FIRE IN MY HEART

- by Gloria S. Canama

The fire which is in the sun, the fire which is in the earth,
that fire is in my own heart.” Upanishad

My childhood dream was always to be a religious sister. This dream seed must have been sown by the Columban missionaries, sisters and priests, who were my educators  and friends from my early years.  I was baptized by the late Columban Fr. Paul Cooney.

Gloria Canama in Pakistan
 I tried to follow my childhood dream and joined the Daughters of the Assumption in Davao City, Philippines two years after I graduated college.  I am the eldest of the family and  my five siblings were still studying with limited financial resources.  My mother’s strong resistance,   the expected cultural family obligation didn’t stop me from leaving home to answer God’s call. I was happy and always grateful for my life with the sisters, but  it wasn’t not  for me. After  two years, I made the difficult decision to leave. The long hours of bus-journey back home was  spent crying and crying. I was fighting with God whom I felt abandoned me.  Amazingly when the tears and strong emotions subsided, there was peace within me.  Was it a similar  experience  of the apostles  when Jesus calmed the storm? There was this inner knowing of  Jesus  very present and   paining with me as I left the community I had come to love. In my life’s journey, I always go back to that faith experience, of  God’s  abiding presence and  assuring love in my moment of desolation and confusion.

More years of searching  God’s will, of how to respond the persistent call within, of how to live meaningful way of life. The Spirit who kept  the fire burning in my whole being, eventually led me to PCLM (Philippine Catholic Lay Missionaries), the pioneering missionary group of the laity founded by the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers. It was May 1986 when I left again my family and my teaching job. This time, there was no turning back.  Since then,  I have lived and offered myself  as a  lay missionary, my act of gratitude to the Source of all Life.  Years with PCLM affirmed and strengthened my  lay missionary vocation. By baptism am called to follow and participate the mission of Jesus. It was also my baptism of fire. I literally crossed rivers, seas and mountains,  had same simple meals for days,  had nothing extra to buy gifts on Christmas for my family.  My cup was overflowing. I received more than I’ve given.  I have found my pearl of great price. I’ve found a meaningful way of life and the fire within kept on burning.

Philippines 1990, L-R: Michael Martin, Gloria Canama, Michael McGuire, and Columba Chang
In 1990, I joined Columban lay mission and together with Pilar Tilos, Emma Pabera  formed RP 1 (referring to first LM team from the Philippines). Why chose the Columbans? Partly, it was because of a special affinity with them. Not only had they been significant of my life formation, the Columbans I knew  deeply  inspired me by their commitment and way of mission especially their option with the poor,  their passion for justice and the care of the earth.  There’s deep resonance with my own passion and commitment in life.

We arrived in Lahore on a Mission Sunday. One of those synchronistic moments confirming my yes.  When we experienced difficulties and doubted our decision, the three of us found it helpful to remember   why we came.  Being on  mission is  a gift from God, our magnificat in praxis. All three of us had long connections with Columban missionaries as friends and mentors. Now as Columban lay missionaries, we joined  them as partners,  sharing  Columban life and mission and witnessing a new way of being  church.  Still,  I questioned God. My yes was to  life in mission as lay woman but  only in the Philippines, preferably  in Mindanao where I come from. How could I leave home for three years? Why Pakistan when there are Columban missions in other countries? In hindsight, it’s a blessing  I didn’t know  Columbans were sent on cross-cultural mission. A blessing in disguise that I wasn’t to know beforehand the many restrictions and difficulties we would experience in Pakistan especially as single women.

Over twenty years now since I first set foot on  the  “land of the pure”. My first years in mission had been purifying years.  I came with excitement and confidence. “ I am a woman of experience. I’ve brought with me my faith, my lived-experiences of  working to earn a living and my voluntary Christian community involvement. Moreover, I know the Columbans!”  Learning the language alone was like being back in first grade, struggling and getting excited  when I was able to read the word Lahore in Urdu  script. My first big difficulty was the many don’ts in the culture to women, myself included. What I considered as a simple piece of cloth to cover my head was a  cultural symbol if I am a good woman or not. The late Archbishop Armando Trindade of Lahore, on our first courtesy call to him asked  us, “What are you three women doing here in Pakistan? How can you travel on your own in a very male-dominated society? How do you hope to empower Pakistani women?” We didn’t have the answers and honestly told the Archbishop with the assurance that we’d share with him our mission experiences. We did and in the process gained his trust and support.


