April 13, 2007
SCENES FROM A ‘RETREAT’. Memorable images from a Holy Week respite, including Boots and An Alcantara in front of the charming, Casa San Pablo. (Photos by Stella Arnaldo)
THERE’S nothing like honest-to-goodness Lenten traditions to remind us of Jesus Christ’s sacrifices to save mankind from sin. Unfortunately, here in Manila, there are very few places that still stage cenaculos, hold pabasas, or even have processions depicting the passion, death and resurrection of Christ.
Good thing we took up an invitation to stay at Casa San Pablo, a quaint inn in the heart of San Pablo City, Laguna, operated by gregarious businessman on a perennial laugh attack (and I had the daily gas pains to prove it!) Boots Alcantara and his warm and winsome wife, journalist and author An Mercado. Their good nature and hospitality are part of the charm of staying at Casa. Along with Boots’ equally entertaining mother, Mommy Vinia (who delighted us with an impromptu mini-piano concert on Easter Sunday), the couple interacts with their guests, treating them like long-time friends.
(Aling Puring and her papier mache molds in Paete, Laguna.)
We instantly bonded with this family which has been so blessed by God, not only materially but spiritually. An said she was leaving us in the capable hands of her husband for the weekend as she was going on a solo retreat in Tagaytay after having been directly touched by God’s hand. She recently had a cancer scare, discovering a lump in her breast, and the only decision she had to make was whether to have a lumpectomy or mastectomy. Then one day, she heard a voice in her head urging her to pray for a miracle. “All the while I was praying for strength so I could face this, then suddenly I was being told to pray for complete healing.” So she did, and asked everyone to do so.
According to Mommy Vinia, when she first received the text from An asking to pray for healing, she felt embarrassed that she should ask anything as great as that from the Lord. “But then why are we putting limitations on what God can do?” asked Boots. He and his mom and I were talking late into the night about An, who had already left for her retreat by then, and marveling about God’s power and love for us, His children. And so An was healed, completely free of the lump, much to the amazement of her doctors. She went on the retreat to give thanks to the Lord. “Kung si Lazarus nga patay na nabuhay pa Niya, etong buhay, hindi ba Niya matutulungan?” Boots asked again.
(Row of Ugu Bigyan creations at his pottery studio in Tiaong, Quezon.)
The next day, as I opened my battered old copy of Our Daily Bread, this passage leapt off the page: “Call to Me, and I will answer you, and show you great and mighty things which you do not know.” It was a passage from the Book of Jeremiah, which I felt was a reiteration of the conversation I had with the Alcantaras only the night before. The reading also added, “When we pray according to God’s will, He may choose to do that which the world with its limited perspective deems to be hedged in by the impossible. But many of us have proven that God is able ‘to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think’ (Eph 3:20).”
It was the loudest wake-up call I heard from Him in the longest time. I thought of all the other crises in my life and those of my family’s where I was too ashamed to pray for His healing and instead merely asked Him to do His bidding. For the next few days, every time I opened that little book, the readings and passages spoke to me, directly addressing some issue I had with other people or events.
There are two Good Friday processions in San Pablo. One is the traditional, albeit shorter, parade of images depicting the passion and death of Christ, which is handled by the Catholic Church. The other is the bigger and more “touristy” procession of some 50 santos, which Ado Escudero has been holding in the last few years. Naturally, there has been some tension between organizers of both processions, according to Mommy Vinia, with the Catholic Church hierarchy in Laguna insisting that Escudero’s procession was improper as it includes images that should only be paraded on Holy Wednesday, not on Good Friday.
(Workers put finishing touches on the image of the Christ Jesus during the Good Friday procession in San Pablo, Laguna.)
While we did marvel at the beautiful images and the carozas that were paraded during the procession, it was not as solemn as we had hoped for. There were a couple of times the crowds rushed in to steal the flowers off the carozas in the belief perhaps that these were blessed. It was truly sad that such an occasion meant to commemorate the sacrifices of our Lord would be diminished by the unruliness of those who profess to be believers.
While the event was more of a show than anything else, I must admit that the annual procession has been able to bring in the tourists that Laguna needs, and the images paraded are truly remarkable feats of Filipino craftsmanship and design. The elaborate detail in the santos’ clothing, like those of the Blessed Virgin, for example, are also testimony to the adoration of its owners and the dedication to their faith. For those reasons alone, I was willing to overlook the blatant commercialism that may have moved the organizers of the event.
We watched the entire procession from the balcony of the ancestral home of my friend, newspaper columnist and AM radio host Alvin Capino and his siblings. His sister Maris accommodated our ragtag group and fed us with simple fiesta fare. It never fails to amaze me how fiestas bring out the hospitality and friendliness of Filipinos, especially those living in the provinces, so it is indeed a delight to take part in one.
(A caroza bearing the Blessed Virgin Mary makes its way around the plaza of San Pablo City, Laguna.)
There were a few other places we visited on Black Saturday that constantly reminded me of how great are the works of the Lord.
At the home studio of celebrated ceramics pottery artist Augusto “Ugu” Bigyan in Tiaong, Quezon, I was awed at how he could make art useful for everyday life.
On the way to Paete, Laguna, I joined the pleasant and engaging family of Mike and Lizanne Alcazaren, friends of the Alcantaras, who were also shopping for quality woodcraft. The nonstop banter, peppered with Boots’s humorous anecdotes all throughout the drive, certainly made new friends among us. Talk about bonding!
While there, I had the pleasure of befriending fiftysomething woodcarver Mang Abel, who was working on a four-foot image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, as well as two smaller images of the Virgin Mary and the crucified Christ.
Another stop was the home of Aling Puring, whose family makes papier-mâchés. In Paete, the men are wood sculptors, while the women make papier-machés. She had shelves and shelves of wooden papier-mâché molds in the most elaborate designs, some of them probably antique.
Considering the masterful creations of Bigyan, and the artistry of Paete woodcarvers and papier-mâché makers, how can one not attribute such talents to some higher power above? For sure, there is some divine inspiration involved in crafting those works of art.
(A wooden sculpture of leapfrogging children, Paete, Laguna.)
Must all good things come to an end? We had to return to Manila after Easter Sunday Mass, but we came away renewed and refreshed by our own Lenten “retreat.” Most of all, we were grateful for making new friends like the Alcantaras, Alcazarens and Maris, and for being inspired by how His hands work through man.
Sometimes when we get caught up in our busy lives that, no matter how many times we read the Bible or open our daily readings, we don’t hear Him. The din of the city and our noisy activities interfere with His thoughts for us. So I was extremely fortunate to have been able to go to the provinces for the Holy Week — where the skies were clear, the air was clean and cool, and the people around were just the happiest and most enjoyable I have met in the longest time — allowing me hear His messages loud and clear.
• Casa San Pablo is located in the Gomez compound, barangay San Roque, San Pablo City, Laguna. For inquiries or reservations, call Boots Alcantara at (0917) 812-6687 or check out the web site at www.casasanpablo.com
(My column, Something Like Life, is published every Friday in the Life section of the BusinessMirror. More photos of my Holy Week vacation at Stella's Flickr fotos.)