Tuesday, July 25, 2006


in soulful silence
the starred night gazes
at the graced world below

breeze hovers serene
over hills and fields
hailed in slumber

bent-heaven circles
the Babe's bidding embrace:

Bundle of Peace
heaven to earth
heavenward earth.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

To A Firefly

first sighted in the first month of novitiate

when all is still
and all earth’s spirits rest
and Night’s curtains fallen, sullen
make no sound
you come calm, no clatter
in soft, dancing shimmer
tiptoeing on air

you come calm, glowing warm
in gracefulfilling
lulling me
in whispered song

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Something More

(for izumi sakata and her family)

This above all – ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write?
Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you
may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple “I must,” then build your
life according to this necessity; your life even unto its most indifferent and slightest
hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it.

- Rainer Maria Rilke
Letters to A Young Poet

After graduation from college at Ateneo de Naga University, I joined the faculty of its high school. For three years, I taught Philippine and Asian history, moderated the second year honors class and assisted in the Days with the Lord, a retreat program designed for our students. With memories of my own high school years still fresh, it was like spending high school for the second time – and with such joy-filled ease.

Coming from the same high school myself, I saw those three years as a homecoming. I was the first to fulfill a common promise among my high school classmates to go back and teach in our alma mater. It was a time to pass on to my 14-year old students the revered Jesuit tradition of our school, share with them the stories of my own growing-up years and accompany them in the journey of their young lives. And accompany them I did: weekend strolls and movies, home visits, treks to the mountain, picnics, games and class nights. I was only six years their senior and I could speak their language well. I was one of them

It was all fun and learning and fulfilling. I did not notice the passing of three years. It felt young to be with the young, their energy infectious. But in the evening when I looked back at the day before going to bed, I would always feel something was missing. Despite the full, filled and filling days, there was still something I had not done – or was not doing. And I realized I could not ignore it anymore. I had to pay attention to it. I had to do something.

I entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus in Manila on May 30,1997 with 14 other companions. For two years, we tried to look deeper into our call to the priesthood and religious life. We learned to pray more. We studied the history, life and work of the Jesuits. We discovered more about ourselves, learning along the way the difficult yet enlightening and lightening process of accepting who we are – our quirks and frailties, wounds and weaknesses but more than these, our own giftedness and the never-ending working of God’s healing, loving grace.

My co-novices and I made the month-long Spiritual Exercises or retreat that all Jesuits through the centuries have made. For thirty days, we prayed and meditated in silence, talking only to our spiritual director. We had our hospital experiments where I worked as an orderly at the Philippine General Hospital, the country’s largest, listening to cancer patients, dressing their wounds, feeding them, taking them to the x-ray room, cleaning bedpans, scrubbing walls. We had our urban poor experiments where I lived incognito with a host family in the shanties. I lived in a small house in a neighborhood notorious for prohibited drugs. God knows how difficult it was for me to sleep in the first days considering the gunfire, mice and roaches that came anytime, in no predictable order!

Then I was assigned to a far-flung, barely populated mountain village in southern Philippines. It was too cold for my lowland upbringing. It was also a far cry from the city life I was used to: no electricity, no movies nor malls, bedtime at 6 p.m., a different language, diet and lifestyle. It was my first experience of biting loneliness. For our labor experiments, I worked, again incognito, as a room attendant in a 5-star hotel in Manila. A teacher, a literature graduate making king-size beds, dusting furniture, scrubbing bathroom tiles and bowls, changing sheets and vacuuming corridors – that was me! These experiences made me learn from the ordinary people. They taught me how the good Lord and the goodness of the human heart are present even amid pain and suffering, injustice and seeming despair, difficulty and misfortune. The poor can many times have hearts and spirits far richer and stronger, far more hope-full and more faith-full than ours.

I took my perpetual religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience on May 31,1999. I then proceeded to study literature, language, culture and philosophy at the Ateneo de Manila University. In January of this year, I successfully passed my oral comprehensive exams. Soon after, I received word from my superiors about my new assignment: Xavier University, Cagayan de Oro City in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.

I am at present in charge of vocations promotions and Director of Haggerty House Jesuit Prenovitiate, a house for young men aspiring to become Jesuit priests and brothers. It is a very challenging job. Aside from guiding these young men grow in their spiritual lives, I perform other roles as well – preparing the monthly budget and accounting, chaplain of our workers, giving retreats and recollections, following up applicants, giving talks in schools and universities, organizing formation activities. I also teach Christian Humanism in our high school, moderate a senior class and do counseling.

