Responding to a call to solitude and silence
IT’S been a month since I started another phase of my life—a life of solitude and silence as a hermit after so many years of active ministry. I am living the life I have always longed for. Even as a young priest over 37 years ago, I was already attracted to this kind of life. But through the years, I could only spend a month each year alone on top of this mountain for rest, prayer, contemplation, reading, writing, running and biking, playing my flute & violin, practicing tai-chi, preparing dinner after fasting intermittently. It was my way of coping with the stress of missionary and pastoral ministry. I considered this a part of the rhythm of my life—the contemplative dimension. This kept me from burning out. I came down from the mountain fully recharged to continue my pilgrim, missionary journey—evangelizing the poor, building Basic Ecclesial Communities, resisting a dictatorial regime, and struggling against logging companies.
Being on top of this mountain has enabled me to have a closer encounter with my deeper self and with the One to whom I have offered my life. I have never felt alone or lonely. The mountaintop interlude has given me the opportunity to look at a big picture and a long view of my life and ministry. I have tried to seriously live the traditional image of the Redemptorist: apostle abroad, Carthusian at home. This has been part of my effort to integrate the active and the contemplative dimensions of my life as a religious priest which I try to do every day but which I need to do for extended periods.
In the midst of my busy life and hectic schedule, I always looked forward to going up to this sacred space. But I could never get enough of it. I planned to spend my sabbatical year here every ten years of my life. I also made a promise to spend the final phase of my life on this mountain. I built a bamboo hermitage which I could only occupy for three months since I was asked to do higher studies in Berkeley and Rome. When I came back, I spent the next sixteen years in Davao engaged in teaching, pastoral ministry, inter-religious dialogue, life and peace advocacy, and denouncing the killings perpetrated by the Davao Death Squad. Throughout those years, I continued my annual mountaintop interlude; I could only spend five months here during my sabbatical due to my pastoral and academic responsibilities.
And now after over six years working at the CBCP—promoting BECs all over the country and denouncing extrajudicial killings and authoritarian rule under the new regime over the last two years, I can finally fulfill the promise I made long ago. Last month, after Biking for Life & Peace from Manila to Mindanao, I came up to this mountain to begin living as a full-time hermit. I am occupying the room in the rest-house which I have been using annually after a typhoon destroyed the bamboo hermitage I built years ago. In due time, I will be rebuilding with my own hands the hermitage in the woods. This will be my home for the next 10 to 20 years or more, God willing.
Some people—especially friends, confreres, and fellow human rights activists—are asking why I am doing this now when there is still much I can do in my ministry and in the struggle against the forces of evil in society.
I just feel that now is the right time to answer the eremitical call. I am already a senior citizen, and I want to do this before I am too old to live alone and take care of myself. I believe that this is where the Lord wants me to be at this time of my life. I will no longer be active in organizing, giving talks or joining rallies. I will continue to struggle and speak out against evil in a different way—through prayer, fasting, and writing. Echoing Mark 6:9, St. John Paul II affirmed: “Jesus himself has shown us by his own example that prayer and fasting are the first and the most effective weapons against the forces of evil.” Mahatma Gandhi said something similar: “My religion teaches me that whenever there is distress which one cannot remove, one must fast and pray.”
Coming up this mountain reminds me of the prophet Elijah whose life was threatened by King Ahab and Jezebel. He was weary and discouraged. It was amidst the silence and solitude on top of the mountain that he felt God’s presence, giving him courage to face death. (1 Kings 19:1-14). I did not come here to escape or hide from those who intend to end my life prematurely because of my prophetic stance—just like what they did recently to Fr. Mark Ventura. I came here to fulfill a promise—to answer the Lord’s call to spend the remaining years of my life in solitude, silence, and contemplation. I came here to enter into a deeper communion with Him and to prepare myself for my final journey, fully aware of my mortality. I am encouraged by the words of a Carmelite hermit, Fr. Cornelius Wencel: “The solitude of the desert teaches a person to be at peace even in the face of death… The mere choice of solitude is an experience of kenosis and death. The hermit, with his childlike heart, approaches death fearlessly. He accepts it with quiet understanding and patience. He does not try to avoid death, to run away from it, or to forget the inevitable necessity of dying… By dying in Christ and rising in Christ, touching the mystery of Christ’s Passover, the hermit becomes a prophet sent to the people of today.”