There was one novitiate lecture that stayed in my reverie through the years. We were – to use a more secular term – ‘marooned ‘ in the Dominican Novitiate of the Annunciation (the DNA as we fondly called it which, looking back, is the right biological term when you are forming a group of individuals wanting to follow the footsteps of the preacher himself, Dominic de Guzman). We were in Manaoag. Even the name of the place itself, Manaoag, seems to point to a call or from a call.
In here though, it is the Virgin who calls: the Virgen de Manaoag. She is the Mother of all calls: she who called the Trinity to reside in her womb and for nine months nurture the nature that is far beyond it, who even owns it. Hence, our foray from Calamba to Manaoag is a pilgrimage to heed a mysterious call from a mysterious being of our mysterious self. Huh! That was how confused I was after all those preparatory years at St. Albert’s. And coming to Manaoag – a Pangasinan slang derived from “mantaoag” which means “to call” – this was the time to live a la fuga mundi. Fr. Eugene Cabillon, O.P., our pre-novitiate formator, used to remind us that the Dominicans are offshoots of this group of fuga mundi. We are frays not vowed to silence though but to preach. On a deeper level, it is contemplare et contemplata aliis tradere: preaching is a fruit of our contemplation. Us being brought to Manaoag in 1992 was to pave the way for much contemplation; later as we mature to be adults and find our ways swaying from the mysterious “mantaoag” to the real calling we were drawn based on our own personal contemplation.
Going back to that lecture I mentioned at the start of this monologue (I hope this does not sound like that really), Fr. Ed Nantes, O.P., our novitiate formator quoted a Belgian theologian and Dominican, Edward Schillebeeckx, in regard to his calling. The quote was simple but to me it opened an eye I have not used and an ear I did not know. Schillebeeckx’s response to his vocation sounded like this: “it fits me like my skin.” Was it the habit? Or was it something else?
I thought the response was mysterious as it is practical. True to say, I would not wear something if I feel that it is too tight or too loose for me. It must fit me exactly.
Yes. Like my skin.
However, those days after 1994 when I left the seminary, I wanted to jump out of my own skin. Be someone else, a lawyer maybe. Someone who is popular and looked at by people as a successful person. Still me but version 2.0 or higher.
Yes, the vox in my vocation waned in 1994. So I left the Dominican order with a heavy heart but determined to find my place under the sun. Look for that which fits me. Like my skin. That to me is non-negotiable after the feeling of failing in my first calling.
So I hid in the dingy room of my parent’s house for six months, coming out only to meet my childhood friends over bottles of beer and rum, wooing the night with our shenanigans and howling with my new pack of brothers who knew me long before my Dominican brothers did. I was Khan to them compared to the Dacs I knew myself to be with my brothers. I was that kid who played in the streets, a rough diamond compared to the polishes I had under the tutelage of intellectuals who cringed at the word carajo for its profanity because they themselves know its etymology whether in Latin or Greek. Back where I came from, there were no accolades like a laude in your studies or promises of grandeur for being a topnotch friar, academic-wise. Here you are one among the many, like dirt in the ditches where the cleaners swept the sewer. It is a cesspool of humanity and you have to learn to swim with the tide and take care not to drown. Your seminary brothers would have wanted to pull you out of it but you made them helpless by the decision you took. So your new pack was all you have.
Honestly, I was in hiding.
Those were late nights of rain and no shine, of booze and other extracurriculars; drowning at one time but gasping for much needed air in most. This was my version of contemplation outside the walls of Sto. Domingo. And here I was: more responsible than ever although my kind of contemplation was “left of the centre” and would likely not pass theological scrutiny. My dogma was a dogma of day-to-day existence and working for my food, the basest of human endeavours. Out with the books and in with the sweat, tears and snot of everyday.
I was losing it but also enjoying the run.
Then I stumbled on an angel. And with her, we had more angels. Life became normal again like 9-to-5 work. There was schedule to follow, like the usual seminary structure. Someone to lean on when the going gets rough.
Then the vox came back in my marriage vocation. I thought everything was done when I laid to rest my priestly calling for good in 1999, the year I decided to get married. I even told St. Dominic that I met this girl and she said yes to me in front of the tabernacle. Dominic, ever the graceful preacher, was mischievously quiet. I took that as a yes from him, like a silent nod.
But that was not the last time I un-heard of the preacher. He spoke through St. Paul:
Those who speak in a tongue may build themselves up, but those who prophesy build up the community. While I should like you all to speak in tongues, I would much rather you could prophesy; since those who prophesy are of greater importance than those who speak in tongues… —(1 Corinthians 14: 4-5).
