Archive for December, 2011


The Hole-y shoes of Tanudan.....

So I am still recovering from a physically arduous Christmas.  As you can see from the photo my trusty hiking shoes couldn’t survive the Christmas – my fingers poking out in strange places.  Here in the Phillipines you can get most things fixed at a very reasonable price (not like our disposable throw away culture) – but even some things have there limits. The local cobbler just laughed at me when I presented my sorry shoes to him.  I have a sentimental connection to these boots having tramped the highlands of Scotland, the highways of India and East Africa and the mean streets of North London with them in recent years – but they met their match in the Cordilleras of the Phillipines.

But a serious point is how impressive the work of the priests and missionaries is in this area – as well as how tough the locals are.  Wherever I went I was always accompanied by catechists / and youth.  They insisted on carrying my rucksack for me – and in the end I was glad as some of the tracks were pretty precarious. I think I would have been pretty unstable on some of the steeper paths.  A Belgian priest – Fr. Leo van de Winkle had gone missing about 10 years ago.  They have found his chalice deep in the forest and it is proudly displayed in the Bishops House, but his remains are still missing – so half-jokingly the Bishop suggested we keep an eye out for them!  It seems he was abducted and killed by local communists – who he was openly very critical of – but as I was walking some of the paths with the mudslides – and the steep drops I was thinking he could have just slipped and that would be it. The wild pigs would take care of the rest!

The CICM missionaries had set up an impressive network of schools and hospitals – and the evidence was the high educational level and cultureal level of the people. Most of my homilies were translated but they didn’t need to be as they seemed to understand even Scouse English and even laughed at my jokes (something I am not used  to).  I have to confess to being scared at times – particularly walking on the rice terraces…. the small paths with stones were not designed for size 11 European feet particularly belonging to a lumbering, lobsided 6ft 2 – 95kg beast like myself. So it was scary teetering – in the rain – in slippery rocks with a 200ft drop on one side of you – I said quite a few prayers to various saints….  What was amazing was seeing our companions dance along these paths and rocks in bare feet.  Here is a taste of the journeys and the welcome we would receive when we would arrive….


Greetings of Christmas Joy and Peace Everyone!   I have emerged from the mountains of the Cordillera, exhausted but very happy, with wonderful memories of a very special Christmas with the people of Tanudan.  Thanks for the concerned messages regarding the terrible typhoon that hit the South of the Phillipines.  I didn’t know about it till yesterday which shows you how cut off we have been up in the mountain villages.  It had been raining steadily for 2 weeks as the tail of the Typhoon hit us – which meant landslides and swollen rivers making vehicular access impossible.  As a result we have been without electricity for much of the time (having to ration the remaining gasoline).

As they say a picture paints a thousand words – so below is a small taste of the journey into the mountains – with chickens / pigs / puppies – the last vehicle I saw for two weeks!  From then on it was walking from village to village for the pre-dawn masses, beautiful singing, and a simple lifestyle!

A first Christmas without presents/cards /booze/ TV /even electricity but full of singing, dancing and joy!  It was humbling to see how happy the people where to have mass for Christmas.  Even managed to squeeze some Baptisms in on Christmas day – after the celebratory pig was prepared of course.  Unfortunately the relentless rain seems to have destroyed my boots and my video camera – but I seem to have some footage saved.  So the next few days I will post some more stuff.  What remains with me is the glow of hospitality – unlike the people of Bethlehem, the people in the villages of Tanudan all opened their doors – many gave me their beds or a floor to sleep on, fed me, washed my muddy gear, gave me copious amounts of gorgeous home-roasted coffee.  So there was room at the inn this Christmas for me!

The place of Death


One of the differences I have observed about the different villages are the place the dead are given.  It is almost an indication of how ‘christianised’ the villages have come.  There is documentary and oral evidence that successive missionaries encouraged people to build a cemetery outside of the villages, but they never insisted on it.  The dead and the spirits of ancestors play a significant role in these mountain tribes.  In nearby Bontoc region  - where some of my companions are – is famous for the hanging coffins in some of the caves.  In fact – according to Lonely Planet – different from the 9 other different cultures that practice of mummification – here in the Cordillera they are unique in that do not touch any internal organs. Corpses are dried in the heat of a fire, embalmed herbally and then over six months smoke is blown into abdominal cavities to dry out worms and preserve organs. Here in Tunadan – at least in the remoter villages – the dead are still buried next to the houses of the family.

