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by truknoiz (Kurt Pala)
The author, from Iligan City, is studying to be a Columban priest.
‘Christi simus non nostri. Perigrinari pro Christo’, I chanted repeatedly as I walked in the dark on my last day towards Agoo. I had been walking for days and sleeping wherever darkness caught me. During the Spiritual Year, the first year of formation, it has become a tradition for Columban seminarians to go on pilgrimage either from Malolos, Bulacan, to Manaoag, Pangasinan, or from Apalit, Pampanga, to Agoo, La Union. Without money, we ask for food and water from the people we meet on our way. At night we also ask around for a place to sleep. We tell people we are on pilgrimage and don’t disclose that we are seminarians unless they ask who we really are. The pilgrimage has always been optional; each of us decides if we will make it or not. We were the sixth batch to go on the pilgrimage.
My first two days were with Etuate, a Fijian Columban seminarian, who walked with me from Apalit, Pampanga, to Gerona, Tarlac. On our first night we slept at a barangay outpost along the road in Mabalacat, Pampanga. While walking, I was wondering why I was making this pilgrimage. Etu was thinking the same thing. On our second night we reached Tarlac City. We were glad to see any church along the way because we thought it the best place to find rest, water and maybe even food.
Columban Seminarians from L to R: Erl Tabaco, Kurt Pala, Michael Boctot, Louie Ybañez and Etuate Tubuka
We came upon Sto Cristo Parish Church. It was closed but we tried to find a way. A priest came out and asked us where we were from. We were tired and covered with dust. We filled ourselves with the food he gave us and chatted with him before heading off to look for a place to spend the night. We came upon another church but we were told that they don’t allow people to sleep within the compound or inside the church. Disappointed and quite saddened, we left the church and headed off towards the center of the city. Etu was dragging himself because of his painful ankles and I told him to sit while I asked around. I was directed to the barangay hall and we went there. The people there were very concerned and allowed us to stay in a small covered area. Despite the mosquitoes, Etu slept while I tried to fend them off all through the night.
We started walking at around 2am and Etu was having a hard time walking. The wound between his thighs and the pain in his ankles worsened. Walking slowly, we finally reached the Expiatory Chapel at Gerona, Tarlac. Etu decided not to continue and I went back with him to Tarlac City so he could take a bus home.
I was now alone and I felt some hesitation as to whether I could make it on my own. I continued walking, resting for a few minutes from time to time. I could see a very long road ahead of me on this very hot afternoon. I came upon a carenderia and asked a boy for water. Another boy approached me and said that they had seen me walking from afar. They asked me questions and gave me another bottle of water as I headed for the town of San Manuel when it was already getting dark.
I felt a bit scared because I couldn’t find a house to stay for the night. I came upon a karaoke house and asked the old man there if I could stay the night. His son was uncertain and told me that I couldn’t stay because they had clients coming in for the night. I was already very tired and begged him to allow me to stay. He felt sorry for me and allowed me to stay.
They were about to have supper and they invited me to join them. I had a good meal and soon slept. The following day before leaving around 2am, I left a note thanking. The road was very dark and I was very scared. Dogs barked at me and speeding buses and cars passed me by. It was my first time to pray the rosary repeatedly for hours while walking.
Finally I reached Pozorubbio, Pangasinan, around 3pm. I started looking for a place to spend the night because I didn’t want to be in the same situation as in San Manuel. I looked for the church went inside and rested. I then went to the parish office but I was told to wait. A priest came but seemed to be on his way to an event. I approached him and told him I needed a place to sleep. He said he couldn’t decide because the parish priest was not around and he believed that he wouldn’t allow me. He didn’t even bother to ask where I am from but directed me to the municipal hall. I thanked him and walked away.
I was very disappointed and angry. I was very tired and feverish. I decided to walk to the next town, Sison but after a few minutes I really felt like collapsing. I went to the police station and asked if I could spend the night there. The policeman had seen me walking from the church and asked where I was heading. He interrogated me and asked for identification. The policeman provided me with a place to sleep and I was able to eat a full meal. That experience changed how I perceived policemen. They were the most understanding and approachable people I met during the pilgrimage.
I left the police station around 1:30am. Looking at the map, I thought to myself it would be a short walk. So I started walking quite fast, I could not wait to reach Agoo. By the time I was in Damortis, Sto Tomas, I was already exhausted but continued walking under the heat of the sun. I finally came upon the welcoming arch of Agoo, then a roadside marker that said Agoo was four kilometers more. But I paced myself now. I couldn’t wait to get to the church but my knees were shaking, my ankles trembling with pain and my back hurting from carrying a heavy load. My steps were becoming shorter and it took so much energy to make each one. Finally, around a bend, I saw the Basilica of Our Lady of Charity.