I was drawn to the gift of prophesying by the evangelist Paul who claimed his apostleship from Jesus Christ once in his way to Damascus (Acts 9:1-31). To me contemplating, this is the charism of Dominic: the Paul who braved through every conceivable trials with the single-mindedness of preaching the risen Lord.
It led me to the diaconate.
Sometime 2006 when I was restless from the grind of 9-to-5 work, I found myself at the Catholic Theological College in Melbourne. We migrated to Australia a month before the election of Cardinal Ratzinger to the papacy as Pope Benedict XVI on April 2005. With St. John Paul II dead and the memory of World Youth Day 1995 in Manila still alive on my mind, the coming of the new pope should herald what his predecessor practiced: that the pope must feel for the left, think with the right and act in the middle.
I myself was feeling, thinking and acting towards an unknown gift in that seamless stretch. I was a dad dabbling in the Bible on my spare time and serving on Sundays as lector-commentator. Finally too, I finished reading on 19th of October 2006 the Confessions of St. Augustine which I started reading as a novice in 1992.
When the Archdiocese of Melbourne restored the permanent diaconate in 2007, there were numerous married men from all walks of life who discerned the call. I was already on my second year as a student at the John Paul II Institute of Family and Marriage when Archbishop Denis Hart decided to adopt the Vatican II’s revival of permanent diaconate:
“The permanent Diaconate, restored by the Second Vatican Council, in complete continuity with ancient Tradition and the specific decision of the Council of Trent, has flourished in these last decades in many parts of the Church — with promising results, especially for the urgent missionary work of new evangelisation.” (see http://w2.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/ccatheduc/documents/rc_con_ccatheduc_doc_31031998_directorium-diaconi_en.html)
When I heard of it, I was at first curious whether married people like me can indeed be ordained as a deacon. As a Filipino and practicing Catholic, this is unprecedented in my experience. I knew of no one going this path so I enquired. I attended the monthly discernment day at Holy Cross Centre in Templestowe starting in 2007 and all questions pertaining to the diaconate were dealt with, together with our self-examen. Discernment became real to me at this time. It even became more real when I had an argument with my wife.
“You are just frustrated of not becoming a priest and marrying me!” was her shocking accusation. I guess I saw it coming because we promised prior to our migration to Australia that we will not work or do anything on weekends that is not a family schedule. Weekends are exclusive for the family.
And this diaconate? It broke our family weekend rhythm. My wife was frustrated. “Go with your ambition,” she said, “and forget about your family!”
I had to compose myself and enlightened her that I know the distinction between ambition and vocation. So as not to be accused of sounding like a Thomist and put distinction into everything, I hugged my wife and reminded her, “Remember you told me I’m your GG?”
“Yes,” was her soft reply, after calming her nerves with my tight hug.
Being God’s gift (that’s what GG is), I disclosed that I am an ‘old man’ now, too late to have a young man’s ambition. This GG has had his battles – some won, some lost – but deep in my heart, there is more to life than mortgage, cars and well-paying job.
I remember again when I was hiding in my parent’s house. There were days I would face the mirror and ask myself, “who are you?” Maybe my dad saw me on one of these occasions, and he asked me to pray harder.
One time, there was a Recollect priest whom we met after one of the Sunday masses and somehow my dad introduced me to him as an ex-seminarian. The priest (bless his soul) looked at me and after 5 minutes said “you will not become a priest.” I walked away, thinking “yeah, I already left the seminary” so not becoming a priest is simple logic, a sequitur.
He would have prophesied right if he told me that day that priesthood is not for you but a deacon you will become.
I shared this anecdote with my wife. After I saw a smile in her face, I know she knew what I meant that what I have now is a vocation and clearly not an ambition.
At the nascent stage of my diaconal calling, I asked God for the gift of service particularly preaching so I can make things clear first to my family, especially to my wife Angelica. That was the most important hurdle I had to pass through for without the wife there would be no deacon. I realised later that this precious time I invested with my wife was worth more than gold. Before my ordination on 15th November 2014, the last document that the archbishop needed was a signature and consent from my wife. If my wife declined things would have been different. I realized later that she is more a GG to me than I to him.
In retrospect, I thank the Philippine Dominican Order for nurturing me to be one of them even though I turned my back. But being a Dominican never left me even for a second. It is an irony I am willing to live with.