A Saunter Experience with God

By Elbert Balbastro

The author is from Oton, Iloilo, Panay. He entered the Columban seminary formation in June 2012. Elbert and Jerry Lohera had their first aggregation as temporary members of the Society of St Columban on 27 June. They are on their two-year First Mission Assignment in Pakistan at the time this article is published.

Elbert reading his commitment, First Aggregation to the Society on 27 June

Life is full of surprises because we have one great God – He who treats us unique and special in every way.

When I left the house on 3 March 2013 for a pilgrimage I carried with me a lot of worries about many things. We were to walk about 168.1 kilometers from Malolos, Bulacan to Manaoag, Pangasinan. I started to feel all those fears and apprehensions in my heart. I asked God for the grace to know Him in the image of every person I met and to guide me in acknowledging my limitations and weaknesses… and to work on them. I knew it was going to be a long walk but what I did not realize was that the entire journey would truly become a life-changing experience for me.

I was not sure how possible the pilgrimage would be considering the following rules: Don’t bring money; don’t introduce yourself as a seminarian unless someone recognizes you; and lastly, beg for you food and a place to stay for the night. It was really a survival experience in five straight days. I felt like the cave of the unknown became so narrow with those rules. I am a man of adventure but I was in doubt with this one. I had never been a beggar all my life and it was going to be a very tough challenge for me.

I and my Chinese partner started to walk at around 6:30am from Malolos Provincial Capitol, enjoying the cool breeze in the air and with excitement in our hearts. We had positive energies. When we reached Apalit, Pampanga at midday we decided to beg for food at a parish office. I was very shy to speak, even to get into their office. When I examined my feelings I realized that I had a lot of pride within me, so much so that if I beg, it would strike my ego. And our first attempt was an outright rejection.

As I continued begging, a lady told me, “Look at you, you got a big body and you’re asking for food? Why don’t you work instead?” We were rejected a number of times as we entered different parishes, bakeries and stores simply because we didn’t look like beggars. While figuring out what we were to do next, another seminarian arrived. All of a sudden, I forgot what I was feeling. I was happy to see our brother! He was tired and hungry so we shared with him a piece of bread that my partner got from begging earlier.

We didn’t notice that two beggars (a man and a woman) came and sat beside us. I asked them where we could find a good place to rest for the night. The woman didn’t seem to know anything because she is staying at her daughter’s house but I was surprised when she said, “If only the house is big enough to accommodate you, I can bring you there”.

She asked if I had eaten lunch and I said no. She opened her bag and revealing 2 packs of biscuits she offered me, “Take this one to supplement your hunger. I will take the other one for my dinner.” I was having a second thought of taking the offer because she’ll need it, if not today maybe the following days. She replied, “It’s okay. Tomorrow is another day and I’m sure God will provide when I beg for food tomorrow.” She expressed her support and offered prayers for us. Her unconditional act of kindness touched the deepest core of my being. In her poverty, begging to survive, she was still willing to share what she had.

The male beggar shared that he has no family to live with so he has lived on the streets for a long time. He invited us to his place near the bakeshop but we lost him when we decided to go to the police station to ask for a place to stay.

Those moments really taught me that beggars are the most accommodating people in my entire journey (at least for now). They are the people who lack many things in life but are willing to offer help to others. Those two beggars served as my inspiration to continue… even until now, to pursue my journey in life. I really found Jesus in their presence. God has never stopped to astound me.

Rejected at the police station, NBI office, churches and a military camp, we ended up spending the night at the plaza. It was almost 8:00pm. One of my companions spent the 80 pesos, which the lady church worker gave us, to buy fishballs for the three of us. The vendor warned us that it was not so safe to stay in the plaza so we planned to take turns in sleeping. As it happened, I could hardly sleep because of the noise coming from all over the place – loud music, vehicles passing by, people and others. Fear and negative thoughts overcame me. That was the worst sleep I ever had in my whole life! I said my night prayer and talked to God, “This is tough Lord, really tough. I can barely contain myself, but I trust in you.” I held on to my rosary for the rest of the night.