There is much work to be done. I shuttle between the main campus and the high school campus, go from one university or town to another, wear many hats but through it all, I feel a deep sense of peace and joy that tells me this is not work. This is not just my work but my life. And always this brings me back to that sunny May afternoon five years ago when I stepped on the seminary grounds for the first time and said goodbye to my family, the old iron and wooden doors of the seminary closing behind me, when in my heart I said this is it! The moment I had long been waiting for. The life I had always wanted. I was home. And I am.

As I accompany young people in my ministry, it is my hope and desire that they, too, may find the more in their lives, that strong and simple I must! and live, work and die for this must. (Xavier L. Olin,S.J.)

Written July 2002, Cagayan de Oro, for the Japanese association which sponsored my college scholarship.


Xavier L. Olin,S.J.

When all Bikol-bound buses, trains, and planes are fully booked and countless crowds still queue up in the terminals hoping to get even the last jump seat or any little space available, it can only mean one thing: It is September. Bikol’s month of months has come.

Whatever business they have, the Bikolnon shelve it for the moment. They must be home for Ina, the Lady of Penafrancia, who is every Bikolnon’s Patron, Queen, and Mother. Thus, whether to the Heart of Bikol, the city of Naga, where Ina is enshrined, or the Bikol in their hearts where Ina is forever enshrined, they head for home. What grateful children, after all, will not remember their Mother on her feast day?

As thousands converge in the city, Naga becomes a mecca of pligrims and tourists: the religious, the semi-religious, the adventurous, the business-minded, and the simply curious. On the second Friday of September, the six-hour Traslacion procession transfers Ina’s image from the small, old shrine to the bigger, newly renovated cathedral. The cathedral soon overflows with a steady stream of people praying before her sanctuary, and kissing and touching her image. From all walks of life, they make their way to her altar on foot, as access by both private and public transport becomes virtually impossible. Such an endearing sight only proclaims how, varied their backgrounds may be, all Ina’s children are one and equal in approaching her, their Mother. It thus becomes a truly family affair, a time when the Bikolnon family gathers together, renews ties, and bonds, forgetting for the moment whatever differences that may stand between and among them.

The cathedral’s puerta mayor is wide open, greeting the ‘homecoming’ son or daughter with a warm embrace and with the loving gaze of the Mother from where she stands at the altar. A father, carrying his little boy on his shoulder, takes out his handkerchief, touches the image with it, and applies it on the boy’s forehead. Old women saying their rosaries or reciting the novena create a chorus of murmurs which are all but a refrain, the children’s clamor or yearning for the Mother. By the cathedral’s side doors and corners and on makeshift (sack or carton) beds, or on the pews, out-of-towners take a respite from their long journey, content that they are now in her presence. To be there in the sight of the Mother of All – of the barefoot, the wearied, the shabby, the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, as we all are – is enough. Outside, the patio glows with candles endlessly burning through the night like hearts on fire, the hearts of Ina’s children.

Although the fiesta officially starts with the Traslacion, excitement kicks off and colors explode weeks before it. Bazaars mushroom on the streets, offering anything from the cheapest clothes to the latest toys to the best of street fare. Abaca, pili sweets, santan, buri hats and mats, shellcraft, bamboo furniture, clay jars, and knives from Tabaco, Albay (reputedly made of PNR steel and from some skillful steal!) sell like pancakes. Quite interestingly, in the recent years, products from other regions have lent a national flavor to the occasion: Cordillera weave, Maranao brassware, Pampanga sculpture, tribal trinkets, malong, and batik.

The kiosko and the plaza bustle with activities – senior citizens’ pabayle, singing contest, beauty pageant, painting exhibits, parlor games, Isarog Garden Society sale, or variety show by artistas from Manila. Platoons of PMT and ROTC cadets in full regalia pass in review in the military parade, trying to ‘outmarch’ one another as the best among Bikol’s finest.

Even before the break of dawn, the libod, the all-purpose backyard (playground-garden-watering hole-et al) wakes up to the choral agony of pigs being slaughtered. The neighborhood simmers all day with endless cooking. Large pots sit forever in makeshift stoves in the libod that has become an open-air kitchen. The kusineros, usually relatives from nearby towns, never fail to prepare the best rice cake in a hundred different ways: ibos, latik, suman, aroyo, binotong, binamban, and puto. Homes welcome visitors with familiar warmth and a kingly feast. The table is a cornucopia of fiesta fare: lechon, crabs, prawns, embutido, lumpia, fried chicken, gulay na natong, gulay na sili, chop suey, buko salad, maja blanca, buko salad, and leche flan. And the host family, forever glad and grateful that the visitors have enjoyed their time, gives them a patos or pabalon of choice food to take home. This, after all, is all for Ina; whatever ‘little’ that can be prepared must be prepared, so that ‘a little something can be offered to visitors’ who are, in the first place, Ina’s visitors.

