On December 14th, my three companions and I took a 15 miles trip from the Bishop’s residence in Tabuk to the village of Lubo in Tanudan where I celebrated the first Mass. It took us almost six hours since the rain had turned the road into slimy mud. Halfway up the 4,000 feet mountain, the drivers had to put chains on the huge tires of the former US Army weapons transporter, the only vehicle rugged enough to survive the journey. Even so, it could have been stuck at various junctions. (I won’t mention other dangers.) Once we arrived at our drop-off point where the truck can no longer continue, we made a steep descent on foot for another 1.5 hours to the village. I slipped and slid on my butt a few times to provide a sanguine feast for five leeches. To be honest, I was afraid and worried, especially when night began to fall. And boy, did I pray with every step I took.
(View from our steep descent to Lubo before sunset)
A previous conversation on the truck helped immensely. Among the 20 people on the truck was an elderly couple. The husband was 73, almost as old as my dad. His wife older than my mom. They are both retired teachers. Thus, they spoke excellent English. Somehow the subject of tribal conflict came up. I learned that in the past, the people from the Province of Kalinga were known to be fierce head hunters. That violent tradition has ended. However, some tribal tensions still flare up at time. If a member of a family a tribe hurts or kills a member of another tribe or family, the family or tribe of the victim would often respond with retributive violence or revenge killing. The more peaceful options would involve either compensation, by giving precious beads which are family heirlooms, or by intermarriage. When I asked about the possibility of forgiveness, the man thoughtfully replied, “Padi (Father), to err is human, to forgive is divine.” Then he laughed and his wife smiled. He continued, “We do the best we can. Pray for us Padi.”
(Despite my plea, the elderly couple was shy to laugh or smile for the camera)
As fear and worry, like nightfall, began to overshadow me on the descent to Lubo, I recalled the laughter of the elderly man. And the smile of his wife. Their image reminded me of the my experiences of the 30-day Silent Retreat in November: Jesus often smiled at me and taught me again and again to laugh at myself whenever I am preoccupied with my limitations or my mistakes. It is my perfectionist and overzealous tendency to take myself too seriously, to be hard on myself, to focus on the troubles that I face. Yet, every time I laugh at myself, I experience less tension and space is created for God. I let go and trust more. I become more patient, poised, less ruled by fear. Consequently, I can tackle difficulties that arise.
Along with the gift of God’s first love in Jesus poor and humble (and his people), I was also given the grace to trust greater in Divine Providence on the Silent Retreat. Recalling the couple’s smile and laughter helped me to relax and take each slippery step, trusting that God will take care of me even if I make mistakes, slip and fall. Laughter bridges human error with divine wisdom, human weakness with divine strength. And when we crossed a dilapidated hanging bridge with its creaking cables swaying back and forth, I focused less on my fears and more on Divine Providence. As night descended, I smiled at the flickering fireflies, reminding myself to trust that God is the light into my path.
Rampant corruption is the main reason why there are no all-weather road or sturdy bridges in Tanudan, despite hundreds of thousands of dollars earmarked for such projects. The current Mayor has been serving for three terms and is running for re-election. He created a non-existent contractor, fabricated reports of road developments, and pocketed the funds. People are bought and bullied into silence. A priest who voiced the truth and is now being threatened. I felt sad and angry when I saw the purported “road” the Mayor was building. Surprisingly, I met him soon after. He shook my hand, smiled slyly, and spoke craftily - trademarks of a slick politician. To my surprise I cordially inquired about the people and the road building project. I wished him luck on the upcoming election and encouraged him to truly serve his people by working for their good. I prayed for him when we parted. To be honest, a part of me wanted to confront and question him. But I was able to take myself less seriously and looked at him with compassion. Trust in Divine Providence and remembrance of how Jesus dealt with questionable religious leaders prompted me to act with greater love than accusation. When Jesus challenged, it was always out of compassion. It was grace that guided my attitude and action that day. On my own, my heart is not that generous.
(The Lubo bridge, hanging 100+ feet above the Tanudan River)The lesson on that long trip with the elderly couple who laughs, of slipping on the trails, and crossing hanging bridges, shaped my experience the rest of Advent, even until now. So when I am unable to laugh at myself, I try to smile, hoping to meet Jesus smiling, beholding me with love. He frequently does, whenever I pray, especially in silence.
Falling, mistakes, laughing at oneself, bridges, forgiveness, God … somehow they are all intertwined.