This means as you can see in the picture that graves are interspersed amongst the dwellings – sometimes even underneath homes. In some houses when the family gather to eat, they will call on the name of the dead relative to join them as they believe that the spirit is still roaming about their former habitat.  Again whether this is practiced or not would indicate the level of ‘christianisation’ that has happened.  The old lady who was explaining this to me assured me that in her eyes was superstition and then gave a very impressive exposition of how important belief in the Resurrection is now for her family. I hope she wasn’t just saying it to impress the priest!  The other fascinating detail she told me was about  the tradition of mourning.  It used to be that a widow would not cut his hair for a year, and then could cut it only if he went to an enemy tribe or village and came back with a head. The old lady, laughing, assured me that this expectation was commuted long before she was born, to hunting a wild boar or deer for a day and a night, and coming back with its corpse to be shared in a feast.

It has always fascinated me the different ways we cope with death – in the UK very poorly I believe!  It is a peculiarly British habit to quarantine death with pragmatism, etiquette and control.  That is definitely not the case here. I was very fond of the HBO series Six Feet Under for this reason and  I have put on my Amazon Wish List (hint hint!) a fascinating book called Making An Exit: From the Magnificent to the Macabre. How We Dignify the Dead by Sarah Murray  How we deal with death often is more about how the living cope with loss and the values that underpin that.  And it is clear to me that the people here have such a strong collective identity – which seems to be both positive and negative.

First Impressions


Lubo – Base and Rectory.  5 hours from main road in the rainy season. Here we have Electricity and an intermittent signal. And from here we can penetrate deeper into the Cordillera, and access the more remote mission stations.

The path through the Paddy fields – beautiful but narrow.  There are two harvests – sometimes even three a year of rice – the paths take careful negotiation, especially with my big feet and for the pre-dawn walk to say mass, a head torch comes in handy! Hmm – where does Jesus talk about the narrow path?

A feast of Red Ants and Eggs – A local delicacy I believe!  Does anybody have the contact number of the Director of I’m a Celebrity!! Think of me when you are tucking into your mince pies and mulled wine.  Although I wouldn’t swop this for all the Turkey Sandwiches in Marks and Spencers

Gongs litter the floor after being used in a wonderful welcome ceremony(see below).  I hope to upload a video when I get the bandwith….


Bishop J P Andaya – 15 years a missionary in Africa before being appointed to Apostolic Vicarate of Tabuk. Its remote nature makes it a mission area and thus not a diocesis …. yet!

Well it promises to be a Christmas we will never forget!  In the West we are used to a slightly frenetic round of anxious present buying, potentially hazardous Christmas Parties and then maybe a blow out followed by a few lazy days  in front of the box.  Here in the Phillipines Christmas is celebrated slightly differently.  Come Boxing Day everything is back to normal – all the energy builds up before Christmas. Simbang Gabi,  the nine-days before Christmas in the Philippines, is where all the action happens. Masses begin as early as 4 a.m., a tradition that is said to date back centuries, to the time when Filipino farmers under Spanish rule had to rise early to find time to worship before toiling in the fields. The priests saw that the people attending the novenas were tired and numb from work in the fields, even though they continued to want to come.  As a compromise, the clergy began to hold Mass early dawn when the land would still be dark, a break in tradition prevalent in Spain and her Latin American colonies. This tradition has been enthusiastically embraced and continues till today.

