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When Silence Meets Silence

I was stationed in our Tondo parish on Del Pan Street in late September of 1992. Parish life over there would usually commence with an early morning Mass. 

It was supposed to be just another ordinary morning when suddenly the phone rang after Mass.  I ran upstairs to answer the phone, and on the line was the late Father Vicar Provincial Victor Lluch, OAR.  He briefly instructed me to report to his office in Quezon City.  I wondered why there was a sudden sense of urgency in his voice, something that was far from his usual jovial self.  After taking a quick shower and a light breakfast, I went downstairs, and walked about a block away from the Church of Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage, hailed a taxi, and, in less than an hour, I was in the office of the Father Lluch.

Things were much more complicated than I thought they were.  Father Lluch must have already known that our local superior was about to leave us.  And I never knew of the latter’s plan until I was told by Father Lluch himself that morning.  I was left in shock, as if I were petrified for ages, that our local superior was going to leave us.  The time of his imminent departure was most inopportune for all of us back in 1992, considering that this would happen on the heels of a regular major change of assignments among religious priests in the whole Philippine Vicariate of the Augustinian Recollect fathers. 

He spoke lengthily and candidly about the problems of some of the religious personnel—how difficult it was to balance different personalities with managerial competencies, and the virtues or qualities needed in the various ministries such as commitment, perseverance, prudence, honesty, integrity, and leadership skills.   Besides, how should a major superior pull one religious priest or brother from a community, without necessarily causing a domino-effect on the other communities?  

I personally felt like I was unfairly constrained to listen to an hour-long sermon on consecrated life, and had to ask myself in my mind what business I was doing in his office.  I did not belong to his advisory council.  I was only a young religious priest back then.  The uneasiness tortured me.  I could not even thresh out where my sense of guilt was coming from, or what wrong I had earlier done to have triggered my superior’s decision to leave.

I could only listen to Father Lluch as he spoke out his mind.  Then, suddenly, he paused.  And after some moments of awkward silence, he smiled wryly at me, and handed me a piece of paper.  On it, I realized, was a list of religious priests and brothers assigned to the various parts of the country.

“Go over that list.  See to it that when you pull out somebody, you will not cause any trouble.  The important thing to bear in mind is that we should not cause any major movement of religious personnel.  Now, choose somebody who still does not have any administrative job,” he instructed me.

Pause again. 

Awkward silence again.  

Finally, I saw one name that somehow met the criteria, and I mustered the remaining courage I had—just to recommend it.

“What about Father Loreto [Dacanay]?” I nervously volunteered to ask.

“Let me check where he is currently assigned,” Father Lluch reached for his eyeglasses, made a deep sigh, then took his eyeglasses off with his right hand, and held his own copy of the list, a bit farther with his left hand, to read it more clearly—perhaps, then, told me, “This cannot be!”

In simple terms, Father Lluch explained, “About two weeks ago, I appointed him to work in our new parish of La Consolaciόn in Talisay, Cebu City. Do not tell me that after two weeks of his appointment, I am going to transfer him again to Tondo—and to think all these changes will happen to him within a month?”

I kept quiet, and I just gave him a blank stare.  Then, I looked at the list of priests again.  I could not think of anyone else.  So, I left his office with nothing certain, nothing resolved.

*   *   *

To our surprise, Father Loreto arrived one day in December of 1992, and how happy we were to welcome our new superior in his person.  He immediately buckled down for work.  He observed that even if our convent was small—unlike the typically bigger religious communities—we still had to observe the so-called clausura, the privacy of the cloister, and rightly so.  At that time, our dining table was located on the second floor near the stairs.  When we ate, for instance, we would literally be facing anyone who would enter the rectory by that front door on the second floor. So, Father Loreto wanted us to transfer the dining table to our small living room near our individual rooms, and to convert the empty space to a small chapel.  He tasked me to design a small bamboo oratory. It involved only a minor construction and was rather fast.  After some two weeks, we finally inaugurated our cool and cozy bamboo oratory without any fanfare—the tabernacle looked near yet prominently ensconced;  the pin lights behind the bamboo retablo accentuated the tabernacle; and, facing the tabernacle, were three or four small rattan chairs which blended well with the overall indigenous design.  Praying there would give us that serene, soulful, and rustic feeling.  The only downside, though, was that priests of bigger physique could not fit in those chairs! 

The noise of people and children down there on the ground floor was somehow muffled by the thick curtains and by the bamboo interiors of the small oratory.  The outside noise just turned into some soft music to the ears and did not bother us anymore. The small oratory was just the perfect place for our community prayers and individual meditation.  Who would not be inspired to pray there, especially, if the superior was always in the oratory well ahead of time for community prayers?

