It was already past our sleeping time in the parish rectory of Del Pan, Tondo, but on the background, we could still hear members of a prayer community called, El Shaddai, sing their lungs out in praise and in supplication. To my knowledge, ours was one of the few parishes that welcomed them. As if their noise was not enough, the sound of drumbeats and cymbals raised their noise to decibel levels higher than necessary.
I closed my door and windows, and turned on the air conditioning unit to lock the noisy world out of my room. Even as I laid my tired body in bed, still the noise outside had its own way of entering both my room and my tortured consciousness, pilfering that much-needed silence and rest from the enclosure of my monastic mind and heart.
I had to ask myself in protest, “was not the Recollection movement born, exactly for that more austere, more radical, more contemplative life, or whatever more there was—and here we are … thrust into the spotlight of activity and disquiet, in the middle of a noisy world, an hour closer to midnight?
Wait, it was a noisy, but prayerful world—that I had to confront! Well, let them create that prayerful noise, then, for heaven’s sake! I sarcastically calmed myself.
More than thirty minutes passed, and I was nowhere near half-asleep. My tired body was not buttressed by an equally tired soul! How impatient I could get, or how unforgiving I could be, would be known, only, and, ultimately, if I would get up, go down, and just sit on the church porch to hear their noisy prayers, or at least to while away the time doing nothing.
So, there I was. The noise downstairs was thrice louder. “Never mind,” I tried to calm myself, and sat. Every now and then, there were some parishioners who passed me by, and at each time they did, I had to compel myself to smile at them, as sincerely I could appear as possible. Funny forced smiles! What more could I do? I could not drown their noise with another noise.
At past eleven in the evening, I had to walk outside the comfort and safety of our church gate, just to rid my busted ears of the echoes of their noisy prayers. Outside the church vicinity, there was a small empty space that served as a small park for kids at daytime, and as a cool place for adults to drink and sing their troubles away in the evening. It was pitch dark in that small park. I sat on a broken concrete bench under a narratree. I thought it was quiet enough to just cool down my head over there, not knowing there were some parishioners behind me who had been more than halfway-through drinking.
From out of nowhere, I heard from behind my back some old men exchange good-natured banter.
“Father, one shots [sic], Father,” they said with amusement, one after another, as one of them daringly handed me a half-glass of local brandy. Without any sign of protest, or any iota of circumspection, I took it—unmindful of their common saliva that collected on the rim of the glass—, drank it, and emptied it all too quickly.
“Thanks,” I said.
“That’s the kind of priest we want,” they cheered me on from the dark sidelines in drunken approval!
“More, Father, more!”
“No, thanks.” (Only heaven knew what kind of hepatitis I could get from their shared saliva!).
From a distance, I could sense the singing inside the church had already stopped. It was now time for their individual testimonies.
From afar I could hear them speak, minus the drumbeats and cymbals, now even more clearly, their testimonies, interrupted only by sobs of hope, joy, and gratitude.
What was most audible among individual witnesses was the loud and oft-repeated statement of faith—“sa awa ng Diyos” (through the mercy of God!), —“sa awa ng Diyos” (through the mercy of God!). Right there and then, it left me reflecting on how close God was to the poor.
And this was Tondo of 1992!
And nothing could be more palpable than God’s presence—celebrated in praise and in tears.
For most every one of them—their families being bereft of wealth, power, and opportunity—life on this patch of earth would have been doubly unbearable without such tangible moments of grace and blessings, at first, internalized; then, articulated in words and tears.
In all honesty, who was I to stop them from belting out their songs of thanksgiving and praise?
In all fairness, who was I to be irritated by their loud drumbeats and cymbals of faith?
To tell the truth, who was I to confront their grateful hearts with such condescending smiles?
In all candor, who was I to drown their joyful songs with uncharacteristic disdain and disgust?
Frankly, who was I to be angry with a faith that had little theology, but had more sincerity in it?
To be completely forthright, who was I to brandish my idea of a superior contemplation at them, like there was no other valid way to God?
In all sincerity, who was I to belittle the fruits of extemporaneous vocal prayers as something never touching, never moving, or as nothing compared to the carefully-crafted prayers of the liturgy?
And, in the ultimate analysis, who was I to look down on the mighty deeds of the God of the poor?
No, I must admit, so fast and so steadfastly, that the half-glass of cheap brandy had nothing to do at all with my theological realizations.
It had more to do with that healthy distance that provided me with a space—to rethink whether sleep was more important than praise, and to rethink whether prayer methods were invalid and less effective, simply because they failed to meet the standards of the spiritually elite, who enjoyed a more comfortable and more luxurious silence of a monastery, a seminary, a retreat house, a rectory, or a subdivision chapel—far from the awful din of ever poor man, woman, and child, and their equally noisy modes of transport passing by incessantly.
From a distance, one could overhear— “through the mercy of God, my mother was discharged yesterday from the hospital”—“through the mercy of God, my eldest son finally landed a job!”— “through the mercy of God, our electricity was finally restored, after being cut for three weeks.”
From a distance, too, it was unmistakably all too consistent that the invocation of God’s mercy punctuated all their individual testimonies!
How so quickly the poor could invoke the mercy of God must have flowed directly from their own theologically privileged experience of poverty itself. Small miracles, we might say, but they nonetheless meant a lot to the poor. In the eyes of their simple yet profound faith, everything was just a miracle.
Not that all the poor were profoundly and necessarily grateful, sublimely holy, and ever-deeply conscious of God all the time, and that, conversely, the rich were necessarily remote or estranged from the presence of God, by their sheer acquisition of wealth! Not at all. But that their poverty itself could easily condition them to think of God—whether in faith or in fear, whether in joy or in sorrow, whether in trust or in despair—simply because of their poverty.
Woe to us ungrateful people! How easily we could be blind to and forgetful of God!
Now the noise inside the church was over. And, slowly, some forty to fifty members of the prayer group went out of the church gate in pairs or in small groups. As they unknowingly passed me by in that darkest nook of the small park, still I could hear them speak, as if their hearts were still burning, even long after they had heard the Word of God explained to them by their elders.
Through the mercy of God, my beloved Tondo was abruptly transformed into another road to Emmaus.
Through the mercy of God, I realized I needed to hear God’s Word, more than the poor did.
For did not the Word of God take flesh—first among the poor—in the poor stable of Bethlehem?
Had not God already been present among the poor, even before I was sent to preach the Good News to them?
Thank you, Lord, for the faith of the poor.
Thank you, Lord, for using them to evangelize me—your young, poor, and clueless priest.“Through the mercy of God”—yes, through the mercy of God, I could now finally sleep!