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By Sister Mary Carmela OCD
We first published this article in May-June 2007 when Misyon was still mainly a printed magazine. Sr Marie Paul Therese tells us in From Iligan to Vilvoorde how reading Sister Mary Carmela’s article led her to Vilvoorde. You can find the English-language blog of the Vilvoorde Carmel here.
‘Vacation is also a mission,’ was the gist of what dear Rev. Mother Ann Christi whispered to me before she gave me Holy Communion at dawn on Sunday 21 May, reminding me of Mary Magdalene. After her encounter with the Risen Jesus early on Easter Sunday she ran to proclaim to others the Good News that indeed ‘He is alive!’ I should radiate Jesus to everyone He desired to send me.
I went to our two oldest sisters in the community, Sr Teresia and Sr Augustina, to kiss them goodbye. I attribute my perseverance in Belgium these past three years a great deal to their prayers and never failed to mention them in my letters to the Philippines. As I bade the other Sisters goodbye, I refrained from looking into their eyes for fear of crying, but didn’t fail to notice some tears.
Toto and Expie Castor, a Filipino couple, drove me to the airport. Toto is from Silay City, Negros Occidental, and Expie from Bohol. Though I have learned to love the Belgian people, the Vlaamingen, I am and will always remain a Filipina! Toto, an embassy driver, was able to use the official car because he was to meet an ambassador. We parked in the VIP area, the first of God’s many delicate touches during my journey.
The British Airways counter was still closed and in darkness. I thought of Mary Magdalene again. A Filipina friend, Lilibeth Villareal, who works with British Airways Cargo, had earlier obtained for me an extra baggage allowance for my heavy suitcase loaded mainly with Belgian chocolates. I kissed Toto and Expie goodbye. Since our arrival in 2003, they have become like parents to us Filipino Carmelites.
I prayed Morning Prayer, and spent time in silent mental prayer until boarding time. I had asked the Sisters earlier to pray that God would give me a silent neighbour on the plane. To my delight, the entire row of six sets, except my own, was vacant. In my heart I said, ‘Those seats were reserved for Jesus, Mary and Joseph,’ my ‘travelling companions.’ I continued my silent prayer and reflected on my three years in Belgium during the hour-long flight to London.
At Heathrow Airport I searched for a chapel but found only an ‘inter-denominational prayer room’ where I saw a man on a mat kneeling and bowing to the ground and presumed he was a Muslim. In a corner in the waiting area I prayed Mid-Morning Prayer and read Pope Benedict’s encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, ‘God is Love’. Later I observed people lying down on empty seats, two guards talking loudly to each other, sick and elderly passengers being wheeled in and out of the room. Noticing some public telephones I remembered our three Filipina Sisters on loan to our monastery in Darlington, England. I approached a tall black security guard and asked how to operate the telephone. He not only gave me a coin for the machine, but also helped me to dial. At the end of my allotted time I told the Sister on the other end to call the two others while I looked for coins to continue the call. The guard pointed to a machine where I could exchange my eurocents for British pence. A young man kindly offered to do this for me and added some coins so that ‘You can make a longer call’. I praised God for these unexpected acts of kindness! Here I was experiencing through the kind deeds of these two black angels the very thing the Pope was talking about. Mission is also receiving from others, not just giving.
When I boarded our plane I reminded our Lord of my desire to have a silent neighbour, to prepare myself for the days ahead by prayer, reading, and reflection. I also wanted to be free to release my mixed emotions, during the 12-hour flight to Hongkong. On the much bigger Qantas plane I found myself in a window seat with the other two seats in the row empty. Just in front of me was the lavatory, which I used before take-off. Why mention this?
The second time I wanted to use it, a stewardess told me that it was for the first-class passengers, while drawing the curtain in my face. I felt quite embarrassed. There was no ‘sorry but you can’t use this toilet’ nor did she show me one I could use. It didn’t take long to recover from the shock and I found another toilet at the rear of the cabin. So, after being treated to a VIP parking area and experiencing the love of neighbour from two strangers, God also allowed me to experience the opposite from someone else. Mary Magdalene was met with disbelief by the apostles when she brought them the Good News to them.
I continued to pray, read, sleep and recall events. At a certain point, I woke up to pray Night Prayer, only to find that the sun was already rising. We had crossed to the other side of the globe. I prayed Morning Prayer and the Office of Readings instead. Afterwards, I was awed at the grandeur of the changing colors above the clouds, a spectacle that could not but lead you to praise our Creator Who made them so wonderfully!
We landed in Hongkong at 7:15am. My mother’s older brother met me there. We went around the huge airport and I bought a few presents for my family. Then my uncle treated me to lunch after which I said goodbye to him with our traditional gesture of respect, the mano po, a kiss on the hand of an elder who gives a blessing.
Waiting for my Cathay Pacific flight to Cebu, I heard some passengers speaking in my own language, Cebuano, which was music to my ears! Although in Vilvoorde Carmel we Filipina Sisters spoke from time to time in our own language, it was usually mixed with English and Dutch, out of politeness to our Belgian Sisters. The Cebuano-speakers at once included me in their conversation and asked if I had spare religious articles to give them, especially rosaries. I had only a couple of ring rosaries and a key-chain with Our Lady of Mt Carmel’s image on it, plus some leaflets. They were so delighted and grateful. Children of a family coming from the Middle East gave me the mano po.
It was nearly take-off time and the seat next to me was unoccupied and I was about to say, ‘Thank God.’ But then a young woman in her twenties, gasping for breath from running, arrived and sat next to me. She was obviously sad and disturbed. She told me about her plight and that of her fellow domestic workers in Shanghai and their eventual escape from the authorities. I just listened and assured her of my prayers. It was heart-rending to see her family photo with three beautiful children and a husband waiting for her. They had no idea what she had been through. Before we parted, I handed her a little amount. At first she hesitated but later accepted and was very grateful. She said that she’d share it with her companions whom she’d meet the following day in Manila to plan their next move. She was a Mormon but I saw her as a sister in need, equally dear to Jesus’ Heart.
The time flew so fast that I didn’t notice that we were already about to land in my beloved birthplace, Cebu, the cradle of Christianity in the Philippines where Ferdinand Magellan planted the Cross in 1521.
At the immigration counter I realized that I needed to fill up a form. But a man signalled to me to come after him, got me to fill it up and said, ‘You may go, Sister!’ Another angel from God! While waiting for my luggage, I heard musicians playing outside. Had my sister been serious in telling me that she’d hire a band to meet me? I discovered later that it was meant for some VIPs and not for a poor unworthy Carmelite nun! In the midst of the band’s joyful music, tears of joy were falling down my mother’s and sisters’ cheeks. The family brought me directly to Carmel.
There was a mixture of excitement, tears and joy as Reverend Mother Mary Aimee, my prioress and the current president of the Association of Philippine Carmels, was the first to embrace me. After I said ‘so long’ to my family, we went to the refectory, where the Sisters let me talk about my trip. The next three days we were allowed to talk during meals and I answered their many questions about Belgium. The silence God gave me during my long trip was a preparation for these days of much talking. If my sharing wasn’t born out of my communion with God in prayer, I’d be like a ‘noisy gong or clanging cymbals,’ of no benefit to the listener and surely wouldn’t bring glory and honour to God. Like Mary Magdalene, I could only proclaim the Good News after having encountered Jesus very personally and intimately, be it in the Eucharist, in prayer or some other way.
You may contact Sister Carmela at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org or write her at Karmelklooster, Troostraat 2, 1800 VILVOORDE, BELGIUM.