Pakistan, Gloria Canama in one of the monthly mass and gathering for the Filipino Community 
While on mission in my own home country, I was working closely with community leaders men and women alike. In Pakistan, I found myself in the midst of women sharing their deep aspirations to be treated with dignity and justice. My years in  the Columban parish of Sheikhupura were very meaningful and  fulfilling, a lived-experience of Jesus’ words “ I have come that you may have life, life to the full.” I left the parish over ten years ago now, yet I continue to be enriched with the continued friendship with some families there and the countless life-giving mission moments. A lasting gift of mission,   a living well  where I continue to draw water of joy, nurturance, strength and hope. On the other hand, I continue to share the pain of  my women friends still carrying  the multiple burdens of being women and of being poor. Many times I wonder if my presence, my journey with them had made a difference. Razia always assured me that I did have an impact in their lives. Many of them have educated not only their sons but also their daughters. Razia’s own daughter is now teacher with her in a village school for the children of brick kiln workers.

Joining the Columbans is a gift and a privilege but not without cost. Partnership in mission, especially 20 years ago was more an ideal, a dream. It took a lot to change attitudes, to be seriously valued as laity on mission and to be integrated in Columban life as partners in mission. Earlier on, LMs were often asked, “What do you do on mission?” There was no easy answer as many of us, if not all joined with no blueprints except the faith and commitment of a disciple to actively participate in the mission of Jesus.

Sometimes, the light within seemed to be flickering, dimming as I struggle to find seeds of hope and meaning in chaotic, worsening situations, locally and globally. A quote from Clarissa Pinkola Estes reasonates with my own experience, “ Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it.”  It was sheer joy to be with Shaina, the 5-yr old daughter who calls herself “madam”. Her laughter was infectious and  her gift, pair of socks gave me was priceless. A precious gift to be part of their lives even as I struggle with my own helplessness. I can partly identify with St. Paul who went through many trying moments  in his missionary journey.   I experienced sickness; deaths of Pilar, Pat and Tanvir; armed robbery in the Columban house, deportation from Karachi airport and the “given” challenges just by being here as woman, lay, part of the minority Christian community in an Islamic country which has been fighting  against terrorism, violence, intolerance and the many forms of poverty and injustice.

Lay Missionaries Aniceta Budiongan, Aurora Luceño, and Gloria Canama visiting the tomb of Pilar Tilos
When I almost gave up this CLM journey, I realized that  the cost to continue is nothing compared to the gifts  I have been lavishly blessed with. I highly value this partnership, this sharing of Columban life and mission. It is indeed a pearl of great price to be part of peoples’ lives - with Pakistanis, with Filipino migrants in Lahore and the whole community of life. For the last fiver years I have worked full-time with the Columban JPIC focusing on ecological  awareness and our ecological calling as members of the earth community. We had  a strong JPIC team in Lahore, with Columban priest Tanvir (Tommy) O’Hanlon and Pakistani layman Aqif Shezad. Slowly, we were gaining momentum with  more positive responses from different groups, including the commission of religious/congregational leaders. The team’s energy and creativity were in it’s height. My own  immersion with the universe story, tilling and caring an organic garden, being inspired by the living witnesses of individuals and groups responding to care Mother Earth, these and daily encounters with life make the fire within flaring forth. Until the sudden death of Fr. Tanvir on the 6th of June 2010.  His death was just over two weeks after another great Columban missionary in Lahore, Fr. Pat McCaffrey died of heart attack. The shock and grief are shared by many.  Tanvir had been a very close companion and partner in mission all my years in Pakistan and  his death pained me to the core.

Two months later, I got news from home that both my parents were confined in the hospital.  How long would I be tested?  How could I bear all these? I cried to my God in the depths of my being. I couldn’t make sense  of the recent happenings. Is it time to go home for good  and be with my ageing parents? Five years ago I wrote in my journal, “I was crying most of the afternoon and night. I woke up the following morning feeling that I’ve risen.” This is still true for me now, even deeper.  In my grief, concern with my ageing parents and own share of insecurity, there’s peace, courage,  hope and gratitude. All is grace. I am not alone in the journey, never had been with my family, Columbans and the widening circle of co-creator friends with the earth community.  It’s a privilege to be involved in ministries that I love and very happy to initiate, to be part of creative relevant responses to changing missionary challenges. There is this inner knowing that there is always enough cosmic grace  not only to continue but to thrive and glow in my missionary journey.  “Only in burning itself that a candle gives light”.

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