces come up in my mind.

Maybe that was one of the moments, after I grew up, stayed within me. Like a dormant idea or dream waiting for it to be realized gradually as years passed by, and I experienced more of life.

I loved the Carmelite Order and St. Therese, but I said to my Mom that I probably won’t be entering (if ever) as a contemplative. I contemplate and analyze and over-think daily already to the point of sometimes annoying my Mom and Dad – I cannot stay within the confines of my mind, in too much silence, or behind walls with little communication or sense of the outside world.

There is detachment, of course. The spirit must win over the desires of the flesh in the pursuit of worldly things. Cloistered, one would be far from that kind of temptation for material wealth, blind idolatry, or meaningless goals, because much of their time will be focused on praying and working in solidarity with fellow Sisters and in daily communion with God.

Somehow, that is how I understand it, but there is very little I know of the religious life.

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We heard another car driving up the road and parking in the lot in front of the space which serves like the lobby of the monastery where people were welcomed to.

Sister Renee went out, but she first met in her path the people who arrived. After their talk, my Mom and Tita Bing-Bing said hello and exchanged hugs. Like my Dad, my Mom knew her too.

She didn’t recognize me then. I just stood near to my Mom, smiling at the warmth of Sister Renee. Then my Dad came and greeted Sister Renee after many years of not seeing each other. It was a lovely reunion bound by our past and then reawakened at the present circumstances. Sister Renee was surprised when she asked my Mom where her daughter was, and my Mom pointed to me. I was still little when she last saw me, and she even remarked that I didn’t smile then and that I was quiet. At least now, I was responding! I truly was a painfully shy child.

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Sister asked us to sit on the chairs lined up at the side as she sat in front of us.

I enjoyed listening to my Mom and Dad recount their memories with each other and how my Dad shared more about his life abroad and his job. I was happy to hear too about my Tita sharing how her elder son, Kuya Raymond who is now on his Theology 2, had a special place in his heart too for the Carmelite Monastery in Manggahan before.

It was in that place where he felt being called to the religious life, to priesthood.

I pray that I heard this correctly, but I think she said he entered the monastery or the chapel and heard a choir or smelled something so fragrant. He also felt the presence of Mama Mary. I am in awe of these kinds of stories, of how Kuya Raymond was called by God specifically for priesthood.

He will be ordained as a priest soon in two years.

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I wonder how others discern and finally decide that they are indeed called for the religious life. I find it interesting to hear about their stories how God called them, how they fought temptations, and how they persevered in living within a convent, saying no to their deepest desires day by day, year by year, decade by decade, able to willingly sacrifice for serving the Lord.

Discern… It’s a word that my Tita Tess introduced to me just last year when I needed to make a decision. It’s something that people use too when considering entering the religious life.

On our first visit here in Castillejos, we were with Mother Dottie from the Dominican Order. She is my Tita’s husband’s sister. Prior to going to the monastery, she and I got to talk briefly in our home, and she shared to me how she heard her calling.

By how the afternoon light turned to gold and gave a nice glow to Sister Renee and the brick pillars and the floor behind her, it was probably around 5 in the afternoon.

Sitting there next to my Mom, Dad, and Tita and in front of Sister, I felt like we were in a painting that only the Lord had created. The light gave a heavenly atmosphere for our conversations.

My Dad said something about me asking to be a nun, and Sister Renee was ecstatic and told me to join them. She also said that I didn’t have to join immediately – I could, like many others, stay for a retreat for 5 or 7 days and observe first and see if this could be the life I could live.

She recounted a few stories before, and they got me thinking more too that this is truly something one needs to be mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically prepared for.

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I loved how she also said something like this, non-verbatim, with very charming facial and vocal expressions, “Lord, kung wala po akong bokasyon, paki-bigyan po ako. (Lord, if I have no vocation, please give me one!)”

I’ve been thinking too. Vocation is usually associated with the religious life, but I wonder if it can be fulfilled outside too, even if you were a lay person. Maybe we are led to our own purpose and vocation when we have been called, but this is still something to discern more about, if the call is truly from Christ, or it could just be me, giving myself ideas and not praying more to God about it for clarity.

Sister Renee recounted stories of some who stayed for a while and stayed they did up to today, but there were also a few who did not persevere, because they found out that this wasn’t the life for them. I’m thinking of trying to go on a retreat too for a few days just to see if I could. There is no harm in trying. It is good too to discern free from distractions like social media… We will see. As we look inward, so must we also gaze upward.

