Thursday, April 4, 2019

Guest Blogger: Thank you by Raquel Villavicencio Balagtas


My Guest Blogger is Raquel Villavicencio Balagtas whose moving personal essay, "Thank You", is part of the book, Finding God: True Stories of Spiritual Encounters (Edited by Cecilia Brainard & Orosa, Anvil 2009).  The book won the Gintong Aklat Award for 2010). Thank you Raquel.

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THANK YOU

by Raquel Villavicencio Balagtas


It was February 2006, two years and five months to date, when I read a pamphlet titled, “How to Avoid Purgatory.” It was given to me by Sister Lily Natividad of the Divine Endeavors Organization (DEO) exactly one year earlier, February 2005, when I went home to Manila.

I said thank you, took it back with me to Charleston, SC, and set it aside, with no intention of reading it at all. I was, still at that time, what I would describe as a “last in, first out Sunday Mass goer,” a cradle Catholic. 

I was cleaning my book shelf, February 2006, when I saw the pamphlet again. I read it and my life has never been the same again. Like St. Augustine, in many ways, I can say to God: “Late have I loved You.”

I was fifty-nine years and two months old, still married to George, but residing separately. I found myself first in New York in 1990. Then I moved to Charleston, SC in 1993 and have been here ever since.

Flashback to February 12, 1987. I was forty-one years old then. We lost our third son, Gino, to an asthma attack at the age of seventeen.We have five sons and it was the third that we had named after George. We did not want to name the first and second sons after George because it was believed to be bad luck if you named your first son after the father. So maybe if it was the third, we were already safe. 

It was a humbling experience for us to lose a son. I realized then that there is Somebody more powerful than us. Although we were never in politics, at that time, we felt that we could do anything we wanted because of the position George had and the “connections” he had. We had a joke then that it was only the U.S. Embassy that we had no control over.

So how could a seventeen-year-old, very intelligent, very athletic, very popular and very religious boy die so suddenly and right before my very eyes? He was graduating from La Salle-Alabang high school and he was going to take up medicine.

That night of February 12, I was still at my Dad’s house working when I got a call from my son Gamby that Gino was having a hard time breathing, that he was having an asthma attack. I was at home in three minutes as we live in the same subdivision. He was in the dining room holding onto the baluster and using his inhaler. He was having labored breathing. 

I held him in my arms and he looked at me and said, “Maaaaaa.” I saw fear in his eyes. He must have felt that this was a different attack, much stronger than the previous ones. I said, pray, my son, pray. He made the Sign of the Cross. My second eldest son, Yuri, and I helped him to the car. He was already gasping for breath although I did not know that he was already dying. By the time we got to Perpetual Help Hospital, and they were wheeling the cart, he was already frothing in the mouth and his body had already stretched and had begun to stiffen due to the lack of oxygen. Still, I did not realize that he could be or that he WAS DYING! 

I was panicking. Where was everybody? Where was my family? George was in Mt. Banahaw taking a forty-day retreat. But where was my father? He was home, of course. I called him to tell him to please pray because Gino was dying. Pray, pray, I told myself. My heart and soul searched for my mother, who had passed away three years earlier. I called on Mary, all the saints in heaven, all of my dead relatives. But they were all so far away. 

Yuri and I, who were then waiting outside the ER, sat in two chairs facing each other. We held hands and with open palms, we started to pray the Our Father really loud, repeatedly, again and again and again.


Flashback to October 3, 1984, Makati Medical Center. My mother, the first death in our immediate family. Oh how I thought that our family was invulnerable! That no one would die prematurely! When we got to the hospital that night, they were already resuscitating her. No more pulse, no more breathing. I did not want my mother to die. Besides, they told us she had about six months, not three weeks! In all my naiveté, I demanded from God that He make her live again. With a firm jaw, as if I could demand it, I said, God, if You don’t make her live, I will never believe in You again. 

God, in all His goodness and kindness, made her live. My father said, “You can all go home now.” We said, “No, we’re staying.” We went outside the room, sat down on a bench and prayed the Rosary. I led the praying. In the third decade of the Rosary, as I was saying the Our Father, the Holy Spirit must have come to me because as I said, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” I realized it was up to God to make her live or die. No amount of childish threat could make her live. I resigned myself to her leaving us. In my heart I then said, if You wish to take her, it’s OK, Lord. 

My aunt then told us to come in for mother was going. We continued the Rosary inside the room, lifting up her soul to God. My father prayed, “Lord, take care of her.” 

Fast forward to Gino, February 12, 1987. It was during the Our Father that I could really feel God was with Gino at that time. The priest who came said that by my faith alone, I had saved my son. Not for one moment did George and I question the will of God for Gino. 

