Sunday, November 7, 2010

Her true colors

FROM red to Red.

But before coming full circle, she had her share of long and winding roads that sometimes led to straight and narrow paths as well as dark tunnels and well-lit alleys. Then at some point, she just knew it was time to make a sharp turn and bid goodbye to a world she had known so well and embrace a life that would be the fitting culmination, if not continuation, of her commitment to a world crying out for redemption.

Before she became Sr. Angelina Celeste of the contemplative Order of the Holy Redeemer (O.Ss.R.), Celeste Barcenas was a known figure in community organizing (CO). Friends, colleagues and comrades called her Celê. For 30 years she inhaled and exhaled CO and knew the CO terrain like the back of her hand. It was like she was to CO born.

But her involvement with communities began much earlier. “I was studying agriculture at the University of the Philippines in Los Baños,” Sr. Celeste narrates. “Then I was drawn into activism.” It was the early 1970s, a time of ferment defined by protests against the Marcos dictatorship and clamor for radical change.

The young Celeste dropped out of university and joined the leftist underground. She lived and worked in marginalized communities and was on her way to becoming a communist cadre.

It did not take long for the military to track her down. The “subversive” was arrested and thrown in jail in 1972 when martial law was declared. Celeste was among the thousands who suffered in detention during that dark period. She was detained for almost a year in the Bicol region, with her family trying to understand her cause and supporting her.
The former activist does not go into the details of her arrest and detention and the identities of the persons she associated with in the underground at that time. But she does say that after her detention, she veered away from the influence of ideology and went into community service.
CO became the focus of Celeste’s life. “My first assignment was Cebu,” she recalls. She spent 30 years doing CO work, first with the Philippine Ecumenical Committee for Community Organization (Pecco) and later with the Community Organizing of the Philippines Enterprise Foundation (Cope). Cope was founded in 1977 after Pecco, the so-called mother of CO work in the Philippines, was dissolved.

Through Cope’s CO methods, many poor communities in the urban and rural areas were organized. Cope continues to carry out its mission through CO training, capability building, advocacy and networking. Cope also helps organize “people-centered and spiritually nurturing communities.”

Celeste’s work brought her to many places around the country and abroad. In the 1990s, she was sent to Nairobi, Kenya where she worked for six years. She came home in 1993 for a brief visit when her mother died. At that time Celeste was already experiencing some “disturbances” or turbulence inside her. Was God telling her something?

After Kenya, Celeste went to Ireland in 1997 to attend a four-month reflection-seminar on justice and faith under Columban Fr. Eamon O’Brien. “It was an evaluation of our life and work, and of our faith history. I learned to pray. There I began to strongly realize that if God is love, then God must be just. I felt liberated from my hang-ups rooted in childhood. You know, I was the youngest in the family. Sometimes tactless people would say that I was the ugly duckling. I realized this had an effect on me.”

A Bicolana, Celeste spent her childhood in Baao, Camarines Sur.

During those reflective months in Ireland, and in the light of her work and faith experiences, she began to understand the Scriptures. After that, she proceeded to Rome where she met Carmelite contemplative Sr. Teresa of Jesus (the noted professor and writer Josefina Constantino), who was then on her way to Russia, and from whom she sought advice. “It was swak na swak. We hit it off very well,” Celeste recalls.

Back in the Bicol region where she had done CO work, she consulted Monsignor Ralph Salazar, a known figure in social action, who had gone back to parish work in Albay. “He told me that I might have a religious vocation. I said, ‘Ay, gurang na baga ako’ (I’m already old).” Celeste was then close to 50.

The “disturbances” continued and she had recurring dreams. Sr. Celeste recalls one of them. “I dreamed of Lipa and a pool of water that was very deep. I jumped in and a door opened. There was an old man, a master sergeant at the camp where I was detained. Then I was led to a garden.” (The Carmelite monastery in Lipa City is the site of the Virgin Mary’s apparition and the miraculous shower of rose petals.)

One day, Celeste decided to attend a recollection at the Redemptoristine Monastery in Legazpi City, Albay. To make a long story short, Celeste instantly knew it was the place for her. “To think that this place was here all the time,” Sr. Celeste wonders at how she was led to the place she knew little about.

In 2000, she sought admission to aspirancy and then the novitiate – and never left. But before that she made the rounds of her friends in CO and other sectors (this writer included) to announce her plans. Many were puzzled.

When Celeste joined the Redemptoristines in 2000, she was 53, a very late age for aspirants to the religious life. She made her final vows in 2008. Her family and friends in CO went to Legazpi City to attend the ceremonies. Dressed in flaming red, Sr. Angelina Celeste, O.Ss.R. lay prostrate at the foot of the altar and pronounced her vow of poverty, chastity and obedience.

The Redemptoristines, often called the Red Nuns, is a contemplative congregation founded in Scala, Italy in 1731 by the Venerable Maria Celeste Crostarosa, a mystic and visionary. She was a contemporary of Saint Alphonsus Liguori who founded the Congregation of the Holy Redeemer for men (Redemptorist Fathers) in 1732. The process for the foundress’ beatification was opened in 1988.

The Redemptoristines define themselves as a “joyful and dynamic” contemplative community of religious women “called by the Father to be in the Church and in the world today, a living memorial of Jesus the Redeemer.” Their life is centered in the Liturgy of the Hours, the Eucharist, and is dedicated to personal prayer and contemplation. They live “a life in communion with the Church’s work for peace, justice and option for the poor,” a charism that drew veteran CO worker Celeste to them.

The Red Nuns (so called because of their red habit, and as short for Redemptoristines) have foundations all over the world. Every monastery is an autonomous community.

Committed to sustainable living, the Red Nuns thrive by the work of their hands. In Legazpi City, they have facilities for spiritual retreats and seminars. Their red-roofed multi-purpose hall of special architecture is open for group activities.

But the congregation has also become known for their Red Nun’s Pickled Gherkins made from their own backyard farm produce. Little did they know that the gherkin cuttings that a Redemptorist priest gave them some years ago would start a small cottage industry.

Gherkins are fruits similar in form and nutritional value to cucumbers, but are smaller in size. They are usually picked when one to three inches in length, and pickled in brine or vinegar and herbs, particularly dill (hence, the name “dill pickle”). They can be used in salads and sandwiches or to enhance main dishes.

When Philippine Daily Inquirer food columnist Reggie Aspiras first featured the pickled gherkins in 2007, the nuns could hardly cope with the orders. The distinctive taste comes not only from the fact that it’s made by “praying hands.” The pickles’ sweet-sour-salty flavor and the crunch that comes with every bite – the product’s special qualities – might well come from its secret formula. A fat jar costs P130.

The Redemptoristine Monastery sits on a 2.5-hectare property just behind the Redemptorist Church in Gogon, Legaspi City. Like the gherkin vines that grow well on volcanic soil and with constant care, the nuns’ consecrated life thrives on the fertile ground of prayer and work, and is enriched by Mayon Volcano’s constant reminder of God’s majesty and redeeming love. •

Red Nun’s Pickled Gherkins are available at the Redemptoristine Monastery in Gogon, Legazpi City. Tel. nos. (052) 4809293, 0927-9992028.