Like a child running towards his mother, I immediately went into the church and found myself right in front of the altar kneeling and crying. I couldn’t believe I had made it after everything I’ve gone through the last five days, walking what seemed to be an endless road.
Lessons learned and unlearned
My pilgrimage was one of the best things I have done in my life. I can think of so many things most especially about my relationships and myself with the people I met along the way and even with my God.
I’ve learned that preparation means a lot, not just planning but knowing what you will go through. Preparing for the pilgrimage, I exercised and jogged everyday. It made the difference. I did not have so much pain and swelling compared with my companions. In life, we need to be prepared all the time for the unexpected. We can’t just sit around and wait. We can always do something.
Walk (travel) lightly
I realized I was carrying too much, so many unnecessary things, because my back started to get sore. In life, we need to let go of inessentials. Life can be lived more simply but still joyfully.
Gratefulness and humility
Asking people to allow us to sleep in their place was as humbling as asking for food and water. I really felt like I was nothing before them, especially when they stared at me for a long time. This must be how beggars feel every time they raise their hands and beg. One can always be rejected and ignored. However, I have never been so grateful as I was every time a person gave me water and food or allowed me to spend the night in their place. Looking back on my life, I think I have been so wonderfully and excessively blessed by God and I want to live this life in gratitude to God for all His goodness to me and the people around me.
Dependence and independence
Although I spent the first two days with Etu, on the rest of the way I was on my own. I realized we can sometimes be too dependent on people and need to work things out on our own. Being alone allowed me to take responsibility for myself. What was difficult was knowing that I was so dependent on people, having to ask for food and water and also for shelter at night. I have difficulty asking for help but during the pilgrimage I had no choice but to ask for it or else I’d starve and thirst.
Handling anger and fear
The entire pilgrimage was a test for me in handling my feelings, especially anger and fear. There were times when I really felt angry and disappointed, especially when I had high expectations, such as the two occasions when my request to spend the night in or even outside a church I don’t know why I felt so angry. I told myself that those who rejected my requests didn’t contradict what a ‘church’ should be. Fear was another thing I had to struggle with. I walked a lot in the dark and was so scared but conquered my fear and was able to go through it every time.
I’ve learned that I can often make quick and harsh judgments of people based on some past experiences or on what people say. Unconsciously, I have already created an image of what this person is like, hindering me from really experiencing and relating to that person.
Patience and perseverance
The road seemed endless and infinite. You can easily be discouraged on pilgrimage. Yet it taught me to be patient with myself, to take things slowly and lightly. I also became patient with people. Perseverance is another virtue I learned to be necessary. When you feel like giving up, persevere. Crises or struggles are opportunities for change. I also became more optimistic and saw the better side of things and hoped that they would turn out right.
Finding God’s presence in the ordinary
One can always look for God in the great things or in the extraordinary. But I realized God is ever more present in ordinary events, people, things and places. One just needs to be more attentive, silent and discerning.
Trust/faith, worrying and fear
The whole goal of the pilgrimage for me was to find myself trusting God more, growing in faith and love of God and then learning to let go of being in control - allowing God to take charge and to stop worrying and being fearful. It was the most freeing experience for me because it was like walking in the presence of God, walking with Him. I was no longer so concerned with ‘who I am before people’, like how I looked, and I really lived for that day, not worrying about what to eat for tomorrow or where to sleep at night the next time darkness caught me on the road.
Kurt with his family.
There were moments when I really felt God was with me all the time. Moments that taught me to be prepared for the unexpected, to walk lightly, to be grateful and humble, to find balance between dependency and independency, to handle my emotions and feelings, to avoid judging people quickly, to be patient and persevering, to find God in the ordinary, and to trust and have faith in God.
The challenge now is how to live out the lessons of the pilgrimage, which for me hasn’t ended yet. It has just begun. I realized that life is a pilgrimage and I am a pilgrim. As St Columban wrote, ‘Christi simus non nostri’, ‘Let us be of Christ, not of ourselves’. He also lived by the words ‘Perigrinari pro Christo’, ‘to be a pilgrim for Christ’. The pilgrimage was a great way to end my spiritual year, the culmination of a journey I started when I joined the Columban formation program in June 2008, a year that was full of joy and pain but not without hope. What seemed impossible, to walk about 120 kilometers in five days passing through more than 40 municipalities and cities in five provinces, trusting in the mercy and compassion of the people we met along the way, was possible with faith and trust in God.
You may email Kurt at email@example.com or write him at: Columban House of Studies, PO Box 4454, 1099 MANILA.