The Bikolnon do all this for Ina. Anything for her they will do, even if this means using up all their savings or borrowing money from friends. As patiently as they fill up their bamboo or coconut shell banks to save for the fiesta, so do they inch their way through the crowds of the almost month-long festivities, if only to catch a glimpse of their Ina and fall upon her loving gaze.

Toward the end of the festivities, at a dawn procession, an all-female retinue carries the image around the city streets. Barefoot, they take time to be with this one blessed among them, and who, otherwise, is carried only by the all-male voyadores. Later in the afternoon, the great bells of the cathedral announce the procession bringing Ina back to her shrine. The voyadores, now drunk to numb themselves from the scorching street heat and the human odor, lift her up on their shoulders. As they move out and head toward the Naga river, they become a wave – or waves – in the sea of humanity. Fulfilling a panata, begging for some grace, or doing penance for their sins, they jostle their way to the carroza, as close as possible to their Ina, to touch even just the helm of her garment or grab a piece of the adornments now made sacred by her presence.

Finally, just in time for the high tide, the procession reaches the riverbank. The pagoda, the brightly festooned barge, receives Ina for the Sakay. Amid the shouts of Viva la Virgen! Viva! and the strains of …Patrona del Bicol Gran Madre de Dios/ Se siempre la Reina de nuestra region…, the voyadores row the bancas that lead the fluvial parade upriver. With every Viva la Virgen!, each man, woman, and child seems to cry out with all his heart Mother! Mother! The river becomes a sea of colorful tapestry as confetti falls, banners and blue and white balloons fly, and handkerchiefs wave when Ina passes by. Mothers, as if by instinct, dip the young ones in the river or wash them with the now-sacred – or ‘re-sanctified’ – water. What a moving expression of faith indeed!

As dusk sets in, the lighted candles along the riverbanks float like tongues of fire in the growing darkness. As the pagoda docks by the basilica, the jubilant pealing of bells greets Ina back to her home. Her children, now gathered for Mass, intone the Angelus in a thousand voices that have become one.

Another fiesta is over. Having celebrated, and thanked her for a bountiful harvest, safety from visiting typhoons, and blessings for the family, Ina’s sons and daughters go back to the bigger world, the world of the everyday, assured of a Mother’s ever-present hand.

Inang mamomoton ika ang buhay
Ako rangahon mo sa kamunduan
Ina burabod ka ning kaogmahan
Sa taid mo kaginhawahan

Ina kung ako man parakasala
Sa Dios hagada man ang pagkaherak
Kaya dakula man ang kasakitan
Ogma ang puso ko ngonyan
Kaya daing ibang inaasahan
Kundi ika Inang Mahal

Typhoons may come and go but Ina will always be there as her children’s paraampon, parasurog, and pararanga. She will be there to listen to their joys and pains, and hopes and worries. She will be there to stand by them in their dreams and failings. She will be there to assure them of her motherly presence. Thus, the young man asking for the ‘right woman’ -- or for strength in his chosen vocation in the seminary – will continue to pray at her altar. The seriously ill patient will be cured of his malady as he sleeps on Ina’s sacred manto generously loaned to his family by the good nuns at the shrine and carefully spread on his hospital bed. Pilgrims from afar will continue to flock to her altar on Saturdays, murmuring prayers, burning candles, and dipping their fingers in the oil lamps: children coming home to their Mother, eager to tell her their stories.

And this is the grace that Bikol enjoys: the glory of the Son whom the Mother carries in her arms and offers to every Bikolnon shines forth on the land, keeping it safe from typhoons of every kind.

Resuene vibrante el himno de amor
Que entona tu pueblo congrata emocion
Patrona del Bicol Gran Madre de Dios
Se siempre la Reina de nuestra region

Written as final paper for the Philippine Culture Class under Dr Doreen Fernandez, Loyola House of Studies, Ateneo de Manila, October 1999.

DAGOS PO: welcome!

kurab: blaze. sili: chillipeppers.

i come from a region of fire.
where we plant and tend fire.
cook and eat fire.
grow up and live
in the shadow of mountains
that bear fire
in their belly.

on these pages
i think fire
i share fire
i pRay with fire

thoughts and prayers
for hot and spicy days