In the following days, God's angels were sent to us in the form of a seminarian, an ambulance driver, a sari-sari store owner, a church worker and a nun, a fruit-bearing tree and a 100-peso bill which I just saw flying in the sky! The warmth and kindness of these people were consolation enough for us and slowly healed the pain within.

The encounter we had with a labandera in Gerona, Tarlac was one of these inspiring experiences. While sharing among ourselves our experiences and hardships in the pilgrimage, an old lady sat beside us and listened to our stories. After a while she took out 25 pesos from her pocket, a portion of what she earned in a day’s work as a laundry woman and gave it to me. She believed and trusted us even though we were new to the place. What struck me most was the thought that being the breadwinner and a mother of seven, she did not hesitate to share what she had that day. I was amazed at her generosity and surrendering heart, the kind that trusts in God and is not doubtful. That day, my definition of generosity changed.

Indeed God has his own way of guiding us in our journey. I never imagined how the engraved names on the bridges welcoming us to different towns would mean so much to me! These were signs of our achievement, of how far we have gone in our pilgrimage. These encouraged us all the more to reach our destination. Hunger, tiredness and the distractions around were nothing compared to that sense of happiness and being blessed. We could only thank Him for all of these.

Another challenge came to me when my left foot became swollen and the pain started to lessen my courage to finish the pilgrimage. I had two blisters and each step I took crushed my whole body. With the little positivity left in me, I went on. A question came to my mind, “Why do I need to do this pilgrimage?” I couldn’t find a concrete answer but instead, everything that happened in the journey started to flashback one by one. That lady beggar who told me, “I believe in you, Brother” hit my core. Amidst all the physical and emotional pain, those words of encouragement had pushed me to continue. I realized that the stories in the bible started to unfold right before my eyes. I remembered the poor widow in the Gospel who gave her last penny to the church. It was an indescribable feeling to experience that this present modern world has this woman.

I slept on top of a table feeling the pain in my foot but at the same time happy because I saw the other faces of God in this journey. I encountered Him in the poor. I slept with a peaceful heart and offered to God my deepest appreciation to all the people we met. It was a very intimate personal prayer expressing all the emotions I had.

On the 5th day when we crossed the last bridge and saw the kampanario, I said to myself, “This is it!” I walked faster, ignoring the pain in my foot. We arrived at the Minor Basilica of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary of Manaoag in Pangasinan at 9:40 am. FINALLY!

Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary of Manaoag [Wikipedia]

I couldn’t describe how I felt. I was so filled with mixed emotions – happy, tired, excited, hungry, etc. We prayed and asked the guidance of Our Lady as we also prayed for our two other brothers who were also having their pilgrimage at that time.

We ate after attending mass. One of my companions led the prayer and it touched me most when he prayed for those who rejected us. It was a valuable act of forgiveness.

God’s goodness was manifested in many ways. Jesus revealed himself in every person we met, in every situation we encountered, and in every town that we passed by in our pilgrimage. It was truly a life-changing experience for me and I will carry the insights and lessons I’ve learned for as long as I live.

I could still remember the question our formator asked before the pilgrimage: “HOW DO YOU SEE CHRIST?” No answer was given. Now I think I have found the answer. I just need to open my eyes and see God in other people. In every step we take and in every decision we make as we go through life’s journey, it’s important that we remain strong in our determination and faith, an opportunity for us to become a better person.

It is easy to do good things when it is seen, applauded, acknowledged or rewarded. But goodness is about doing things in accordance to God’s will, whether in public or in private, with or without labels.

Just like in the stories and movies, every journey creates a picture of experiences worth remembering. In my case, I’m keeping these images with me forever. God is great!

Elbert with Frs Raymond Husband and Finbar Maxwell, and co-seminarians
Columban House of Studies, 2013