The hospital was immediately filled with classmates, friends, and family. It was his friends that took Gino’s sudden death hard. The mother of Carlos Regner, a teenager who died in a car accident, was also there. Her children were friends with my sons. I said to her, “You feel that Gino is still around?” I could really feel his presence. She said, “You have to let him go.” 

Yuri, Jet (my eldest), and my brother, Lito, drove that night to Mt. Banahaw to pick up George. It was a dangerous place to be driving at night but they had to get him. I told my two sons to tell Dad these exact words, “Tell him I love him very much. That I did the best I could for Gino, but he is now with the Lord.” Our prayer was now focused on getting George safely and getting him home without incident. 

George said that the moment he saw Jet and Yuri, he knew something was wrong. When he arrived, we went straight to the funeral parlor. There George prayed so hard as he had never prayed in his whole life. He knelt down and as he was wiping off the sweat from Gino’s brows (for Gino’s forehead still bore the perspiration caused by his struggle to breathe and live), he prayed, “Lord, you know how much I love you. If it is Your will, please make my son live again.” 

It was actually Gino who inspired George to love and become closer to God. Gino was the first to attend the Life in the Spirit Seminar and George, out of curiosity at what Gino was doing, began to attend the meetings as well. It gradually progressed to other religious events, like daily Mass, praying the Rosary, being a member of the DEO, and doing the 40-day fasting and retreat at Mt. Banahaw.

Although George and I looked like we were taking the death of Gino well, it took a toll on me physically in the weeks and months that followed. It felt as if my flesh were pounded with a “dos por dos” piece of wood. I had my period two weeks earlier, but the night of Gino’s death, I bled again. I could not sit, stand, or do anything without my heart pounding violently. I could hear Gino’s friends telling Gamby not to leave me alone (for Jet and Yuri were picking up George). 

My blood pressure was at 60/40. I told my father I wasn’t going to last one year. I also had made up my mind that life had ended for me, that I would just stay at home and go to the cemetery every day, that there would be no more social life for me from then on. 

The Mass the morning after was very significant for me. In that part of the Mass where the priest says, “Let us give thanks and praise to the Lord,” and we answer, “It is right to give Him thanks and praise” I gave my thanks to God for taking Gino. This is what made us accept his passing. 

I do not remember if George and I cried during the wake. His friends and classmates did all the crying for us. My heart was torn into pieces but I could not cry. An aunt told me to let it out, to cry. She said that when God banished Adam and Eve, He gave them the gift of tears. 

Gino’s death made me aware of a Powerful Being. My consolation is that now I have an angel in heaven who is watching over us and who is preparing a place for us. That was what Gino said to us a few months before he died. That he would be the one among our five sons, who would take care of us when we were old, that we didn’t have to worry about our old age, that he would build us a house right next to his house and that he would give us a driver, a maid, and whatever else we would need.

In all these twenty-one years that he had been gone, God was kind enough to send him to me in my dreams about four to five times. In one dream, I hugged him and said to him, “Ay naku, anak, ang tagal na natin hindi nagkikita (My son, it’s been a long time since we’ve seen each other).” The dream was so real that when I woke up, I thanked God that I had my son even if it was only in a dream. I could actually feel him in my arms and on my chest as I hugged him. 

I was surprised that I continued to live for I was sure that I, too, would die after losing Gino. Did my spiritual life change then? Did God become the center of my life then? I’m afraid, the answer is no. Although God called me three times, (through my Mom, Gino, Dad’s passing) my heart, my mind, and my body still belonged to the world. I had not learned how to really have a relationship with God. My prayers were limited to Masses on Sundays and holidays of obligation, short morning offertory and an act of contrition at night, if I remembered to recite it. No Rosary at all, and sometimes even the required once-a-year Sacrament of Reconciliation I also did not do. 

Fast forward to February 2006. After reading the pamphlet How to Avoid Purgatory, I was determined not to ever, ever commit even the slightest venial sin. I also developed a devotion to the poor souls in purgatory, constantly remembering them and praying for them. I felt such great pity for those souls who could no longer help themselves. “Kawawa naman sila,” I would say to myself. 

I guess I started with the fear of going to Purgatory and from a statement I read that St. Therese of the Little Flower said, “I guarantee you I’m not going to Purgatory.” I was very fearful of committing the littlest infraction; I could not possibly commit the big ones. Oh, how wrong I was! God had to teach me humility by giving me big, big temptations.  