“Look well into your heart and see if you have resolution enough to die to yourself and to live only for God.” – St. Francis de Sales

Truly, the Lord has different paths for us, and while I do believe that the convent isn’t the only place we could practice sacrifice, discipline, perseverance, holiness, and other virtues, it still does require careful consideration, because when one has finally decided to answer the call, she must be ready to give up her innermost desires. The possibility of not seeing much of your Mom, Dad, relatives, and friends, being married, of having a family, of raising a child…

“Discernment, initially, might then be considered a test of the will, that is to say to oneself; “I love Jesus enough to sacrifice what I so deeply desire; marriage. I therefore submit myself to the direction of His Church. I do not trust in my feelings. But I choose the better way, until God reveals otherwise.”  However, this is not to mean that a vocation to the religious life should be forced. Nor does it mean that discernment is purely an intellectual exercise absent any input from the heart. Rather, it is merely recognizing that we have powerful natural inclinations for human love, inclinations which can quickly overtake our lives and drown out any chance of following a higher calling. It is recognizing the “still small voice,” the thought, the seed, and allow the opportunity for this seed to grow and blossom, rather than shutting the door before it ever had a chance to open.”From Discerning Religious Vocation

Sister Renee said that it would be silent as well. Most of the time, silent. For someone who loves music, seeing places, and being with my family, it will be difficult. And I have a tendency to over-think and analyze too much – I am scared of becoming too sheltered that I might have a closed view of self. Then again, the cloistered life is not for everybody, so is the life outside convent walls and religious vocation. My Mom said, however, that there were other Orders whose nuns got to go to other places and meet people. Maybe that is another option.

To discern, Sister advised me to ask St. Therese to pray for me and to seek guidance from the Lord. We need to think of our why. Why would we want to enter? Why would we want to serve God this way? Will we serve Him and our neighbor best this way, or I could do so without coming in? Why did I have this kind of desire in the first place?

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There is much to reflect on.

I have to cease talking much about this now. I believe that long-term discernment is something to be done more in private and in prayer, but it helped in getting some of my doubts (or would it be safe to say a deep yet not fully discerned desire?) in words and recollection.

Sister Renee brought us some juice and cinnamon buns, while we all continued our conversations. The taste of the pastry made me feel full and reminisce my childhood where we got to visit the old Carmelite Monastery.

After we said goodbye to Sister, my Mom, Dad, Tita Bing-Bing, and I went to the chapel and around the area.

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We walked towards the chapel. From directly outside a window, one can see only the eyes of St. Therese, her knowing look upon anyone who would go inside the west open door. Her whole face in a photo was hidden from view.

She has become like a beautiful representation of the Carmelite Order, she and her little way. I am inspired by her vocation to love.

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It is truly a serene place. Many people would go here, mostly on Sunday mornings, to hear mass. Some would also gaze at the view of the Zambales mountains and the fields below.

My Dad was able to talk briefly too with some bikers who came from north of the province.

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It’s truly a breath-taking place.

When we looked at the expanse of Zambales mountains before us, with the sun already setting behind them, and when we gazed at the monastery and the chapel, I told myself how beautiful the view was and the buildings were.

But I also couldn’t help but think of how more beautiful God is.

And how beautiful His creations are: both nature and people.

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Sister Renee said something too during our conversation…

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I remember catching the name of St. John Chrysostom as she told us a line which struck me.

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From the way I remember, it went like this:

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“There is no other reason for you to enter the convent but to be a saint.”

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I never really saw a saint as someone who was perfect, who did not sin, who was not tempted, or who did not make mistakes. Rather, from the saints whose pasts and lives and stories I have read, known, or heard, they were ordinary people who were imperfect, who had sinned, who were tempted, and who had made mistakes.

One mistake for us in this age is to think that to be a saint means to be a goodie two-shoes or someone who was ultimately clean. Another is to think that ordinary people like us cannot be saints.

But they are like you and I. They could be our friends, teachers, mothers, fathers, siblings, cousins, classmates, workers, employees, bosses, strangers, the wealthy, the needy – you and I.

The saints, knowing their frailties, shortcomings, and sinful nature, they sought the Lord, because it was (and is) only through Him and what Jesus had done that they can believe in their innate goodness, that they can repent whenever falling short of His Word, that they can have a full life of being in His mercy, grace, forgiveness, and love.

They know that without God, they could never be the people they could be when they left this life. They know that it is not them who are kind and great but the Lord, who is the only One who is good, who inspires them to be good as well.

But title or no title, the Lord already believes of us that we, His children, can learn from our mistakes and call on Him for help. We can be good while we ask for humility, wisdom, and guidance from Him.

To love God, or to be aware that we love Him and He loves us, does not mean that we will never sin again. We are never free from temptation nor circumstances where we could easily hurt someone (or be hurt by somebody else), make mistakes, spurn misunderstandings, and act out of guilt, stubbornness, sorrow, or pain.

Jesus knows this.

For us who experienced personally the saving grace of God from our own folly and sins, we all know we need His grace, and this is what keeps us running back to Him whenever we may fail. I pray we all open ourselves to the Lord and to the truth that He cares for us, He weeps with us, He hurts with us, He longs for us, He loves us tremendously that even if He knows we would fall a few more times to finally learn a lesson, even while we were jeering at Him and nailing Him on the cross and He had no guarantee we would change for the better, Jesus still died to save us.

We are truly works-in-progress, never really finished, probably until we meet Him someday in a place I know that He wants all of us to live in peace, joy, and love.

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And we, hailing from our past lives but now brothers and sisters in God, would all share an eternally beautiful view together.

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