Four of us met the very impressive Bishop of Tabuk this morning, and he has assigned us our places.  I am to be posted to Tanudan, perhaps the most remote parish, although one of my companions has to cross a river more than thirty times to get to his mission station.  The Bishop himself is going to accompany me for the first few days.  I was surprised and very impressed to find out that he tries to visit the more remote areas when he can,  He seems to be a bishop that doesn’t need his comforts!  He informed me that it will be about a 10 hour hike to get to our base.  I was told later told me that the Bishop said 10hrs because he has shorter legs!  Then the daily routine is a five/six hour hike – arrive at a mission station – rest – rise early for mass and then off again to the next stop.  The place has no resident priest at the moment, its thin mountain air makes it a challenge to fill the spot –  so it may be possible that for some of the villages it may be their first mass for months.  We were given a detailed briefing of the different social situations we would encounter/ possible tribal tensions / as well as rather worringly stories of four priests who have been killed in the last 30years. In my place Fr Elias Baleng was caught up in a tribal conflict and was killed protecting two women -he was probably a martyr.  The Church has responded by establish a peace-makers movement, which has significantly reduced tit-for tat tribal killings. Due to this it seems I much safer and stable, and the priest is seen as a valuable commodity – at least at Christmas time!!   It will almost definitely be safer from the streets of North London.  Strikingly hearing about  the tribal tensions and violence reminded me of the gang violence and postcode ‘wars’ in London.

I’m dreaming of a green Christmas!

Everywhere we have been told to expect packed churches. So today I am shedding some weight from my backpack to prepare – but I have invested in a wireless broadband so I am taking my laptop! Hopefully there will be a few mountain tops en route where I can get a signal and post photos and news!  Having just googled Tanudan – I will share one of the images (on the right) which has got the juices flowing! I just hope I can navigate the rope bridges safely – without making too much of a fool of myself!

This may be my last post till Christmas – that is up to the Smart Bro network and how much it penetrates the Cordillera mountains!  If so have a lovely holiday and thanks for reading!


We have been enjoying two days in Baguio City – it feels a little like our base camp – before we are sent to our respectives areas for Christmas. It has been nice to relax and acclimatise away from the heat and noise of Manila. Known as the “Summer Capital” Filipinos by their thousands flock to Baguio to enjoy family vacations in the cool temperatures and dry air of the mountains. The City is at an altitude higher than Ben Nevis – and was developed by the Americans as a resort town in the mountains.  The Jesuits have a beautiful house called Mirador. It sits at the top of one of the hills in Baguio and has itself become a tourist hotspot.  Over a hundred years ago, Spanish Jesuits built a Grotto to Our Lady of Lourdes which is accessible by climbing 252 steps! And at the weekends it attracts many Phillipinos as much for the views it commands as for devotional reasons. Anyway we all managed to make it up the steps with our full packs- a little bit of training before the Christmas masses in the Mountains.

Mirador was once the site of a Jesuit Observatory and Seismology Station early in the last century which has since relocated to Manila.  For 20 years it became the theologate for the expelled Chinese Jesuits (at the time of Mao) – who have since moved on to Taiwan.  Now Mirador is a retreat/villa house for Jesuits who needed to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. It is under the management of the CLC.  Tonight – four of us are catching a night bus to Tabuk – where we will be assigned our areas by the Bishop. The journey may be about 12 hours – we have to go the long way round because the direct road is closed due to a combination of landslides and warring tribes!!  Please keep us in your prayers.

For me the highlight of our tour of Baguio has been visiting a quite remarkable work by the Good Shepherd Sisters. They have been training and educating many of the young people from the remoter regions of the Mountain Provinces. At first they had to rely on begging to support such scholarships – but now they have built up an incredible social enterprise where the youngsters support themselves through studies through a series of practical work – from making a nationally famous strawberry jam, coffee,  baking, needlework, making peanut brittle.  In 1990 there was a terrible earthquake which destroyed much of the plant – and so the sisters considered pulling out – but the youngsters insisted that as long as they could still be educated they would carry on the work for free until they built up the business again.  Another important element of the sisters work is to encourage the youngsters to be proud of their indigenous heritage (see pic) – and to preserve it as it is often looked down on by the locals! You can read about this remarkable and inspiring project here -journey form charity to social enterprise.   

I have made a small video called a taste of Baguio – it shows you some of the scenery, a beautiful hermitage in the grounds of the retreat house, the stained glass windows with the famous rice terraces and indigenous villagers depicted (where we will be giving our Christmas Ministries), also some of the work of the sisters, as well as a lovely scene outside the Cathedral in Baguio, with two young girls enchanted by the angelic Holy-water stoops and learning to bless themselves, Don’t worry it is only 90 seconds long!