I had also started to read St. Teresa of Avila who became a nun because she wanted to make sure that her soul would be saved. Salvation was her main goal. Her conversion to become one with the Lord came after nineteen years of being in the convent, when she saw the crucified Christ in a different light. “The much wounded Christ” was how she described Him. 


I also read Thomas Merton’s Ascent, then St. Francis Xavier’s Introduction to a Devout Life, St. Catherine of Siena, and the autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux. These first four books fanned the “fire within” me. 

I had no other desire but to know God. I started buying books from Amazon.com and borrowing from the library books on God and everything that could help me to know Him more. I followed what I call my “S to the 4th”, which is: I Seek our Savior in Silence and Solitude. 

I stopped dyeing my hair because to my mind, dyeing one’s hair is vanity, to make one self look young. And I said to myself, there is no vanity in heaven, so I stopped wearing jewelry. I only wore the Benedictine crucifix hanging on a brown string. I also started to wear the Rosary Scapular handmade by the DEO Missionaries. 

More obvious were the socials and the parties I stayed away from. I noticed that if I was in a party for three hours, I wasn’t thinking of God. And I missed thinking of Him. I found the parties loud. I was happier alone at home reading books. 

One of the things I read that really struck me was the line, “God has called us to holiness.” My reaction was that if He did, then it must be doable. WE CAN BE HOLY. I had not realized then that Christ stated this in the Bible, “Be holy as my Father in heaven is holy.” St. Jose Maria Escriva’s teachings focus on how to achieve holiness at home and at the workplace. Also one of the major documents that came out after the Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, explicitly stated the same thing: the
universal call to holiness. 

I started going to the 8:30 a.m. daily Mass at Immaculate Conception Church. When I would come early, I noticed that they would do the Benediction. So I started coming earlier as this was something I was familiar with from St. Scholastica’s and St. Theresa’s College. Coming even earlier than Benediction, I noticed that they were reading a book. I had no idea what it was. 

It was the Morning Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours. It’s the required prayer for all religious. After Vatican II, lay people were encouraged to pray it, too. I fell in love with it. 

I had to sit beside Joe Reyes, who was the friendliest-looking person in church, for me to follow the flipping of the pages. George had sent me his old one and I tried to analyze the contents. The Biblical readings, the non-Biblical readings for the different seasons were like food for my soul. I was determined then that I would encourage other people to do the Liturgy of the Hours and that I would go out of my way to teach it.

Before the Benediction was the praying of the Rosary. So I came to church earlier and earlier so I could do all four: the Rosary, the Benediction, the Liturgy of the Hours, and the Holy Mass. On Sundays, when I would go to the 7:30 Mass, I would so much want to go again to the 11:30 Mass. But I was afraid that people might think I was beginning to be a fanatic. 

Eventually, I was asked to lead the Reading for the day of the Liturgy of the Hours. I then found myself serving at Mass during weekdays.When I was asked by a few people to become a Eucharistic Minister, I said I was not worthy to be one. I felt that I was only worthy to clean the bathroom in the church.



I also started to do the evening prayer in the Adoration Room with the exposed Eucharist which concluded with the Benediction. It eventually became a Holy Hour for me spending time with the Lord. The first thing I would always say is Thank You Lord for calling me. No matter what my problems and heartaches would be during the day, just saying Thank You, and by the grace of God I am here, lifts everything, making me realize that those things really don’t matter. How true are the words to the song, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you, allelu-alleluia.” 

There were nights when I would enter the church and it would be so dark inside. I had to grope for the light switches to turn on the altar lights. And when I would enter the Adoration Room and nobody would be there, oh how my heart would break. I would say, “I am here. I’m so sorry You’re all alone.” Later on I read that where the Eucharist is exposed in Adoration, the room would be filled with all the angels and saints adoring and worshipping God. So I would enter the room and say, “Excuse me, excuse me” to all the saints and angels so I could squeeze myself among them. 

Aside from the many books that my mind was devouring, I would have long telephone calls with George who was guiding my spiritual growth. Coming home again in October of 2006 was so exciting for me because George and I could have endless conversations about God. It was going to be a prayer trip for me being with George, going to Mass with him, praying the Rosary, looking at all his books, and shopping at the Pauline store for more religious books. 

My eldest sister, Linda, was very happy for me. We talked long hours on the phone. She would tell me to go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation once a month. She also told me to say to myself often that GOD LOVES ME. She also told me to remind myself that God is the Creator and we are the creatures. 

Lent was starting and the Immaculate Conception Church invited several priests to hear our confessions. I cried buckets and buckets of tears recalling all my sins. Never again would I offend my Beloved, He who has loved me and cared for me all those sinful years. I would follow Him to the ends of the earth. And if I ever feel Him “going away,” I will put my arms around His waist and tell Him, I go where You go. You cannot leave me now. You have invested too much in me already. 

