MALAYBALAY City, Bukidnon?Away from the madding crowd, one finds shelter and comfort in the quietude of monastic respite. This, in good measure, describes the service offered by the Monastery of Transfiguration for the past 25 years.
Perched on a hill in the village of San Jose, the monastery welcomes souls who seek refuge from grief, loss, or simple exhaustion from the urban melee. From the most ordinary guest like an unwed mother to the most controversial like former tax felon Mark Jimenez, the monastery welcomes them all.
?We attend to their needs, we listen to them, and best of all, we pray for them,? says Dom Martin de Jesus Gomez, O.S.B., guest master of the retreat center, on how the monastery has maintained its relevance in this age of Facebook and iPhone. ?This is how we serve the people. While we don?t have an active apostolate outside of this area unlike other congregations, we are always open to anyone who seeks a respite,? he adds.
Himself a former herald of the urban lifestyle as the former couturier Gang Gomez who clothed the most powerful and beautiful in the ?70s, Dom Martin says he cannot help but notice the increase in the number of people who come to the monastery for a retreat or simply to get away from it all. ?This is a sign of the times. This means life is becoming more difficult and exhausting outside,? he says.
Or that times have barely changed from those days when St. Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine order to which the monastery belongs, wrote his Rule for Monks.
Recounts Dom Martin: ?The Roman Empire was falling apart; it was a difficult time of confusion and lack of order and was very much like today. But the Rule of Monks with its insights for a balanced life shows how order can be restored, with Christ at the center of one?s life. And that?s how we remain relevant; even as monks, we are very much in touch with the realities of life and the needs of people who come in search of peace.?
The place itself is therapeutic. On a crisp morning after a night of rain, the air is clean and fresh, the flowers are in full bloom and as the sun rises from Mt. Kitanglad, there is a pervading sense of lightness. Who?d ever imagine that this lush forested hill surrounded by cultivated fields was once barren land, with only three tent-like wooden structures that termites feasted on?
?When I entered the monastery in January 1990, the church was too small to accommodate the Sunday Mass goers,? recalls Dom Martin. ?There was no running water so we depended on rain. There were no phones, no computers and only one vehicle?a white Toyota Tamaraw that was used by the community to transport fertilizers and bring people to the hospital. It also doubled as the bridal car and funeral hearse for the entire barangay!?
Food was so limited Dom Martin remembers confiding his fears to the abbot after his first 30 days in the monastery: ?Father, nagugutom po ako madalas, natatakot ako na baka ako magkasakit (I get hungry too often, I fear I might get sick)!?
Now the monks live in an airy monastery made of heavy lime blocks and designed by no less than National Artist for architecture Leandro Locsin. There?s plenty of running water, mobile phones, computers, vehicles, a coffee factory, a guesthouse that can accommodate up to 100 guests, and balanced meals that include regular snacks and meat on weekends.
Since the monastery?s inauguration on August 6, 1983 by the first Filipino Abbott, Fr. Eduardo Africa and former Malaybalay bishop and now Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Rosales, the monks have persevered in sprucing the grasslands and converting the hundred hectares of the complex into productive fields. So far, seven hectares are planted to rice, 25 hectares to corn, and the rest used for the production of the world-famous Monk?s Blend Premium coffee.
?So it?s not true that we monks just sit around, pray, and contemplate life in silence as other people might think,? clarifies Dom Martin. ?There?s so much work. This is not an easy life,? he adds of their daily chores divided among 10 monks that include tending the guests, working the fields, keeping the coffee factory running, and seeing to the upkeep of the entire place. ?We multitask,? he adds. ?That is the Benedictine Rule, ora et labora, prayer and work. We give much time to prayer and in between the prayers, we work. We work whenever and wherever there?s work to be done. St. Benedict says in his rule: He who does not work, should not eat.?
A day for the Benedictine monks begins at 3 a.m., when they gather at the church to pray the first of the daily seven prayers. There is a time for prayer and reflection and a time for work. ?Idleness is the workshop of the devil, so even when you are not working, you must reflect and pray,? adds Dom Martin.
?At the sound of the bell, we stop whatever we?re doing and go to church. The sound of the bell is like the voice of God calling us to prayer. The whole idea is to pervade the day with prayer, to pray unceasingly so as to be aware always of God?s presence.?
And always, the silence according to the Benedictine Rule: ?In silence and trust lies your strength.? Explains Dom Martin: ?We keep quiet so that we can listen to what the Lord is trying to tell us. The first word in the rule of St. Benedict is listen, and to listen with our hearts. To be a monk, to live in the monastery, is to learn to listen to God!?
But the monks do not confine their apostolate within the monastery. Their simple life of prayer and work is enriched by their involvement in the community. ?The monastery has always tried to do what it can to help the poor,? says Dom Martin citing some of their projects including the San Jose Cooperative that enables farmers to buy their farm supplies at lower cost, the water system for the barangay, medical assistance, scholarships and a feeding program for children. There was also a lecture series and music festivals, which presented great Filipino artists like violinist Coke Bolipata, Irma Potenciano, Josephine Roces and Della Besa. ?The monastery is not only a center for spirituality and learning but a center for culture and the arts as well,? the monk adds proudly.
The monastery has also opened its doors to guests who seek spiritual solace or physical rest. Says Dom Martin: ?A person who comes for a quiet, private retreat can join the monks in prayer five times a day, spend a lot of time in silent reflection, take long walks or simply enjoy the fresh air and the beauty of nature. Isn?t that what we all need??
The monastery charges a very cheap P600 for room and board in its guest house. This covers the heavenly meals straight from the monk?s recipe book. ?These recipes,? says Dom Martin, ?will be a collection of the best fares we have served here, including those prepared during ?Brunch with the Monks? that has become a most-awaited bi-monthly event by guests and churchgoers.?
The brunch is served at a very reasonable P150, and includes the piece de resistance, the sinful pata tim with saba and of course, the bracing homegrown coffee.
Indeed, muses Dom Martin, there is much to celebrate as the Monastery of Transfiguration marks its 25th year. There?s the two-story Museum of Transfiguration Monastery (MTM) which this monk describes as his dream project. The museum has been built purposely to house Dom Martin?s famous 50-piece vestment collection that was the monastery?s contribution to the country?s centennial celebration in 1998. The collection has been exhibited abroad and a book on it, ?Worship and Weave? has won the 2001 National Book Award (art category).
But the foremost reason to cheer, says the monastery?s guest master is the most basic of all: ?We?ve been able to fulfill the original vision of the monastery, which is to observe a monastic life of prayer and work in a rural setting.?
He continues: ?The monk?s life is one of witnessing. The prophetic role of our monastic community is always before us, reminding us to live our lives as an example to others. By our life, our Ora et Labora, we are able to show the wonder and beauty of the gospels. We show that indeed, it can be done!? ?
The monastery?s Silver Jubilee celebration continues until Aug. 6, 2009. Activities include a prior?s dinner on Oct. 29, a seminar for parents and teachers on Chastity Education in November, the opening of the Liturgical Vestments exhibit at the MTM early next year, the Formators Institute in May, and a free medical clinic in summer. For inquiries on the guesthouse and Brunch with the Monks, text 0927-9366360 or 0917-5105585, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.