The gospel from last Sunday’s service still resonates in my head. Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem, judgment, the Last Supper, His suffering and death on the cross – it’s a story I already know by heart and no matter how many times I’ve read/heard it, my heart breaks every single time. This inspired me to blog today. I have been meaning to write about this place for a long time but I always end up writing something that I feel too personal to share. Well, I guess, there’s no other way.
Flashback to 2007 (whew, that was eight years ago?!). I was on my last year in college, doing my thesis then and was introduced to this secluded place located on a mountaintop. In there, I was told, is a piece of the True Cross (a term that refers to parts of the actual cross on which Jesus was crucified). I was like, how did it happen without everyone knowing about it? I did not know such a place exists, even the mere fact that Christ’s cross (or pieces of it) were just somewhere out there.
Relic of the True Cross
History has it that St. Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, recovered three crosses that was said to be of Jesus’ and the two thieves. To find which one was Jesus’, they brought a sick woman that got healed after touching one of the crosses, thus identifying the True Cross. On a later timeline, the cross has been divided among churches in Europe. And with the advent of closing down of a couple of churches/monasteries/convents, one of the fragments needed to find a new home.
On World Youth Day 2005, Fr. Archie, a Filipino priest and founder of a monastic community, met Msgr. Volker Bauer from the Diocese of Essen in Germany. He passed the torch to Fr. Archie to become the new custodian of the relic, making it the only fragment of the True Cross in the Philippines and the whole of Asia as well.
Come 2007, the relic was officially housed in the Servants of the Risen Christ’s humble chapel in Monasterio de Tarlac.
Visit to the Monastery
One Saturday (of 2007), off we went to San Jose, Tarlac, on a mountain in Barangay Lubigan to be specific. The ride took about 2 to 3 hours from Manila. Following a steep concrete road that snakes up to the mountain, we reached the monastic community of the Servants of the Risen Christ. Everywhere, as far as the eyes could see, was all green except for that small portion of a plaza bordered with a little beige church and a dormitory the monks often refer to as the refectory.
We arrived just in time for the 10AM mass. Gregorian chant was being played and I got to be honest that it was a little hair-raising. Upon entering the chapel, we were handed veils to cover our head and I was, fortunately/unfortunately, picked to do the second reading. Even with a handful of parishioners (I think we were less than 20 then), my stage fright got the best of me. And when the mass started, there were no mics. Of course, there’s only a few of us. Of course, the chapel is so small, you don’t need one. But it was me, a soft-spoken, anxious little girl who is always afraid of attention. I walked my way up to the platform and miraculously finished the reading with everyone hearing my voice – loud and clear, no shaking but still with very cold hands. :p
As the priest finishes the service, he mentioned, “You are here not by coincidence, but for a reason”. That kinda struck me in the head and in the heart. I have never felt so much blessed.
When, the mass ended, we were invited to venerate the silver gilded reliquary that nestles at the bottom of the altar. We only got to see and touch the box because for some obvious reasons, the relic cannot be exposed. However, the public can get to see a glimpse of it on two days every year – on its anniversary in the monastery at January 30 and during the Feast of the Holy Cross on September 14.
Right after that, we were taken to a mini tour of the place. We checked out the conical roofed kiosk where visitors can dine, hangout or simply admire the breathtaking view before them.
Following the steps will lead one to a group of small houses they called hermitage houses. This area is supposedly off-limits to the public but the houses are available for those who want to retreat.
On the kiosk’s left is a medieval inspired building that serves as the prior/founder’s home.
If there’s one thing that catches one’s attention first when visiting this place, it would be the 9m tall Christ the Redeemer sculpture.
From the sculpture, we had a glimpse of a castle-looking yellow house that I later found out as the home of the contemplative nuns.
After that, we were invited to the refectory for a hearty lunch with the monks or fraters (that’s what they prefer).
Blessed Beyond Compare: Experience with the SRC Community
A month passed after my first visit, I returned to the monastery for the Feast of the Holy Cross and finally got to see the relic in the flesh. It’s true; it’s as small as a matchbox. And with the Vatican seal on it, you barely get to see where is what.
It was also that day that I was introduced to one of the nuns, who eventually became a family friend. She was very encouraging that I open my door to becoming a nun.
Weeks and months went by and I found myself coming back again and again. There was even a time that a friend and I stayed in one of the hermitage houses and privileged enough to join the community in their early morning prayer. As we were staying on the lower (and other) end of the monastery, we climbed the steps to the chapel at around 3 or 4-ish. There were no lights everywhere and when we reached the plaza, the Gregorian chant was on play giving us shivers. The monks arrived in their usual blue dress but this time, covered their heads with the dress’ hood. After the prayer in the chapel, we roamed around the compound while praying the rosary. It was an amazing experience, not to mention, spiritually fulfilling.
Sembreak came and as a part of my research, I had to stay in the convent and monastery for a couple of days conducting interviews, doing site inventory/analysis, the works. Through that short time, I learned and realized a lot of things – that I could live simply. My mornings at the convent were spent swinging by the adoration chapel and helping the volunteers with the altar arrangements. At noon time, we’d lead the prayer in the community and on afternoons, we got to mingle with our neighbors – kids playing outside, parents, townsfolk. The experience was overwhelming that I eventually became so attached to it and considered joining the community.
That’s me circa 2007 and one of my friends, Sor Teresa during “field work”
The following term, I finished my thesis and graduated college and yet, I kept on coming back to the monastery, the church, the convent. And although things didn’t work out as what I thought it would be (I flew to Dubai and getting married soon), this monastic community and that chapel will always be a special part of me.
Every time I go home to the Philippines, I almost always make sure that I get to visit Monasterio de Tarlac. A lot of it has changed since the first time I set foot on it but nevertheless, I still love it. I hope they get to build the basilica at the soonest as the number of pilgrims has gone up significantly.
The monastery is open to everyone everyday except Thursdays. Whether it’s the Lenten season or not, Monasterio de Tarlac is worth visiting and is spiritually uplifting.
Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday/Friday/Saturday – 10:30AM
Sunday – 10:30AM and 3:00PM
How To Get There:
Take NLEX –SCTEX and exit at Hacienda Luisita. Go straight to Tarlac City, there should be a couple of signages that point to the monastery. Head to Barangay Lubigan and follow the road that leads up to the mountain.