When I volunteered to help out in a retreat to be held in Culion, it was only because I wanted to see the beauty of the place which I originally discovered through a friend’s photos of the Island during his stay. I did not know that it was once a Leper Colony. I know that a place exists but I did not connect the two. For me, I wanted to go because I wanted to experience first hand and see with my eyes if truly the beauty I saw on the photos is real.
It was my first time, after a long time, to spend holy week outside of my sacred space in Sacred Heart Novitiate. I had separation anxieties prior to the trip, I had second thoughts of going. But off I went. Excited of what God has in store for me on this trip. The grace I asked before I went was the grace to rediscover HIM anew.
On our way to the Island, still far from reaching the shores of Culion, someone pointed to the large Eagle image set on the landscape of Culion Island.
I learned that this huge stone formation was made by the patients themselves as a great symbol of gratitude to the medical community who has helped them all these years and found cure for their disease. On top of this Eagle is a big statue of Jesus with his hands reaching out, welcoming the people coming to Culion.
On the other side of the island, sharing an equal prominence with “Agila” is the big red structure of the Immaculate Conception Parish of Culion. This was part of the fortress built by the Spaniards in the 16th century to protect it against outside forces.
Adjacent to the Church building and fronting the Culion waters is the lighthouse, which also serves as a view deck where one can marvel at the coastline of Culion Island and the most magnificent sunrise and moonrise one can behold. I’ve spent a lot of times here in the day and in the evening. You can see the serenity and calmness of the sea from up here. Sometimes, you don’t need to think of anything when you look at the sea. It just gives you a relaxing and calming feeling; it feels like your heartbeat is synchronizing itself to the calming rhythm of the waves.
Then there is the sunrise and moonrise, which treat the visitors of Culion to a very special dramatic show that happens daily. And in the evening, the skies is clothed with its vast collection of stars. It gives a great contrast to the blackness of the sea.
There are a lot of ways to appreciate the beauty of Culion. One, as I have mentioned is from the view deck of the light house. The other one is through the “Agila”, a 200+ steps that allows you to view Culion from above. One can also make the stations of the cross, which leads to the top, to the big statue of Jesus. But, the best way for me, would still be “Pulang Lupa.”
Pulang Lupa is a magical place for me. It is a one long stretch of path on top of connecting hills that can serve as a mediation haven. I’ve been here twice. I love the place because it allowed me to live my dream from childhood to walk on top of the hills like Maria in the “Sound of Music.” On top, you can see Culion Island and its surrounding islands. The ambiance up here is so serene. You can only hear the chirping of the birds, the nuances of the forest, sometimes, the passing of a motorboat, but in most cases, the silence is deafening that it calms you. I was in awe one morning that we went here because right before my eyes, I saw the sun rose from the horizon. Truly, truly magical.
Through the beauty of creation, I discovered God anew. And as though these were not enough, God introduced himself to me through the history of Culion.
I learned from the people I encountered that it was only in 1999 that the cure for leprosy was found. Since its establishment in 1902 as a Leper Colony, people diagnosed with leprosy were isolated from the rest of the world and sent here in Culion to live. For so many years, they were treated as outcasts of the society, forgotten, and brought to exile. The streets I walked on, the school, the church--- these sheltered them. They have walked this street, they have prayed in this church, seated on this pew, studied in this school, etc. Their stories were real. They were real. And this island became their sanctuary from the prejudices of the world, from the discrimination of those from the outside.
Their lives were not easy. They were forced to be separated from their loved ones, for some time, they were segregated and could not live normally as social beings. But as time went by, the hearts of these men and women prevailed. In the end, they were able to live normal lives, though may not fully but definitely better than the first time they were sent here.
I was also amazed with the countless people who also willingly devoted their time and energies to the patients. The medical practitioners who continuously strove to find cure for the disease, the volunteers who took care of the patients, the philanthropic institutions who helped fund the needs of the Lepers, the religious nuns and priests who did not just provide for the spiritual needs of the patients but also helped in taking care of them and providing support. Countless names, countless faces. But in the end, their efforts paid off because after a century of trial and error, cure for this disease was discovered and patients began to get well and get healed.
I do not know if the history of the place, the context of this place, could be the reason I find the residents welcoming, humble, simple folks. I am surprised every time a resident will greet me “good morning” when they see me walking in the street. Or how they will extend their assistance to me when I need it, even in small matters. I easily felt at home here. I feel like I belong in this place. It seems like you could trust any one you encounter. Life here is so simple and yet so meaningful and rich.
I cannot really sum up my experience here in Culion in just one paragraph. It is hard to describe something so beautiful especially if you know that even the word beautiful is not enough. This island is special because of its natural wonders, its people, its story. Until now it brings me to chills to just realize that this Island of Culion became a haven for healing, sanctuary for the outcasts. The magic of this place is that. It accepted what the rest of the world rejected. And so, I could not help but relate the Island of Culion to the Kingdom of God. In my theology class, I learned and I taught my students that the Kingdom of God is where justice, peace and compassion reign. Here in Culion, these kingdom values are alive and lived out by the people. Here in Culion, I am convinced God lives. God is present. God reigns.
During my last remaining days in Culion, I made it a point to store up a lot of wonderful memories of the place, wonderful memories of people, wonderful memories of my encounters with God; so that when I go back to the world, I have Culion to serve as fortress for me, a sanctuary for me, a proof for me that hope reigns, love reigns, God reigns.
I left Culion with a heavy heart today. Each step away from its shores was difficult. I am going back to the “real world”, as one retreatant termed it. But for me, Culion Island is as real as the place I am going back to. I just find consolation in the thought that one day, I will sail back again to Culion to experience its warmth, love, and beauty.