And, most of his free time, in fact, was spent there in prayer, spiritual reading, and writing spiritual notes and insights. From time to time, I would join him in private prayer.

Oh, how I loved this oratory—where Silence meets silence.

*  *   *

Against the backdrop of liberation theology, it was, indeed, a great privilege to be back in the Tondo parish of my dreams after some four years—a two-year study in Rome (1993-1995) and another two-year stint (1995-1997) in our theologate. 

The humble bamboo oratory was still there.  Father Loreto was off to the missions in Labrea.

One of my companions in that small community in Tondo was Fr. Felix Daganta, OAR, our moral theologian, who loved basketball to the hilt.  He gave me a ticket to the National College Athletic Association (NCAA)-organized basketball game between our Recollect school, San Sebastian College, and the Benedictine-run, San Beda College.  The Recoletos team was on its way to a second sweep of the two elimination rounds. 

As a young priest, I was still relatively fresh from the seminary where silence was life.

It was my first time to enter a stadium that big.  As soon as we entered the Rizal Memorial Stadium, we immediately heard the noise that enveloped the place.  It was so loud—as loud as loud could be.  Hearing the cheering and heckling crowd, from both teams, one could easily say, “riotous,” “wild,” or “uncontrollable” was an understatement. What made it worse, was that our tickets put us in the quadrant just below the cheerers, with the bass drum beaters, standing just four bleachers behind and above us.  Come on, I could not stand this noisy world—a minute longer already seemed an eternity to me.  Finally, I had to tell Father Felix to continue watching the game over there, but I was leaving that Gehenna of a place!  It was not my world.  I did not belong there.  

What a stark contrast it was to our quiet oratory, “where Silence meets silence.”

Just to cool down myself I walked to a nearby mall.  As I walked past store after store, I noticed some stalls would play some soft music in the background, while the other stores inside the mall would have it louder.  But even then, it was still a lot more serene, and their music volume was nothing compared to the crazy shouts in the stadium!

While inside the mall, I remembered I was wearing a new pair of sneakers that day, for the first time in the longest time, and so I decided to buy another thicker pair of socks to keep my shoes clean on the inside, at least, I would have a ready pair of socks for the next use, or so I thought.  Without my knowing it, I had already spent some three or four hours strolling inside the mall, just doing nothing. Tired and exhausted, I took a late dinner in a fast-food restaurant, just before all the restaurants inside the mall would close.  After dining, I left the mall and looked for a public ride.  Commuting was doubly difficult that night, as I found myself on F. B. Harrison Avenue en route to Tondo.  The jeepneys that passed were few and far between—and all of them, fully occupied.  There was no way that a taxi ride could enter the equation of options and choices, because all I had was forty-five pesos in my pocket.  A jeepney ride it was, and should be, and nothing else!

After almost an hour of waiting, I was, finally, able to get a jeepney ride.  It was now a quarter past eleven in the evening.  In an instant, the dust and smoggy road to Divisoria seemed like a long interval of bright lights and darkness. 

From where I sat, I could easily see passengers either come in or alight the jeepney.  Suddenly, I remembered I had about four or five mouth sores. So, I figured out I should first buy some medicines, maybe, some mouth sore solution, or some tawas (potassium alum) in powder form to put on my sores, on my way home to the convent. 

I asked the driver how much I should pay for the long trip.  I heard fifteen.  So, I handed him fifteen pesos, and quickly got off the jeepney—of all places, I found myself in a dark corner of C. M. Recto Avenue and Ilaya Street.  And to think I had only thirty pesos left in my pocket as I searched for that precious tawas.

About two weeks before this dreadful night, I was admitted to a hospital because I was diagnosed with a community-acquired pneumonia. I could still recall how my attending physician instructed me to keep my back always dry.  

So, on that fateful night, while I was walking in the dark alleys of Divisoria, I simply took off my polo shirt, turned it into a sort of towel, and started wiping my back dry.  From out of nowhere, I heard a loud bang, like a gunshot, and, simultaneously, I felt like I was able to touch a live wire on the side street. “What was that?” I asked myself. I walked faster toward a lamp post and as I drew near it, I noticed there was some blood splashed over my chest.  Then after a minute or two, I felt that excruciating and piercing pain somewhere, and as I examined where the pain was coming from, I saw a gunshot wound in my left hand—blood profusely dripping—and the bullet, protruding, stuck between my middle finger and index finger.  Poor guy, he was able to snatch only the newly bought pair of socks I was holding.  I had to raise my left hand above the heart, rolled my shirt around it, and pressed it constantly to prevent further bleeding.

