As a Catholic Spending Holy Week in the Holy Land was the Greatest Experience I had in My Life

When I took the job for Gaza in the occupied Palestinian Territories, I didn’t know I will have the grandest pilgrimage I will have in my life.

Although I lived in Gaza most of the time, I had at least 2 weekends in a month to enjoy the old city and visit all nooks and cranny inside it. Reliving the stories I read in the bible at the same time understand the plight of my Palestinian friends against the oppression they were dealt with in this modern times.

I arrived in Israel in early February of 2016 and settled-in first in Jerusalem while waiting for my papers allowing me to enter into Gaza.  The Christian world was preparing for the Lenten season. It took a while before I was able to appreciate where I was until I get to visit around town and inside the old city. I was happy to have made acquaintances with other Catholics from Spain and Mexico who’s been living in Jerusalem for over a year and are well versed with the happenings in and around town and of course the Passion of Jesus Christ.

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Palm Sunday entering one of the gates to the old city of Jerusalem
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Entered the gate to welcome Jesus Christ

The feeling while in the old city at this time – at Lent was overwhelming. Like all other Christians, being in the place where Jesus lived, walking in the path he walked on meeting his disciples, and while carrying the crossed for our sins humbled me.

For a while I forget why I was in Palestine, all I can think of at that time was the Passion of Christ Jesus, relieving in my head his stories, the stories of his apostles and of Mary and the persecution they received in the hands of those who claim to be high and mighty.  It’s hard not to remember your catechism and you can only do that when you are faced with it in real-time.

I was so happy, no words can explain my feelings when I was there and all the time I was there until I have to leave Israel.

To appreciate the Old City, the Holy Land, one has to be in the moment and feel the spirit of the city speaks to you and bring you back to the time when you become part of the bible history. 

 

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Until the celebration of Easter, of His resurrection. Giving hope to the people that all our sins are forgiven and were given opportunities to become a better person for others year after year.

It was a fitting introduction to the challenges I am set to tackle accepting the job in Gaza. It was an opportunity for me to know the places and the people according to history and to the experience, I had with them daily.  The chance to work with my now Palestinian friends, to help them overcome the consequences of their situation and of the people they helped make me realize that religion knows no boundaries.

It is not enough to just say been there-done that without bringing with you the spiritual high that you experience while in the holiest of the land, the land that is full of history that had been told for centruries on. 

In Palestine, my being Catholic is no issue. Between my coordinator, also a Catholic and me, all our staffs and the people I met in the community to help and to mingle are all Muslim but it was never an issue. The Palestinians in Gaza and in the West Bank are the most progressive thinkers I met, but unfortunately, their situation is one of the world’s greatest irony – the oppressed become the oppressor.

Their experience since 1948 up to now is a product of hatred and self-entitlement of those that persecute them.  And I continuously pray that the history written in the holy book, the Bible, in the new testament and that of the Quoran will eventually come to reality in the present time and we can achieve the peace we all dream of.

Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. — Matthew 22:35-40

I wouldn’t trade this experience with anything. This may not be the best mission for me (work wise), but I can say this is the best experience I had working and living in the Middle East.

Let us continue to pray for peace and freedom to the Holy Land!

My Spiritual Journey Begins in Taizé: Silence

When I joined my organization back in 2002, I was invited to attend a pre-departure briefing even though I was working in Cambodia for over four years prior. So I went to France and stayed there for almost 3 months because of the holidays and the list of training I needed to attend.

I’ve been wanting to go to France when I was introduced to the meditative practices of Taize. That was during the preparation for the celebration of World Youth Day in 1995 in the Philippines. I was a young delegate from my parish and my diocese sent out to go around and tell the youth about the WYD celebration and how to prepare for it.

Taize prayers were sung over and over until the self is quiet and the only thing you hear is the song in your head and the beating of your heart. That was the first time I experience to be one with my soul and from then on I said to myself I will go and visit where it all began.

So when I finally found myself in France the first place I decided to visit was Taize and relive all the glory days of the World Youth Day experience I had when I was young. It is an ecumenical community where young people from all over the world gather and experience the presence of God through the other young people, through singing and sharing of stories and their dreams. I wanted very much to be part of that.

