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Saturday, November 12, 2005

For my babaylan sisters:

On Community Wisdom
(In answer to the question: what is the nature of “spiritual calling”?)
The Other Side, May-June 2000

As a Filipina, I’ve always understood the concept of spiritual call as directly related to the needs of one’s community. What here in the West is seen as “discerning one’s call” would be understood in the Philippines as a process of learning what one individual, as a member of the community, could and must offer back to it. In such a context, the whole notion of answering the spiritual call becomes a question of “putting one’s gift back in circulation.” In Filipino culture, this is spiritually rooted in the practice of gift-giving, which reflects the belief that we own nothing at all.

We believe that who we are in our innermost being, our loob, is never separate from our interconnectedness with our fellow human beings and our connection with creation and its Creator. Gift-giving, then, is the natural result of this profound awareness, called pakikiramdam. What is given to us by nature, by God, by our ancestors and spiritual guides must be given back in a spirit of gratitude, generosity and humility. This reciprocity – the process of sustaining God’s gifts by circulating them – creates and nurtures our relationship with our fellow beings, with God, with nature, and with our ancestors.

If you visit a Filipino home and happen to admire an object there, your host will most likely offer it as a gift without thinking twice. Our practice of offering an unexpected visitor a place at the dinner table reflects the practice of sharing the bounty of one’s table with everyone. Even time is not our own to manage. Friends or visitors who appear with no agreed-upon appointment are an opportunity to be with another who might need us.

This exchange of gifts goes much deeper than obligatory reciprocity. It is rooted in a sense of not wanting or needing to hold onto things and ideas that might get in the way of the life we share with others. In that cultural framework, hearing God’s call centers on understanding how we as individuals fit into the shared life of the community.

This sense of call doesn’t spring from a lack of fulfillment in one’s current life or a sense of spiritual emptiness. Nor does it arise out of a dark night of the soul or an emotional altar call. Instead, the Filipino idea of “putting God’s gifts back in circulation” is an ongoing practice that is measured by the generosity of one’s spirit, the generosity of attention we are willing to give each other, the sharing of our possessions, and the sharing of our suffering.

Only when I came to the United States did my experience confirm how deeply these values were rooted in my daily life. When I first arrived, I thought of myself as “bearing gifts.” I believed that if God willed that I come here, I must have some gifts to share.

Yet for many years, I was frustrated. I felt that no one wanted my gifts, and in many ways, I wasn’t certain what they were anymore. I retreated and hid them away in a closet.

Now I see more clearly what gifts I am able to offer here, and they are gifts rooted in Filipino cultural values. The capacity for pakikipagkapwa-tao and pakikiramdam, for instance, now surfaces in Western discourse as values of “interdependence” or “interconnectedness.” However compromised and imperfect our practice of these values has been as we’ve negotiated life in different cultures, they are something we have always known.

My cultural background has also helped me to easily experience the miraculous presence of God everyday. A Catholic priest once commented to me that Filipino Catholics may not understand theology, but they are devout worshippers. I was taught to experience the sacredness of daily life. The ability to articulate my theological beliefs was not a priority.

Those from other nations often describe Filipinos as “happy people.” They say our “gross national happiness” is high even though our “gross national product” is low. We laugh at this joke, but it reflects a gift that we offer to more materially rich cultures. As a people, we know the sadness of material poverty. Sometimes it causes us to tiptoe lightly around the edges of despair. Yet under that despair runs a river of irrepressible joy, because we have learned to be grateful for all we have been given, hopeful for what we can become.

At the root of that joy is this understanding of spiritual call as putting God’s gifts back into circulation. It is the conviction that we do now own anything- and that to let go and give away what we have in the material and nonmaterial sense if perhaps the greatest privilege any of us have.

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