We had a powerful celebration of Mass for the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary today. This is a big feast here in the Phillipines where Marian devotion is incredibly strong.   In spite of tropincal storms many turned out for a procession to honour the Immaculate Conception last Sunday in central Manila. As you can see from the photo they made sure that the statues were kept dry – unlike most of the faithful.  This is a feast celebrating the sinlessness of the  Mother of God who, we anticipate in this second week of Advent,  will give birth to the King of Kings.  Today the presider was a famous Jesuit called Fr Manoling Francisco.  What is most notable about Manoling,  as well as his writing, his teaching as a theologian, setting up a foundation to support education for youngsters from the Mountain Region (were we depart for tommorrow) is his musical compositions.  His songs seems to be sung everywhere.  Most of them are in Tagalog – I can’t get his Our Father of my head at the moment….

Anyway it is clear he has a wonderful romantic spirit and it was a pleasure to hear him speaking so passionately about Our Lady today.  That her ‘fiat’ her ‘yes’ to God was an act of incredible generosity and purity of heart – considering the punishment off stoning that was given to Women who become mysteriously pregnant out of wedlock. I was musing about this whilst wandering through the campus here at the Ateneo de Manila when I stumbled upon this. Addressed to Lila with the Golden Eyes…..


Courage certainly!  Purity of heart? – I’d like to think so!

I bet you didn’t realise that Adele was so popular over here (not bad for a Tottenham girl!)



This has been a lovely few days sharing with each other the consolations of the long retreat. Very inspiring and there is a great joy in the tertianship.  Today the focus has changed, looking forward as we prepare to leave on Friday for our ‘Christmas ministries‘.  We are all travelling north to the Mountain region.  This is a very beautiful region, famous for its 3000 year old rice terraces. In spite of its remoteness – its population speak English as well as their tribal languages, a testament to a truly remarkable networks of schools and hospitals developed by Belgian missionaries.  Half of the group will be based around Bontoc – which is fairly developed.  However four of us (including me) are going further north – to Kalinga region, where the bishop will assign us to various places. A previous tertian reports having to walk 5hours a day to various mission chapels scattered in the mountains to celebrate mass and also how happy the people were to have a priest for Christmas. Excited – I decided to do a bit of research  to find out what the next three week might have in store.  This is what the Lonely Planet  (thanks JP!) says about Kalinga.

This rugged inaccessible province north of Bontoc attracts those who are looking to escape from civilization entirely. Kalinga is a place where weekends aren’t even a concept, let alone a reality; a place where animals are frequently sacrificed in ritual feasts and where traditional law still trumps the laws of the contemporary world. Here you might meet the last of Kalinga’s notorious head-hunters and see tattooed tribeswomen with snake bones in their hair.  You’ll dwell amid free ranging livestock and hike along ancient mountain trails to villages enveloped in rice terraces. 

Reading this has made feel a bit of trepidation as well as excitement.  I sent an email back to the province Treasurer yesterday telling him about the head hunters – he is in charge of our insurance policy :)  -  and he very helpfully told me to make sure I got a picture before I went in the pot! I have lost about 10kgs in weight since arriving here – so I am afraid I won’t be the most tasty Christmas Dinner. Anyway we have been assured that we will be quite safe at the moment because the tribes are not warring, and having a priest come for Christmas is very special for such a remote area.  However the animals might not be so respectful – I have been told not to wander off the paths into the bushes as I might attract hordes of voracious pigs looking for a tasty meal….. Luckily I am assured of a guide with me (catechist or youth worker who will probably be wearing flip flops )

Christmas is very special in the Phillipines – commemorated by a novena of masses that start on Dec 16th – the Misa Aguinaldo.  The one catch – each one starts at 4am!  yes 4am….. So I have invested in a powerful head torch – to help me trudge through the mountains and paddy fields.  At least the stars should be stunning!




