Finding God during Our Times of Confinement
By Fr. Paul Glynn, SSC
Regional Director of the Missionary Society of St. Columban-Philippines
Like many other Columban missionaries before me, I have devoted many years promoting harmonious relations between Christians and Muslims in the Southern Philippines; a place that has witnessed much misunderstanding and conflicts between adherents of these two world religions. Our aim has always been to become a reconciling presence between the Muslim and the Christian communities.
Christians and Muslims speak different Filipino languages. Learning the languages spoken by these two groups is a necessary tool to bridge these communities. In 1997, having spent two years learning and practicing Binisaya, the local language of the Christians, I studied Meranao, the language spoken by Muslims in the area. By this time, I had fallen in love with the stunning tropical beauty of the Southern Mindanao landscape and enjoyed trekking the vast mountain ranges that overlooked the expanse of the Celebes Sea.
When I moved to the Muslim majority town of Malabang to study and practice the Meranao language, I would take my evening walks in the beautiful tropical countryside, listening to the call to prayer from the countless minarets, as I watched the sunset over the Southern sea. This is when I would feel particularly close to the goodness and greatness of the One, we Christians call God, and whom Muslims call, Allah.
Fr. Paul Glynn with 3 Muslim clerics in Mindanao
One day I heard someone shouting at me from behind, while I was taking my evening walk after a day of language study. It was Bebe, one of the stalwarts of the Catholic parish community, on the back of a motorbike being driven by her son.
“What do you think you are doing, Father? Come home at once!” she shouted.
“Why?” I said. “I’m having my evening walk. What is wrong with that?”
“Have you not heard that the kidnap-for-ransom gangs are at it again?” she warned.
“They are starting to kidnap local businessmen. You are a foreigner. You will be next. Get back home and stop your nonsense!”
“But what about my daily walk, Bebe? I need the exercise and I need it for my sanity after a day of studying language”, I pleaded.
She retorted, “There’ll be no need for language or for your sanity for that matter, if you are killed. You can do your exercise in the school yard.”
The yard of the parish school is about the size of three basketball courts, surrounded by a high wire fence for security purposes. That was to be the extent of my world for the next 4 months or so, as Bebe was determined that I wasn’t going to be kidnapped. “You priests preach to us about sacrifice; now is your time to put it into practice”, she would remind me and I had no answer that could match that!
I briskly walked in circles around the small concrete yard each evening for my exercise. It felt as if I was in prison, even solitary confinement, as I paced that small concrete world on my own. In order to avoid that thought, I would focus on the lone star apple tree that I could see through the wire fence, and imagine that I was walking in the countryside instead. I would stop to watch the sky turn red through the leaves of the star apple tree, as the sun set somewhere in the hidden horizon. Somehow, at that moment, my tiny world would grow much larger.
When I prayed, I would often be reminded of Saint John of the Cross when he was imprisoned in a pitch-black cell for a long period of time. What gave him strength to survive was focusing on the tiny chink of light that came into his cell each day. For him, that was the abiding presence of God in the midst of all his darkness and suffering. Bebe was right all along, the discomfort of not being able to go for my daily walk was a very small “sacrifice” compared to what John of the Cross had to face and to the hardship and sufferings so many people in the Southern Philippines have to endure every day, due to poverty and war.
It’s the year 2020 and the continuous increase in the number of Covid-19 cases in Manila means that we have little choice but to remain inside the compound of the Columban Missionaries’ Regional House. Still, we are more fortunate compared to most people; the garden space inside our four walls is worth more than 20 basketball courts! Many families here have to manage being locked down in houses one-twentieth the size of a basketball court.
After six months of ‘lockdown’ we all yearn to go out and about. I yearn to be able to walk again in the countryside and maybe even stroll by the sea or climb a mountain. But even though we are in the middle of the concrete jungle that is Manila, we have about a dozen trees. As I walk around the circuit of our compound each evening and as I listen to the sounds of the birds and insects that have come to stay in Manila, due to the reduction in pollution with less traffic brought about by COVID-19, I look intently and lovingly at the branches and the various shades of green of the leaves on our selection of trees and at once, our little compound is transformed into a vast world of wilderness and beauty. As I ponder on the beauty of the sunset through the mass of glistening leaves of our enormous banyan tree, I am drawn once again to the God of Christians, the God of Muslims and the Light of the World Who never abandoned John of the Cross in his time of total isolation.
Sunset through the banyan tree