It was one evening in January when the idea of traveling alone crossed my mind. I’ve long wanted to visit unfamiliar places on my own to fulfill part of my bucket list, but there was also a longing in my heart to find peace and learn to forgive, forget and move on. I turned to Google and, thanks to the keywords “monks,” “mountain” and “Mindanao,” I found the perfect place for my spiritual journey: the Monastery of the Transfiguration in Malaybalay, Bukidnon province.
I made the necessary arrangements and soon I was queuing to board a plane bound for Cagayan de Oro (the nearest city in Mindanao where one can catch a bus for the two-hour trip to Malaybalay). As I settled in my seat, a sudden pang of anxiety hit me. Then I remembered my mother who was with me on my first plane ride in December 1980, when our family had to relocate to Mindanao. I recalled how she gently held my hand and whispered “I love you” in my ear. I closed my eyes, and began to relax.
At Cagayan de Oro’s Lumbia Airport, I hailed a cab and told the driver to take me to the Agora bus terminal. We talked about a lot of things along the way and had a lengthy discussion on Tropical Storm “Sendong,” which hit the city last December 16. He talked about the terror he experienced the night the storm struck and how the people were coping after the tragedy. When I told him that I was going to the monastery in Malaybalay, he smiled and said that he had been there once with his family and that I had made a good choice.
Sense of excitement
I felt a sense of excitement when we reached the bus terminal. I paid my fare, thanked the cabbie and hurried to the area where buses bound for Bukidnon were lined up. I climbed into one and found a window seat. As the bus moved past the terminal’s gate, I sat upright, took a deep breath and prayed for a safe journey.
It was almost 3 p.m. when I got off the bus in Malaybalay. Finding a multicab to take me to the monastery in Barangay San Jose was my next task, and I was lucky to hire one with a soft-spoken driver who expertly maneuvered his vehicle through the winding, gravelly road. By the time we reached the monastery’s gate I was very tired. But there was something about the place that reinvigorated me. Suddenly, the word “rest” was farthest from my mind.
In my room at the monastery’s guesthouse, I sat on a chair by the window and was soothed by the chirping of birds and rustling of leaves. How tranquil it all was. I offered a prayer of thanks and proceeded to unpack.
A part of me wanted to stay in my room and go on reflection mode. But it was impossible to ignore the view of the monastery’s pyramid-shaped church set against lush greenery and the Pantarol mountain range. So I headed to the church, which was designed by the late National Artist for Architecture Leandro V. Locsin. Imposing and inspiring, the Church of the Monastery of the Transfiguration is one of the most visited places of worship in the country.
As I made my way to the church lawn, a forlorn-looking dog sitting near the guard post caught my eye. I approached the yellow Labrador Retriever—named Joanna and aged 12, according to Ermin, a guard at the monastery—and patted her head. I tried to coax her to come with me but she wouldn’t budge. I later learned that, like a true guard dog, Joanna hated venturing beyond her post but regularly accompanied the guards on their night patrol. I was impressed by Joanna’s dedication but had a good laugh when Ermin said it was not because she considered it a duty to go with them. It turned out that she was afraid of the dark and did not want to be left alone in the guard house.
While I was playing with Joanna, I saw someone familiar talking to another guard. He later approached and, with a big smile, introduced himself as Dom Martin de Jesus Gomez, OSB. No wonder he looked familiar. Dom Martin used to be known in the fashion industry as Gang Gomez, one of the best and famous designers in the 1970s and 1980s. I had read about Dom Martin and how he turned his back on fame and fortune to devote his life to the Lord. His story never fails to inspire me. I told him that it was my first time to visit the monastery. And when our conversation focused on monks and prayer, he invited me to join them in their evening prayer (Vespers) at 5 p.m. and their prayer before retiring (Compline) at 7. He said the monks would be praying in darkness with only a Paschal candle serving as illumination.
Back in the guest house I chanced upon Fr. Eliseo Ma. Serra, OSB, the monastery guest master. In his office where he also conducts counseling sessions and hears confession, he patiently answered all my questions and offered interesting information on the monastery, such as how the monks pray seven times a day interspersed with manual labor in the morning (they are famous for their Monks’ Blend Coffee). He also talked of the popular HeartSpace retreat that Rev. Pachomius Ma. San Juan, OSB conducts for laity, clergy and the religious.
After dinner I prepared to join the monks in their Compline and got to the church 20 minutes before they were to start. I took a seat near a door, marveling at how dark it was and, well, eerily silent. But it also gave me a chance to pray and muse on the things that had saddened me. Then I heard footsteps. The Paschal candle was now softly glowing. When the monks began to chant their prayers, I closed my eyes and surrendered to the serenity of the moment. It was bliss.
The next day, I strolled around the monastery and stopped on the steps of the museum where Filipino liturgical vestments designed and made by Dom Martin are housed. The view from the museum was simply beautiful, and I was inspired to whip out my sketch pad and oil pastels. I realized that I wasn’t just depicting the wonderful things around me through my drawing; the vibrant colors I was liberally using represented the peace and happiness that I felt.
The sound of the monastery bells roused me from sleep on the day of my departure. I was ready to go home and to face life’s challenges anew. I had forgiven those who hurt me and accepted things that I could not change. I left with the certainty that in times of hopelessness and despair, Christ will be there to light my path like a candle in the darkness.