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Funny though when I arrived in my hostel in Lyon, not many French youths I met knew about Taize. Luckily the receptionist was from Romania, and he knew about Taize back in his home country. He was working in the hostel as part of his spring job and was happy to show me on the map how to get there.

But during the briefing at the HQ, I met one colleague – Nestor from Benin who had been there and knew some people in France that can help me go there. I was happy to make his acquaintances and over time we became good friends and we kept in touch until now.

(Dhidhak Collections / France 2005)
My good friend Nestor, the one responsible for me to meet Gerard and visit Taize in 2005. We remain friends until now. (Dhidhak Collections / France 2005)

He introduced me to his French dad – Gerard (the one that accommodates him when he’s in France) and he became my French dad too. Every time to return to France I go out of my way to visit him in Verze and we have picnics and return to Taize for prayers. Every Christmas too when I can I send him dried mangoes from home.

(Dhidhak Collection / France 2005)
Approaching the big house – Chez Gerard (Dhidhak Collection / France 2005)
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Our trusted Beattle (Dhidhak Collections / France 2005)

Gerad was the one who brought me to Taize in his old Bettle. Passing through the backroad from his small village, through vineyards until we reach the hi-way leading to the community. It was a short scenic ride all the time and because it’s close we can always stay until late and experience the prayerful silence of Taize.

(Dhidhak Collection / France 2005)
My French dad – Gerard under one of the old trees in the Taize compound. (Dhidhak Collection / France 2005)
(Dhidhak Collections / France 2005)
Follow the signs … on the way to Taize
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Entering the Taize community compound. The bells are sounded every prayer time. (Dhidhak Collections / France 2005)
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Young people come from everywhere and commune with God anywhere in the community (Dhidhak Collections / France 2005)
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The belfry of the church inside the community (Dhidhak Collections / France 2005)
(Dhidhak Collections / France 2005)
The valley around the community (Dhidhak Collections / France 2005)
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The prayer area inside the big tent (Dhidhak Collections / France 2005)
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The candles that light the whole place … it gives a warm glow that put one pilgrim into prayerful trance together with the Taize prayers sung over and over (Dhidhak Collections / France 2005)
(Dhidhak Collections / France 2005)
The ICON of Jesus on the cross (Dhidhak Collections / France 2005)

That was my first pilgrimage in France.

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Listen to Taize Prayers here and experience the peace I experience whenever I listen to them.

In the Lord, I’ll be ever thankful

Holy Spirit come to us

Nada te Turbe (Let Nothing Trouble You)

An Afternoon in Lalitpur (Patan Durbar Square), Kathmandu Valley, Nepal

What better way to spend a good day is to spend it walking around one of the oldest city in the Kathmandu valley – Lalitpur. With my colleagues, we enjoyed visiting the temples where we are allowed. Seeing the destructions made us sad but seeing people continuing with their faith practice and life made us hopeful.

Like the Monkey Temples, you will see rubles everywhere, but the temple and the marketplace are alive with people. It still attracts tourist both local and foreign still admiring the structures that are left standing.

Starting at the Golden Temple

(Dhidhak Collection / Nepal 2015)
Admiring the intricate carvings at the back door to the Golden Temple (Dhidhak Collection / Nepal 2015)
(Dhidhak Collection / Nepal 2015)
Courtyard within the Golden Temple (Dhidhak Collection / Nepal 2015)
(Dhidhak Collection / Nepal 2015)
Looking up towards the heavens … admiring the tiers of the temple roof and the small altar at the courtyard (Dhidhak Collection / Nepal 2015)
(Dhidhak Collection / Nepal 2015)
The altar in the middle of the courtyard (Dhidhak Collection / Nepal 2015)
(Dhidhak Collection / Nepal 2015)
Not sure exactly what this is … I thought this is a well (Dhidhak Collection / Nepal 2015)
(Dhidhak Collection / Nepal 2015)
Courtyard within the Golden Temple (Dhidhak Collection / Nepal 2015)
(Dhidhak Collection / Nepal 2015)
Entrance to the Golden Temple (Dhidhak Collection / Nepal 2015)

 

Life continues despite the danger of building collapse. You will see people continue to stay in their homes. Buildings propped by wooden beams and vendors with their wares.

