Detox and detach
Wonder what people normally crave after Christmas—after the last gift is opened, the last fruitcake is consumed, and the last party guest leaves you in peace? Merriment can be tiring—let’s face it—especially in this country where people greet you Merry Christmas as early as September, and then it’s eat-drink-shop-shop-shop and be merry until after the last firecracker dies and the Christmas tree is laid to rest.
In our culture where Christmas and consumerism are fast becoming inseparable BFFs, it’s considered anti-social not to ho-ho-ho with the flow. You’re labeled a Scrooge or a Grinch, and that’s like a life sentence. Whether we enjoy it or not, we have to teach ourselves to embrace the endless round of reunions and homecomings and parties—office party, barangay party, parish party, senior citizen party, homeowners’ association party, ad infinitum. And even when you feel stupid telling your kids (or their kids) to be good because Santa Clause is coming to town, you grin and bear it because it’s better to be stupid and kind than to be sensible and cruel.
Every honest person I know admits Christmas can be wearying—especially for priests who hardly sleep during the Simbang Gabi stretch and yet, out of politeness, can’t say No to parties galore. (“Oh, but my blood pressure….?” “Don’t worry, Father, me gamut naman eh!”) So, after this season of playing along with this silly and wonderful world, they yearn to take a break from the Christmas break—irony of ironies! Super-active consecrated persons tell me they do crave solitude, long for a real break devoid of creature comforts and away, far faraway, from their communities or parishes. Not to escape, no, but to detox and detach, to recharge, to reconnect with the divine in them—so they may become stronger servant leaders when they return. And why not? It’s but human to desire solitude, as English poet William Wordsworth says: “When from our better selves we have too long been parted by the hurrying world, and droop. Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired, how gracious, how benign is solitude.”
There’s a place in Tuba, Benguet that perfectly fills that aching need for solitude—a “house of prayer” that sits on a one-hectare lot on a hilltop, at the end of the only road that cuts through a minuscule subdivision called “Carmel Heights.” At 5,300 feet above sea level—higher than Baguio City—the property gives you a 360-degree view of the valleys below and the hills beyond. On a clear day you can see La Union Bay, but every day, rain or shine, for a couple of hours or so, fog envelops the hilltop and blinds you—like when you’re on a plane that’s gliding through the clouds—and that’s how nature there pulls you into nothingness.
Out there, silence and solitude engulfs you gently because the nearest neighbor is about 250 meters down the road, and the only man-made structures in that whole hectare are the house and the Way of the Cross that winds along the periphery and ends at the foot of the six-meter high cross that’s visible from the highway below. Because it was built by Secular Discalced Carmelites as a retreat house, it has carefully preserved its spirit of detachment through the decades by remaining untouched by telephone lines, radio, television, and internet—something truly appreciated by those seeking liberation from gadgets and alone-time with God. Thus, except for bird calls at sunrise waking you up for Mass, the place is so silent that you could almost hear the grass grow. An author (whose name I forget) once wrote that silence moves him to talk to the trees and the sky and they answer by the “the trembling of the leaves and the movement of the clouds.”
There, no one will stop you from talking to the shrubbery and getting answers from the flowers. As of last count, 23 different flowering plants grow on the property—a few cultivated, the rest deliciously wild—like the land, which is pretty much left in the merciful hands of the Creator.
When Creator and creation collaborate, the outcome is wondrously fulfilling. In keeping with the spirit of austerity that is the foundation of a rich interior life, nothing luxurious or superfluous is kept in that retreat house. All pieces of furniture are donations, and used until they disintegrate; beds are simple, and so are the wooden pews with bare kneelers in the chapel—and yet they let you experience better sleep and deeper prayer. Books are donations, too, but handpicked to allow you acquaintance with the Desert Fathers, the Saints and Doctors of the Church, and of course, the Big Three: Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Retreatants claim they are amazed they can easily detox and detach there, realizing they can actually live without eat-all-you-can buffets, Facebook or Probinsiyano, after all. But how, pray tell, could you miss man-made pleasures when God-made beauty is opening the eyes you never thought you had? It is sheer wonder to take in the beauty of a black cross silhouetted against a blazing red sunset sky and see Jesus rising from it. The fleecy clouds in the fierce sunlight morph into menacing shapes in the purple haze of evening, turning the sky into a battleground for good and evil. Indeed, the raw beauty of the place inspires creativity and fills you with anticipation for the unknown. Even at night in a raging storm, when you’re alone there groping for a candle in pitch darkness, you are fearless, knowing you are loved by the Unknowable.
So, what is the name of that place? The Address? And how do you find it? It’s odd that we have kept it nameless all these years, only fondly referring to it as our “house of prayer”. Nor does it have an address to help the postman—or Google’s map makers. But Google can help if you search for “Carmel of the Most Holy Trinity Monastery Benguet”, home of our Discalced Carmelite cloistered nuns, and where we walk down to for daily Mass. Trace the road to its hilltop end and there you’ll find our nameless house of prayer, glorious in its isolation. If that dot in the map whispers to you “Meet me, know me, love me…” just let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Our door is open to all. A truth is hidden in Aristotle’s words “Whoever is delighted in solitude is either a wild beast or a god”—but we hope that in our house of prayer on Carmel Heights, the riddle may lead you to your own mystery. And that’s the truth.