The newspapers in the Phillipines have all had David Beckham on the cover the last couple of days. He is in town to play a game – but is doing impressive work for UNICEF too.  His LA Galaxy beat the Philippine National  team (the Azkals) 6-1, and as he left the pitch after 70 mins he handed his shirt to a certain Manny Pacquio who was in the crowd.  It is a testament to Beckhams global appeal that he even seems to outshine Pacquio. Well who outshines Beckham? Well for devotion in Asia – Saturday was the feast day of St Francis Xavier – close friend of Ignatius and great missionary to Asia. His voyages are now legendary – and his popularity as a saint seems to be universal – he is truly an A-Lister!   His popularity can be measured by the amount of institutions, schools, parishes, universities, centers that are named after him.  Perhaps an even more impressive legacy is the impact of his name – Xavier is the name of his home ‘town’ or estate.  Just think about how many people you know who are named after him, Javier – Xavi – Xavier – Javi.

The Madonna and Child in Glory with Saints Ignatius of Loyola and Xavier – Pacecco de Rosa

In honour of the feastday – ignoring the big game – we tertians were invited on Saturday night to the Xavier school in Manila.  As well as celebrating mass, a very generous dinner was laid on – and the highlight of the dinner was the  presentation of a painting to the Jesuit Community and College of Francis Xavier.  The benefactors and donors of the painting – the D.Campos family (former students) -were attending an auction of Princess Diana’s goods on behalf of the Spencer Familyat Christies in London. This painting of Francis Xavier and Saint Ignatius with the Madonna and child caught their eye, it is an original by Pacceco de Rosa and it was bought  at an auction .  In a commemorative postcard given to is all said May we have the burning zeal to bring everyone to the Lord. 

The Devotion to Francis in Asia transcends religious groups.  I still have fond memories of taking a group of students from Wimbledon to Goa.  We were given permission to celebrate mass in beautiful Jesuit Church (and UNESCO site) the Bom Jesu – but had to wait about half an hour.  The reason we had to wait was that a Japanese goverment minister was visting the chapel.  It is a very popular place of pilgrimage in Asia as the chapel holds the glass casket where St Francis’s incorrupt body is on display.  The Japanese minister, not a Christian, had traveled all the way to Goa after a ministerial meeting in Dehli just to pay his respects.  The Body of Francis is brought down for veneration every 10 years and millions travel to Goa (Christians & non Christians) to venerate this holy man. Amongst Jesuits, Xavier is treasured for many reasons,  his successful missionary work, his capacity of inculturation, the beautiful letters written to Ignatius and distributed throughout Europe. He was sent by Ignatius to the ‘Indies’ as a last-minute replacement for Bobadilla, who had suddenly fallen ill. The very next day he packed up his things to leave Rome for Lisbon never to see Europe or his beloved Ignatius again.  This freedom of spirit, ‘availability for mission’ and generosity is what we are asked to live up to.


St Lorenzo Ruiz

At last! We have finished the retreat – we are out of the silence. Talking and listening to my fellow tertians the shared feeling is one of renewal and deep gratitude. The proto-martyr of the Phillipines, St Lorenzo Ruiz, on his death in Japan said If I had a thousand lives – all of them I will offer to Him.   A beautiful hymn in Tagalog has been composed to this by a remarkably creative young Jesuit – Manoling Fransisco .  We sang the hymn together at the final mass of the retreat, and it was a lovely way to sum up the feelings in my heart.

I think for Ignatius the primary sin is not of pride but of ingratitude. As someone once said to me that Gratitude is the least of the virtues, but ingratitude is the worst of vices. It seems to me that the unhappiest people you meet in life, are those who take things for granted or even worse are locked into a mindset of ‘the world owes me a living’.  This gratitude at the end of the retreat is expressed by a beautiful prayer of ‘giving back’ that is treasured by all Jesuits.  It is often referred to by its Latin Title The Suscipe….. 

Take Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess. Thou hast given all to me. To Thee, O lord, I return it. All is Thine, dispose of it wholly according to Thy will. Give me Thy love and thy grace, for this is sufficient for me.

The Suscipe is a radical prayer of total self-giving, the fruit of self-reflection and of openness to God’s love.  Very close to the heart of St Ignatius……  I think the happiest, most joyful people you meet in life are the ones who can say this prayer, roll it around in their heart, habitually.

Thanks for all the comments left – and the interest shown – Now can anyone tell me what happened in the world in the month of November?  


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