I had been here before, once for a quick tour when the sanctuary was still being constructed, then again for a family gathering. So I knew of the extraordinary beauty of this garden, and of the ten “cells” that were there for retreats. My sister, Cristina, had long been urging me to make my annual retreat here. She said its proprietor, Ernest Escaler, whom people here fondly refer to as “Cardinal,” would be pleased were I to do so.
So I was pleased to come. For me, it came right after the high school graduation of Ateneo de Davao University, which was preceded by separate graduations of the grade school, the colleges and the kindergarten. It had been a hectic month, not only because of the baccalaureate homilies and graduation addresses that had to be prepared, but also because of the interspersed trips to Manila to join deliberations with Fr. Provincial on the Jesuit mission of the Philippine Province and for various concerns that involved the CEAP, the PAASCU, DepEd and the CHED. Then there were the challenges that had to do with the academic regime, accreditation, inter-faculty disputes, construction, student discipline, and the untimely deaths of two of our teachers. In all of this, the loudspeakers drown out the silence, stress takes its toll on rationality, the social media make hefty demands on time, and the schedule militates against silence, reflection and prayer.
I was able to fly out of Davao with the dawn of Holy Thursday. The whole of Manila seemed to be on the way to Tagaytay. I got here about 11:00 am. It was Cardinal Ernest himself who personally drove me from the the Gourmet’s Dining Room in an ecofriendly electric car to St. Joseph’s Sanctuary. But before bringing me in, he instructed the guard to bring my bags to cell “Number 3.” Then he toured me around the farm. This was the big surprise for me. On my previous visits I had not seen how large the Gourmet farm was. In the near noonday sun, the neatly farmed hills dedicated to organic lettuce, vegetables and spices were awash in light. There being no workers there, the silence was gripping. Only here, the silence was different. It had the sweet scent of live rosemary and thyme.
Cardinal Ernest walked me through the Sanctuary’s gardens to the chapel. Opening its heavy oriental door, he said in building the chapel he wanted it to immediately mediate the presence of the Holy. It succeeded. Despite the lush beauty of the gardens, I did most of my retreat’s contemplation and prayer in this catholic chapel whose pews and kneelers are standard, whose crucifix is raised high against the sky, and whose various images of Mary, St. Joseph, San Pedro Calungsod, and baroque cherubs fill it. God is present here in the reserved Holy Eucharist. But also in the gentle breeze.
He said I had a choice of three living situations. I asked, “What’s the difference?” Each were well appointed: a priest’s room, a simple cell, and the less simple cell. “I guess it’s a matter of whether you’re like Pope Francis or not,” he replied. I stayed in Cell 3, quite certain I was not yet like Pope Francis. Besides, my bags were already there. Each cell is divided into three: an exterior stone garden with a fountain of running water, a living area, and a generous sky lit area for toilet and shower. Whether Pope Francis would have chosen this? With it minimalist zen-like features, perhaps. Certainly, the Black Pope would have.
On the small desk in the living area, there is a vision-mission statement for St. Joseph’s Sanctuary.
“Nestled in the midst of an organic farm where fresh greens abound and the cool breeze of the wind makes for a refreshing feeling St. Joseph’s Sanctuary is an idyllic place for silence and contemplation. These two values are best personified by St. Joseph. The Holy Bible does not have any written record of Joseph saying anything, yet his actions show how much he listened to God’s calling and truly discerned the meaning of his vocation.
“These values are what we wish to promote in our world today; a world that is constantly being hounded by a cacophony of meaningless sounds and where hollow action precedes and subsequently disregards any kind of profound thought. It is our hope that with silence and contemplation, our world will become a better place to live in” (Vision).
“Inspired by the person of St. Joseph, a man faithful and true to his commitments as well as working hard to do the will of God, St. Joseph’s Sanctuary opens its doors not only for individual retreats, group spiritual programs, family renewals, but also corporate planning, seminars and conferences
“As the person closest to Jesus, St. Joseph practically guided his son and instilled in him the values that he grew up with. It was in the home at Nazareth that Jesus grew to become the man he was. Similarly, St. Joseph’s Sanctuary seeks to provide a place where individuals become grounded once again in their relationship with the Divine.
“St. Joseph’s Sanctuary beckons one to be at home with God” (cf. Mission).
Amen. It was wonderful being “at home with God” here. Despite the fact that I joined the liturgies of the Paschal Triduum at the Monastery of the Pink Sisters, where Cardinal Ernest helps organize the liturgies, it was consoling once again against “a cacophony of meaningless sounds” to enjoy the silence over eight full days.
Of course, the irony of silence is that it allows you to hear other sounds: running water, the unending nagging of the lone goose, the flapping wings of lazy ducks, the constant chirping of the sparrows, the unending wind rustling the tress. It is silence however whose sounds harmonize with the sunlight constantly bringing surprises of gentle yellows, proud reds, and subtle greens against changing shadows. The pond seems unmoving and unperturbed, but in the silence it is the stage of powerful drama.
As life is, when revisited in silence. The prayer is that the silence break the cacophony, and return us to abiding love.
Among the blessings of this retreat was a morning jog over the rises and dips of the farm road that accompanied the dawn and the rising sun. All the rows of lettuce and spices backlit against the rising sun, the surprise of the variety of trees, the early worker that would jog past me in slippers and wish me a good day!
And in the late afternoon, by the setting sun: a walk over farm fields in the wind, the sight of water sprayed against the setting sun on God’s gardens, the flashing turquoise of a kingfisher, and the scent of silence.