When I got sick

by Arlenne B. Villahermosa
Columban Lay Missionary
Philippine Region


Short Rewind

I joined the orientation program of the Columban Lay Mission (CLM) in 2001.  My first mission assignment brought me to Korea for three (3) years.  I returned to Korea for another three (3)-year agreement but after about ten (10) months, I was asked to go back to the Philippines to coordinate the lay mission program in the region for the remaining two (2) years of my contract.  At the time when I was finishing my term in the Philippines, negotiations and processes for Myanmar mission had started.  I put my name forward for the first team that would be sent to Myanmar and fortunately so, I was chosen to be one of the three who were sent on mission to Myanmar in 2008.

Jubilee Celebration in Myanmar
I was then assigned to Myanmar for a period of six (6) years beginning from 1 Oct 2008 to 30 Sept 2014.  I had my mid-term assessment in October 2011 in Thailand together with my teammate.  Our review had to be conducted in Thailand as it was not advisable to do it inside Myanmar.  A member of the CLT came for our personal review and the mid-review of the first Myanmar mission.  The Myanmar Mission did not belong to any region and thus, we were directly under the CLM Central Leadership Team.

After 3 years and four  (4) months on mission in Myanmar, I came back to the Philippines in Feb 2012 for medical reasons with the intention of going back to Myanmar as soon as I finished the medical examinations and corresponding procedures, if needed.  Little did I know that I will be staying in the Philippines for the next five (5) years.  I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and had undergone 3 major operations in a span of one (1) year because of some complications.  I stayed in the hospital for one month during my first 2 surgeries. Because I had to undergo 6 chemotherapy sessions plus the reversal of my colostomy bag, I needed to stay in the Philippines for at least 1 year.  After my chemotherapy sessions and the reversal of my colostomy bag in April 2013, I was advised by my doctors not to go back to Myanmar yet. I will have to continue with my medical check-ups and follow-ups until it can be ascertained that I would be fit again to go to Myanmar.  I was allowed to do work that would not involve so much stress on my part.  As of this writing, I still continue to see my oncologist but not as frequent as before.  Starting the month of April, I only have to see my doctor every 6 months.


When things were done to me

When I was still in a quandary whether I would be allowed to continue as a lay missionary or not if I stayed unfit to do work after 4 months, the Philippine Region took the initiative in asking the General Council that I would be assigned to the region while recovering and had given me the support I will always be grateful for.  It spared me the decision of leaving the CLM as mentioned in the policy.

When I was in Myanmar I was open to the surprises that came to my group in the way we did mission there. I was surprised and later understood (though I may not 100% agree with some of them) the actions the Catholic Church did or did not do in relation to some social, moral and civil issues and in dealing with the government. I remained open in terms of learning new ways the people were doing things, to the simplicity of life (which I enjoyed) – being able to do things with what was available, to do what was required by the government even when I did not fully agree.  However, I was surprised with myself but happy with it, when I remained open to whatever would happen when I was diagnosed with cancer.  More so, when there were complications after the first operation that led to another major operation, in a span of only a little more than a week, which resulted to the attachment of a colostomy bag that I had to carry for a year. I found myself open to leave CLM if asked to do so or to continue with CLM if allowed and to do whatever was available for me or to continue life with where I am at and to die.  I did not have any remorse feelings or feelings of anger, regret or shame.  I took it as part of life.  I can say that I was not negligent in terms of taking care of myself specially my health.  Each day I’d been trying to live my life as if it’s my last.  Now more than ever, I’m aware that the little things I do each day, I do them with joy and gratitude. 