The streets and marketplace around the Durbar Square

 

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Streets around Durbar Square (Dhidhak Collections / Nepal 2015)

 

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Old and damaged buildings propped by wooden poles to keep it from collapsing (Dhidhak Collection / Nepal 2015)
(Dhidhak Collection / Nepal 2015)
Girl looking out the window of her home (Dhidhak Collection / Nepal 2015)
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Marketplace around the square (Dhidhak Collection / Nepal 2015)
(Dhidhak Collection / Nepal 2015)
Typical Nepalese sleepers on display (Dhidhak Collection / Nepal 2015)
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Assorted nuts vendor waiting for customers (Dhidhak Collection / Nepal 2015)
(Dhidhak Collection / Nepal 2015)
Women and girls walking along the streets around the square (Dhidhak Collection / Nepal 2015)

The Durbar Square

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Trailokya Mohan Narayan Temple was not completely damaged during the quake. Wooden beams were used to prevent collapse. (Dhidhak Collection / Nepal 2015)
(Dhidhak Collection / Nepal 2015)
Indrapur Temple in Durbar Square where people are taking rest after their prayers (Dhidhak Collection / Nepal 2015)
(Dhidhak Collection / Nepal 2015)
One of the deities watching over the square (Dhidhak Collection / Nepal 2015)
(Dhidhak Collections / Nepal 2015)
Pigeons nesting in the spaces in the temple (Dhidhak Collections / Nepal 2015)

 

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View of the square from the top (Dhidhak Collections / Nepal 2015)
(Dhidhak Collections / Nepal 2015)
View of the square from the top (Dhidhak Collections / Nepal 2015)
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View from the roof (Dhidhak Collections / Nepal 2015)
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One of the entrances to the square (Dhidhak Collections / Nepal 2015)

Daily Prompt: Skewed

The First Temple I Visited When I Was In Nepal

Who would have thought that when I accepted the job in Nepal to support my organization respond the destructions brought by the earthquake in 2015 it would also pave the way for me to visit holy site after holy site … I started a pilgrim without me knowing.

I was happy to meet Nepalese returning from their work abroad, like our driver and many new physical therapists to help in rebuilding Nepal. They are willing to leave their high paying job because they know that their family and country needs them. It is good for us as outsiders to work with them knowing that their intentions are the same as us … to help and support the nation building.

The Monkey Temple

Found the middle of the busy streets of Kathmandu, the Monkey Temple was named because of the abundance of monkey around the hills that joins the pilgrims as they climbed the stairs to venerate their gods.

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Buddha welcomes you to the temple … start your ascent!

In Hindi, it is the Swayambhunath Stupa and temple complex. It is on a hill that can be seen from far if you know where to look. Hindu worship animals and as you already know the “cow” is a “holy cow” to them.

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The view from the top of the hill … overlooking one part of the densely populated city of Kathmandu in the late afternoon as the smog rises up covering the sky

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When you see them in the middle of the streets, you drive around it, or you completely stall the traffic until it moves out of the way, you cannot shoo them away, or you will have the evil eye upon you!

Reading up on Swayambhunat made me feel sad when I saw the destruction around the complex brought on by the devastating 7.2 and 6.8 earthquakes within one month apart in April and May 2015. Most of the buildings, statues, and murals that toppled to the grounds can be said to be over 100 years, and in that jolt, they fell like Lego bricks and nothing could have prevented it.

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Fallen bell
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One of the altar with the Buddha eye in the center
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Prayer bells … you can see the shine caused by the hands of those passing and pray

It is wonderful to see that the spirits of the people didn’t falter, they come in droves and continue life after the destructive earthquake. With the contributions from all over the world – the pilgrims and the devotees had made constructions and reinforcements of the structures possible. The community was able to start rebuilding early.

The photos are some of the devastations I saw when I visited the temple during one of our weekend breaks. There was less and less aftershock by that time, and there are more and more people allowed to visit and worship again in the temple.