I turned, too, to the Virgin Mary. I used to pray that if her whole life was a life of prayer, she could help make this day be a day of prayer for me. Each morning, I would say the same line, “Please, make this day be a day of prayer for me.” 

As I continued to grow in spirituality and love for Jesus, I found myself drawn more and more to the Blessed Sacrament. How I wanted to keep Him company. Often, even at work, I would feel Him so alone in the Tabernacle, calling out for us to spend even just a little time in prayer with Him. I found myself wanting so much to serve Him through my fellow parishioners. I began to wish I could become a Special Minister of Holy Communion. In spite of initial imagined rebuffs, I persisted. Silently praying and asking Him for His grace to make me one of His servants. Then it happened. Just as I prayed for, I received my commissioning as an SMHC when George was visiting! It was during Mass and with everyone watching. I felt as though I was reliving my own wedding day. 

I was so looking forward to serving as an SMHC, when someone else walked toward the altar. I could barely hide my disappointment, but I said to myself, “In His time, in His time.” I knew someday, I would be able to serve Him and I would be ready when He called. Then it came. Quietly and gently, but nevertheless so dramatically. George and I were able to join a pilgrimage tour to Turkey with other couples from St. Therese’s and other parishes, under the guidance of Monsignor Lofton. I could hardly believe it. I had the opportunity to serve at Mass right in the Shrine of the house of the Blessed Mother in Ephesus. Throughout the trip itself, I acted as Liturgical coordinator for the group, organizing readers, Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, and servers at the daily Mass. I was
certain the trip was a gift from God, His way of telling me of His love for me. 

I also joined the RCIA (Rites of Christian Initiation in Adults) so I could learn my Catechism all over again. I later on became a core team member and on my second year, last year, 2007, I handled the talk on Prayer. I prepared for months. I was so nervous but my prayer was that the Holy Spirit would touch their hearts, all of their hearts. I wanted everybody to have a transformation. Not one but all. Father Liam, whom I call my sparring twin soul because we also exchanged ideas on spiritual growth and other things, was gracious enough to bring his guitar and we sang, guess what? “Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God.” 

My process of detachment from the world has filtered into even my television viewing habits, which have now been channeled to watching only the news and EWTN (The Eternal Word Television Network of Mother Angelica), which I feel helps to deepen and mature my spirituality. Even my son, Rallee (the youngest), notices. “Ma, are you watching Catholic TV again?” I only smile. 

Soon, God willing, I will be enrolled as Carmelite Tertiary, the first of six years before I become professed. I used to have to travel an hour and a half just to attend meetings. I feel so blessed with the organization of a Carmelite Tertiary group right here in Charleston. I draw so much inspiration from St. Teresa of Avila’s writings. She is definitely one of my role models. 

In grade school, we had to memorize answers to questions like: “Why did God make us?” And we would answer: “God made us to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him so that we may be happy with Him in Heaven.” Faith and religion meant memorizing all the prayers and the answers to the Catechism questions. In high school, our religion textbooks were entitled Quest for Happiness 1 to 4. I don’t remember very much about them. I will assume that what they basically teach is that we, humans, will always look for happiness but that true happiness can only be found in God. I must add NOW, at my stage of spiritual growth, that we can have a taste of that true happiness in this life if we learn to follow the will of God. 

And what is the will of God? The will of God is to love Him with all our minds, all of hearts, and with all of our strength, and to love our neighbor as well. In the process of loving our neighbor, sometimes we have to die to ourselves. As Christ said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it will not bear fruit.” 

I have died many, many times, but with grace from God, and through deep prayers, I have begun to taste unexplainable joy here on earth, in the “land of the living.”

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BIO: Raquel Villavicencio Balagtas attended St. Scholastica’s College and
St. Theresa’s College. She earned a degree in BS Education, major in English and minor in Library Science from the Philippine Women’s University, and a master’s degree in Education, major in English from De La Salle University.

She and George M. Balagtas have five sons: Geoffrey (Jet), Gregory (Yuri), George Jr. (Gino, deceased at age 17), Gabriel (Gamby), and Geraldo (Rallee). They currently have seven grandchildren.

Although she has deviated into the business world, she has always considered herself a teacher, born a teacher, trained as a teacher, and will most probably die as a teacher. She currently teaches theology classes to adults in her parish in Goose Creek, SC.

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Read also:

Guia Lim's piece on Our Lady of Antipolo
Tessa Tan's article on Our Lady of Penafrancia

Tags: #Christianity #Catholic #religion #FindingGod

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