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!

On Becoming A Better Human Being

Yesterday I started sending messages to my friends in the Middle East wishing them “Ramadan Kareem” (which means Have a Generous Ramadan) despite all the sadness we hear in the news of Palestinian women, men and children being killed for wanting to return to their homeland and all the other countries at war now and of people being ostracized and killed for being different.

The month of Ramadhan [is that] in which was revealed the Qur’an, a guidance for the people and clear proofs of guidance and criterion. So whoever sights [the new moon of] the month, let him fast it; and whoever is ill or on a journey – then an equal number of other days. Allah intends for you ease and does not intend for you hardship and [wants] for you to complete the period and to glorify Allah for that [to] which He has guided you; and perhaps you will be grateful.
[Quran 2:185]

The faithful continue to believe that all these shall pass and we will see a peaceful world. As Catholic, I also wish the same, and I think others too practicing other religions, wants a world where we can co-exist and enjoy the freedom to express who we are, what we believe and who we want to be.

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Then I remembered a chapter in the book of the Dalai Lama talking about religion and how it can make us a better person.

We know that most of the crisis and war around the world are fought in the name of religion or the belief that that is what their gods believe they should do and gain their place in their heaven.

But many of us know that the teachings of the different religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism) and other faith practices are towards peace, love, tolerance, acceptance of our differences and in fighting off excessive desires (in wealth and fame). And all of that is inert individual characteristics that we already possess. That is why, if we banded together, we would eventually win the war that is ravaging our world now.

According to the Dalai Lama, we can have philosophical and metaphysical views on religion at the same time live it according to your daily existence. But he also said that although the philosophical views differ and sometimes contradicts each other, in spiritual practice all religions are connected. They all recommend inner transformation of our stream of consciousness which will make us better, more devout people”.

True right? It all boils down to our understanding and accepting that we may have different faith beliefs, but we are similar on a spiritual level. Others may profess it outwardly, but it doesn’t mean they are more faithful than the others. It really depends on how you live it out, on how you’re spirituality makes you a better person for others.

Each one of us may believe in one way and one truth but it doesn’t mean that it is the same for the next person, we should be open to accepting the truth of other traditions even if it goes against our own convictions regardless of its reasons and how it affects others.

We as a person should have our own conviction but we should keep an open mind and be tolerant to those who don’t share them because that makes us different from each other but at the same time similar in a way that we accept each other to be like you — a person living each day trying to be a better person for others.

Postscript:

I am happy to say that all my friends who responded to my messages are all fine together with their families. They want us to remember them in our prayers and to keep up wanting for world PEACE!

Reading suggestion(s):

My Spiritual Autobiography His Hoiness The Dalai Lama

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!

Happy Easter

Before anything else, I like to greet everyone Happy Easter!

In the Catholic faith, this is one of the traditions we celebrate like Christmas, as this is the time when Jesus with his short life was able to give us God’s promise of redemption from all my sins.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:!6

Well, it can be redemptions of your sins or our sins it doesn’t matter as long as you believe that God fulfilled his promise to give us new slate to start over. but then again if you don’t believe in God, that’s up to you, but pretty sure you believe in second chances or an opportunity to start over and for me this is it.

I do this every year, I look back and see how I could be a better person and try hard to outrank how I assessed myself and achieve the happy life I like to live. I made mistakes in the past, now I have time to correct them and try harder not to repeat the same mistakes.

Believe me, when I say I am like everybody else, I am human, prone to make mistakes (reminds you of a song eh?) and to succumb to temptation (making it sound like I have superhuman powers, I have to stop watching Marvel movies!).

In fact, this year started not so right for me. I have to cut my contract short because I have to return to my family to be taken care of. I don’t know when I can go back to work now that I have to start over.

What is important to me now is to keep myself current and be motivated enough to keep me out of bed, psyching myself even though it’s hard not knowing for certain what the future holds. But like I said, we all deserve second chances, I deserve a second chance and this Easter Sunday, I intend to take advantage of that and renew my life.

This blog may be my way out, at least as a catharsis for now but who knows. Social media has been an outlet, I think I’ve used it more than I should but still I want to keep sharing a little bit of me!

 

Meet My Roommate … Saint Mary Magdelene

Our family owns a life-size statue of Saint Mary Magdalene. We acquired her to be part of my village procession tradition every Holy Week. My family keeps her in my room 360 days and 5 days in the church each year.

Every Holy Wednesday, she’s taken out of the house to be cleaned, dressed, perfumed and put in her carriage to be surrounded by fresh flowers for the first procession. After that, for 5 nights, she will stay in the church among the other Saint statues that joins in all the parade until Easter Sunday.

Today is my Mom’s birthday too, forgoing a visit to the cemetery because today is also Holy Wednesday, our focus is on Magda, she’s gone to the church being prep for the evening processions. This year we made new gowns for her, after all, she’s been wearing her old dresses for over 10 years, it’s time for a change. Later in the night, after all the exhausting procession – pushing and carrying her “andas” people will flock to the house for a Thanksgiving dinner before fasting until Sabado de Gloria.

 

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Magda being prepped by my Aunt for the evening procession — the yellow dress is for Holy Wednesday (She will change dress for the Good Friday procession)
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Saint Mary Magdalene minus the fresh flowers, her cross and skull

But what do my family know about Mary Magdalene? We talk about her casually as if she’s a living person. We fondly call her Magda short for Magdalena (well as Filipino we’re fond of nicknames so living or not living she got one) when we’re planning for the Holy Week or about her new wardrobe. Regarding whether we know more about her life, I am pretty sure my family don’t know much 😊 just like me. So, I took the liberty to seek out information about Magda so my family and friends will know more about our in-house Saint whose been sharing my room for quite a while now.

 

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Saint Mary Magdalene feast day is on July 22nd, and she is believed to be the patron saint of women, of pharmacists and those fighting off temptations (and more).

Here are more stories about her St. Mary Magdalene HD and Smithsonian put together a clear description of her life in the article Who Was Mary Magdalene?

Saint Mary Magdalene, Magda to my family, is the perfect example of tolerance and inclusiveness amidst the persecution. Her story is very much real then as it is now.

She’s a Jewish woman living with the Gentiles that’s why they labelled her as a prostitute. But that is according to the interpretation of scholars because in the bible her not being with her fellow Jews ostracised her and tagged her as bad.

Much like today’s xenophobia, intolerance and discriminations happening all over the world. We separate people according to religion, race, and skin colour and we persecute people because one set of people feel superior to the others … a perfect example is the decade-long tensed situation between Israel and Palestine, which I witnessed first hand when I was there for a year.

It is true history repeats itself, and the worst part is we never learn from it. Many people use religion as a way to separate rather than to come together. The assumption that one race or colour is better than the others. When will we ever learn? I hope, that when we do we will achieve lasting peace everybody so desire especially in countries where religion is used to the extreme and uses the name of God, Allah, Buddha in vain

I guess we should as a family commemorate her feast day and pray for tolerance and peace and continue including her in our litany every night after the rosary. Afterall, Magda lives with us all year round and never complaining.