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The peace it brings to the pilgrims amidst the rubbles
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More climbing required … the price is at the top of the stairs
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The stairs … along the way you will be welcomed by HIndu gods to guide your way, to the enlightenment
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Constructions commence. The community reinforced the structure to prevent further collapse
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One of the last standing column/stupa that’s reinforced for safety and reconstruction
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One of the stupa that didn’t make it … it was reduced to a stub
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The temple complex with the round bell for everyone to turn as they pass by praying
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One monkey contemplates the outcome of the destruction the earthquake brought to his temple
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Monkeys are part of the life in the temple
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Bells left hanging secured by those huge chains
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Rubbles blocking the way to the other side of the complex
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Cracks in the wall of an old building that houses monks looking after the temple complex
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It all comes down to this … more rubbles
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More structure damage … some of them are condemned to be demolished completely
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Debris everywhere … the red building is an old library and bookstore
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Houses of monks destroyed during the quake
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Piles of rubble from buildings that collapsed during the shake
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One of the stupas and housing complex for the monks

Traveling with Purpose

Two thousand and sixteen was my best travel year so far! It was not just simply traveling; it has purpose and meaning.

I was working in the holiest of the land and was able to do my pilgrimage to two other sites that all Christians wish to walk through and relieve the journey of the first pilgrims beginning from Jesus Christs.

Although I lived in the Gaza Strip, in the occupied Palestinian Territory three weeks in a row, I get to spend at least two weekends in a month in Jerusalem when I am commuting to work in the West Bank five days in a month. Inside Gaza, I attended the only Catholic Church – the Holy Family Church every Saturday located in the middle of the old city under the Latin Patriarchate and joined the less than 100 Catholics living there in the celebrations.

When in Jerusalem, every weekend I get to go and walk in the Old City of Jerusalem and experience first hand (over and over) the sights and sound of the lives of the first Christians, Muslims, Orthodox, and Jews. Walking on the pavement where Jesus carried the cross to Mount Calvary and be laid in the tomb that is now enclosed by the Basilica of the Holy Sephulcre. I even got to spend the Holy Week in Jerusalem when I first moved to Israel, and it was surreal.

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The door of the Basilica of the Holy Sephulcre (Old City, Jerusalem / 2016)

“In my opinion, if you really want to experience the grace of being in the Holy Land visit first as a pilgrim with every intent to live out the life of Jesus, Mary and his apostles, then return as a tourist to better appreciate the experience”.

When I took my two-weeks break towards the end of November 2016, I decided and went to visit the seaside province Galicia in the northwestern part of Spain via Madrid spending a week in the small town of Santiago de Compostela and end my days for a week embracing the statue of St James.

I didn’t do the famous walk along the Camino. I went straight to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. I immersed myself in reading books about the pilgrimage, at the same time meeting those that completed the journey with certificates to show for it. I was also in touch with one of my former colleague that made the same pilgrimage years back after he recovered from a traumatic health condition. Staying put was enough for me back then — I was there at the time when I needed to sort myself and see what I would do next.

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At the courtyard with the Cathedral of Santigo de Compostela in the background (Galicia, Spain / 2016)

It was one of the most exciting experiences I had. I was supposed to spend it with a friend from long ago, but I guess that trip was meant for solo travel because a companion would have been a distraction into my communion with the higher spirits when I was there.

My pilgrimage in Europe would not have been complete without me visiting San Pietro in Roma.

I missed my train from Santiago de Compostela to Madrid. I thought my train was 5 in the afternoon and when I got to the train station, I realized that it was meant to be 5 in the morning. The night before I packed my bags and planned my day of nice pork meals and hang around the church courtyard until I go to the train station embracing  St. James one last time and said my goodbye. In the end, I had to pay extra to buy my new ticket, leave much later in the night and instead of me resting before I take my early flight to Rome I arrived very late and spent only a few hours with my friend instead of one whole night and meet her family.

Then it was time to go and fly to Rome. I have few friends and family in Rome, part of my trip was a reunion of some sort — meeting again friends from Nepal and the last housemate I had in Gaza Strip before she ended her mission earlier, and a very old college buddy who was running a hotel close to Roma Termini while I stayed with family. I get to see again the small city of Vatican. The last time I was there John Paul II was still Pope, and he passed away the year after that. Then I get the chance to visit his crypt and venerate the now Saint John Paul II and attend the weekly greetings made by Pope Francis.

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At the altar of the Saint Peters Basilica (Roma, Italia / 2016)

Then it was time to go back to my original playground, the Holy Land with the promise that I will spend my Christmas in the town where Jesus was born with good friends and be home to my family in the Philippines in the New Year!