I had only thirty pesos in my pocket, but a taxi this time was the only thing I could think of to take me to a hospital fast enough.  Providentially, there was a lady who alighted a taxi.  I ran fast, waved my hand, and shouted at the cab driver.  He seemed not to bother.  But some eight to ten meters away, he halted.  I told him to take me to the nearest hospital.  At first, he refused vehemently.  But I pleaded with him.  So, he let me in.  

“Which hospital?” he asked, his voice raised higher, obviously irritated.  I did not know which was the nearest hospital then.  The only hospital I knew was the one where I got admitted to two weeks earlier.  So, I answered, “Manila Doctors Hospital, faster, please.”

The driver was kind enough to assist me up to the emergency room.  Red-faced and embarrassed, I gave him my last money—thirty pesos—quite apologetically.  I remembered then I also had in my pocket a hundred-peso worth of phone card, which I used only once, so, I also gave it to him for whatever additional pesos it was worth.

Inside the emergency room, I kept on shouting crazily, “help, help,” “doctor, doctor,” “nurse, nurse.”  Then, a lady doctor attended to me.  She confronted me by saying, quite forcefully, “we do not need a hysterical patient here.  You are already here.  You are already safe.  If you die here, it is our responsibility!”

“What?  Will I die?” I asked.

“No, I said, ‘if you die, it is our responsibility.’”

I told her, “What if there was poison in that bullet, say, cyanide, then, would I die in less than an hour?”  Irked by my question, the lady doctor shouted, “shut up!  We are responsible for you, okey?”

All I wanted the doctor to do was remove immediately the bullet that had been lodged in my hand for some thirty minutes already. Yes, immediately!  But the more I insisted that things be done speedily, the slower the doctor and her two nurses would move, as if nothing was seriously happening at all.

A nurse slowly approached me bringing a medical form to be filled out.  Then she started asking me questions like:  Name? Age? Home Address? Married?  Single?  Occupation?  Blood type? Telephone Number? Parents?  Guardian?  Name of any relative here in Metro manila?  Telephone Number?  Any allergies?  I hate all that questioning.  What I wanted them all to do was just to remove the bullet from my left hand!

Some thirty minutes later, the two nurses accompanied me to the x-ray room.  Afterwards, I was sent back to the emergency room.  It was horrible sitting there, just to see other patients being brought in.  After anxiously waiting for another hour—it must already have been past one o’clock in the morning—they finally took me to a private room where I could spend the remaining hours of the night [or, better yet, the early hours of the morning!]. 

The emergency doctor assured me, though, that the attending surgeon would come very early in the morning.  Meantime, she injected me with an anti-tetanus vaccine, dressed the wound a bit, put a splint to immobilize my hand, and bandaged it carefully.

“Go to sleep now, Father.”  She was a little calmer now.  She must have known from the accomplished medical form that I was a priest.

“But I need to call my superior to tell him I could not celebrate Mass tomorrow, which is a Sunday,” I told the doctor.

“Well, obviously, you can no longer say Mass tomorrow, Father.  But we will inform the parish in a few minutes,” came the answer.

So, I slept in pain and anxiety.

I slept like a log.  I could not even remember they had already brought me to the operating room.  I was so deeply asleep.  Everything was quiet.  And they never woke me up.  

I woke up quite late, around ten or eleven in the morning, feeling groggy, dizzy, and unsteady.  I pressed the button overhead for assistance.  In a while, a nurse came over.  I immediately asked her at what time they would take me to the operating room for the surgery.  The nurse smiled at me, amused, and told me that the surgery was over, and that the doctor arrived very early in the morning, and so they took me to the operating room, and they did the surgery while I was asleep. I did not know I was under general anesthesia for some three or four hours already.

After taking my late breakfast, I reflected on the contrast between the emergency room and the operating room.  I realized that the former was noisy and busy, full of nervous and anxious shouts and cries of both patients and loved ones, because nobody among them ever knew what the real problem was yet, and nobody in the emergency room seemed to act as promptly as patients or relatives would expect hospital personnel to act; while the latter, was practically the opposite.  Quiet.  Silent.  Calm.  The surgeon did not have to be anxious or hysterical, because he knew what to do with the patient. He knew what was wrong with the patient.  He knew the procedure.  But he also had to put the patient to a prolonged state of sleep—to put the patient on silent mode.  

“In the operating room, the silence of the surgeon meets the silence of the patient.  When silence meets silence, healing begins,” I wrote on a disposable table napkin.  I folded the soft paper, and put it in my pocket.

*   *   *

I was now back in the parish rectory.  As I sat on my assigned seat in our small oratory, I prayed in joy and gratitude.  “Thank you, Lord, everything is now over.”

I gazed at the Blessed Sacrament…in silence.  And the Lord looked at me…in silence.

I pulled out the table napkin and read what I wrote, “When silence meets silence, healing begins.”