MONTREAL: Sr. Mary John Mananzan’s Radical Enlightenment
On spiritual asphyxiation, women’s empowerment and Duterte’s trolls
By Joyce Valbuena
“When you just do everything routinely and you think you’re okay but you’re not okay, then you are just going through the motion. That happens to us when we have no spirit in what we are doing – we are apathetic, depressed and burnout. We go in the motion but there is no joy, no life, no meaning as if there is a cloud in your head,” says Sr. Mary John Mananzan, an activist-feminist nun and is one of the rare radical Catholics in the Philippines.
Last March 11, members of Pinay and Migrante in Montreal had a close encounter with the very outspoken Sr. Mary John in a community forum held at the Immigrant Workers’ Centre. A lot has been written about her outstanding work in the women’s movement but listening to her personal reflections is a lot more stirring.
Sr. Mary John, now 79 years old, has given birth to a lot of women-centered programs including the Institute of Women’s Studies, the Women’s Crisis Center, as well as the militant Philippine women’s organization, GABRIELA.
In an hour and a half of presentation on “Spiritual Vitality”, she overwhelmed the audience by her humility as she unfolded some of her enormous achievements in women’s rights advocacy and her charities.
Sr. Mary John’s presentation started with a topic about asphyxiation. “Yun para bang sinasakal? (As if you were suffocated),” she exclaimed in Tagalog. By definition, asphyxiation is when the blood cells don’t deliver oxygen to the body which results in impairment in the body and brain that could lead to death.
Sr. Mary John said she became curious about the word asphyxiation the first time she read about it from a book about priests and nuns having nervous breakdown. In her personal reflection, “The human spirit also needs to breathe air. When there is insufficient amount of air, our spirit suffocates and our spirit dies. We need to know the symptoms of spiritual asphyxiation.” She added that even religious people suffer from that and it is important for activists to be aware of it.
According to Sr. Mary John, symptoms of spiritual asphyxiation include being rigid, inflexible, easily hurt, restless and sensitive. Spiritually asphyxiated people have lots of guilt feelings, full of grudges, lack of interest, bitter, vindictive, quarrelsome, irritable and impatient.
For instance, she said that when you are spiritually asphyxiated, you take everything so seriously. “Akala mo kung sino kang Cleopatra (You think you are Cleopatra). Everything is so serious like you are carrying the whole weight of the world on your shoulder. And nobody can joke with you. You become joyless. And then you become judgmental and self-righteous.” She said that in the convent, for instance, there are nuns who have lots of complaints on everybody. She even joked to one of them, “Sister, the problem is that you think you’re always right, and that is what is wrong with you.”
Opposite to spiritual asphyxiation is spiritual vitality or when someone has lively interest in everything. “Everything interests you. You want to know everything on what happened. You have a passion. There is a cause that you want to live and die for. Like us our passion is the empowerment of women,” she eagerly explained.
Sr. Mary John shared example characteristics of people who are spiritually vital – zealous, energized, inspiring, joyful, natural, sincere, accepting and understanding. They are spontaneous, humorous, benevolent and have zest for life.
People who are spiritually vital are also calm and have serenity. “The quietest part of the storm is the eye of the storm. That’s why in the Indian Ocean when there’s storm, the ship is in the middle of the ocean. When we are agitated, we need to get into the center of ourselves. Meditation is good for our health and spirit – for Christians, Catholics, Buddhists, Muslims, or whatever religion,” she explained that meditation or praying need not be one hour long or inside the Church. “You can just sit and close your eyes for 10 minutes to meditate. You just need to go inside you,” she added.
“Even activists need to have inner peace so we can be stronger in fighting the system,” she also added.
Sr. Mary John also shared her perception of Pope Francis, “One of the most beautiful things I love about Pope Francis is when he said that the duty of the Church is not to pronounce dogmatic or moral statements. The task of the Church is to heal wounds and warm the hearts of the people. His whole way is radical Christian. But he is not radical Christian in doctrine. He is radically Christian in the way he acts, he loves and simplicity in his life.”
Sr. Mary John concluded, “When we are spiritually alive it means we are living in God. We are passionate, creative and enthusiastic people. We know how to grieve and forgive. Rather than becoming sour and bitter, our hearts are filled with gratitude. Most importantly is that we have a great inner peace which nothing and no one can take away from us.”
Sr. Mary John also shared some of her thoughts about President Duterte. “He focuses on one thing – the drug war – because in Davao he considers it as his legacy of success. Whether it is true or not, it became his obsession,” she clarified his objection to extrajudicial killings in the Philippines.
She added, “What is happening now is like martial law without declaration. For example, passing death penalty law for the third time. Those who voted against it were removed from their position. Where is democracy in that? He even publicly said that if you vote against death penalty you will be dead.”
Sr. Mary John said she got half a million bashing from the supporters of Duterte when she went and talked at the Libingan ng mga Bayani (Heroes Cemetery) to protest Marcos’s burial there. However, she said she was inspired by the presence of the millennials (youth) who have shown commitment to say never again to Martial Law.
“But I have to credit President Duterte for initiating the peace talks and designating progressive cabinet members such as Judy Taguiwalo who is also a feminist,” Sr. Mary John said as a final remark before signing autographs on her books.
The forum was organized by Migrante Quebec, PINAY, Filipino Parents Support Group, and supported by the Centre for Philippine Concerns (CAP-CPC). Sr. Mary John was visiting Montreal at the invitation of Development and Peace where she spoke in a conference. She also joined the International Women’s Day celebration and demonstration in Montreal last March 8.