May 2013, Outing in Baguio City
I’m amazed at how I cope with my present health predicament. When I was told by Fr. Pat O’Donoghue, the Regional Director of the Philippine region at that time, that my ministry at that moment was to heal myself, I was put to proper grounding.  I then understood that to be healed was to put my whole self at the mercy of God’s love as He worked in me through the people he sent my way.   To allow myself to stay completely in the process of healing was a way of acknowledging my own limitations and the force greater than me.  Being in that state was also my way of thanking the Columbans for all the care and attention given to me.  I need to be well to be at the service of mission.   It’s God’s grace being able to see that and to do it.  I am able to surrender, i.e. I recognize the limitations, fears and pains I have and being able to go beyond them.  I can only do what I can with what I have; deal with the consequences of my actions. There are many things beyond my control. But I also believe that God sees the bigger scheme of life.  My image of God in Myanmar was one that was vague, mysterious & incomprehensible but ever-present and faithful. Now, I continue to see God as constant and faithful, ever-present in the details and intricacies in the web of life. He is the source of life, in life and is waiting with open arms at the end of the road. 

I am happy that I have joy and gratitude in my heart for all that has been and for all that is.  I find myself thanking God for the love He has for me manifested in and through the people he sent my way (Columban Fathers, LMs, Columban Sisters, family, friends, relatives, Banmaw Diocese, staff, doctors, nurses, aides and others) and the experiences I’ve had.  I’m more conscious and aware of the bounties and blessings in life, more mindful of the decisions I make. Everything that I have does not really belong to me.  There is nothing that I have which does not come with grace.  In my sickness, I was left with not being able to do anything and yet many things had been happening to me, with and  in me. Perhaps, my one-month stay in the hospital and my accommodation at the LM (lay missionary) house had given me enough time and space to watch things happen before me and to me and to reflect on them.  I have become more appreciative in the uniqueness of each person, seeing how each does things differently or similarly, each with her/his own grace and gift.  And how everything and  everyone else is interconnected in this whole wide world!

I’ve found peace with where I am at.  I have become more forgetful in many ways.  I just can’t remember many details now or events of the past.  But I’ve learned to accept that as part of where I am at now and I’m at peace with that too.  I try to help myself in this area by writing things to help me remember.  My energy level is at a different stage now and I have to live with that.  I try to do some exercises, like walking, stretching, slowly doing some aerobics or tai chi, to keep my whole being in tune again.  I’ve noticed changes in my body and in my system.  I thank God I can still give thanks for it and be joyful with it.  Each waking day is a gift for me.  And each morning I pray, “Thank you for the rest last night.  Thank you for the gift of another day.  Thank you for the gift of life.  In everything, grant me the grace to stay with you, to be present always in your presence, to know you more intimately and to love and serve you more dearly each day as I live.”


When I started doing some things again                           

 I’m most grateful to the Columban Society for all the encouragement, inspiration and support given to me and to the lay missionaries.  Being in the Philippine region at this time has given me a better opportunity in understanding where the Columban Society is at present, as opposed to being in Myanmar where access to the outside world and the Columbans was very limited then.  The involvement I have with the Awakening the Dreamer workshop has opened new avenues for me in responding to the call for responsible living and having a caring relationship with the earth – one that is close to my heart.  Given the opportunity to work at the Regional Director’s office, together with all the participations at the area meetings and regional assemblies, has given me a good sense of the region at present times.  Working as manager during the IRMU was a good venue for me to meet and relate with the delegates of other RMUs which has deepened my connection and inter-relation with other members of the Society.  Staying at the LM house and becoming a LMLT member starting July 2013 have provided me good space and time in getting connected and  reconnected again with CLM, the lay missionaries, returned LMs, priests, sisters and  students. 

I continue to believe and be encouraged in the works of the Society and what the members stand for  – the Columban way of being on and doing mission.  I find value and meaning in my present state of being called to mission.  My health condition has prevented me from going back to Myanmar but has instead led me to the call into the leadership role. I am in a different space now than where I was before when I first assumed the role in 2006-08.  I will respond and carry out the responsibilities before me to the best I can with where I am at this time.

I continue to be amazed by the unfolding of events.  Surely, there is a time and place for all that is happening to me, to the Society, to CLM and to all but what I am thankful for is that I’m not alone.  No one is alone. I am called to be on mission with the Society in the mission of Christ.  This, I respond to with the love of Christ I receive in my life.  There is still so much to be done, the role that I will assume come June 2014 is my contribution to the church at this time.  


November 2013, Mindanao, 1st Columban Pilgrimage


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