Conversion - Dr. Arnel Banaga Salgado | International Center for Psychological Research, Training and Psychotherapy

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(I keep almost the original version of this essay when I wrote this  piece at 18)

I did not dream to enter the seminary and the thought of becoming a religious missionary priest was the wildest idea that I ever entertained. I always wanted to become a teacher and a writer, but when I achieved such dreams, I could not feel any fulfillment at all.

When I was still young, I read all the time books that my hands would lay into. I frequented all the libraries including the Baguio City library which was situated along the narrow road going to the Baguio Colleges Foundation, just adjacent skating rink of Burnham Park. I was known by the librarians there. Whenever I would be coming in, she would always say, "Armando, we have something new today, would you like to read it?" - I would suddenly snatch the book from her then I would go to my favorite place that was located at the second floor of the building. All the while, I would devour all the pages and immerse with the world that was far away from my reality.

It was a wonderful time when almost everyday I could consume two books in one setting. I read a lot, from any subject matter - general information, science fictions, fiction, classical novels and even 'HOW TO' books. In fact, I lost my youth in the world of books. 

I could not imagine that when I would walk to attend my class with five books on my left hand, I also wore thick eye glasses with a closed neck polo shirts and shiny leather shoes, my classmates would start calling me nerd. I found out later that I was acting like a mutant or an alien being from Mars. I was very old than my age.

After my class, I would all alone along Burnham Park thinking about so many things. Often I would lose myself in fantasy while refreshing the story of the book I had just read, especially science fictions - like Communion and Transformation by Whitney Strieber. I was engaged in scientology, devouring almost all the books written about it. I could have collected so much books that a section of my library was filled with these books, the liked of Carl Sagan, Ruth Montgomery, Richard Larson who started the saga of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock in Star Trek, Stephen Hawking's A brief History of Time, the complete works of Albert Einstein, the books of Steven Weinberg, Dmitri Nanapolous' Theory of everything, Martin Davies Anthropic Universe and Queena Lee's Popular science books which she sent me by mail. Now nobody wanted to read them because my parents were afraid that they would become agnostics (if they read my books) but they changed me the other way around. I never turned into agnosticism although I must admit that I was once a free thinker and an atheist.

I could still remember that when I was doing the research for my first book, my mom kept on pounding the door of my room urging me to go out and eat my dinner but I would ask her to bring coffee instead. She would often say to me, "Son, why do you read such books? You can destroy your faith, ain't it?" Instead of listening, I would dismiss her. "Mom, I don't want to be disturbed now..." I showed her the books on my table which were actually forbidden to be read by the catholic church - like the works of the ex-communicated Roman Catholic Meister Eckart; the rebel Jesuit Priest Pierre Tielhard de Chardin and the atheist (later converted in Catholicism) Albert Camus and C.S. Lewis both Nobel Prize winners in Literature. Before leaving my room, she would remind me, "Son why is it that you read everything except novels, isn't it you want to write novels, why are you not reading one? I have a lot of books in our room, would you like to borrow some?" I just laughed and answered her, "Ok mom, I will borrow soon." I could not imagine myself reading Pilipino romance. Most probably, if I did so, instead of training myself to become a religious missionary priest, I could have joined the film outfit of mother Lily or Carlo Caparas who were producing all sorts of massacre movies and overused trilogies.

In college, one of my literature instructors (I was not a literature major as many thought I was) quoted in the class the words of Elizabeth Gray Vining, "…if you want to become a novelist you should read books of Philosophy or natural history or biography, or whatever subject appeals like science fictions and fantasy stories and fills blank in your mental facilities…" I felt like I was inadequate and underequipped especially with my vocabularies and styles to start my first project, so instead of wasting my time socializing with friends, I spent almost twenty hours a day reading. My eye bugs bulged and my body became weak, although after few months I felt confident to start writing. I was very happy, but I could not laugh with my accomplishments, often I would go to my optometrist to have my eyeglasses changed. It became thicker and thicker every year, that was why I looked older than my age (I was only seventeen that time). I could not tolerate talking too much until I reclusede myself for few months just to write my first book. I believed that F. Sionil Jose did the same thing (but his wife was patient enough to see his needs). To break the monotony of a reclusive life, I entertained myself with the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Ricci, Liszt and Tchaikovsky as I would consume liters of coffee everyday to reduce the viscosity of my blood. I could not imagine my reaction when my brother would play heavy metal on his CD player. His favorite was Metallica band. Often, I would shout at him, "Please turn your CD off." he would answer back, "…Tol, what kind of music you are hearing, it is the music of the funeral…" I just closed tightly my door and the windows then increased the volume of my primitive cassette player and continued writing.

One time, when I was writing, mother would come to my room and said, "Son, you know what? I bought books for you." I was surprised when I saw the books that she brought me. All were popular science book for my heavy reading. I got Cosmos by Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking's Universe by John Boslough; One Two Three Infinity by George Gamow and Horizon by Michael Seeds. Perhaps, she saw the importance of books to me. I was very different actually from any other children - so instead of urging me to go out from my kingdom and play with my friends, she started to tolerate my eccentricity. I lived for so long in solitude until I finished my project.

At seventeen, I was already launching my first book. It was a success. The visitors who mobbed the affair were my classmates, friends and some Baguio-based writers who came merely to eat just to buy a single copy of my book. I enjoyed signing them until I sold almost half of the first edition. I was literally in cloud nine. The first launching was followed by many others, my mom was very happy. From then on, she constantly supplied my library with new books. Few years later, I pursued my graduate studies and started with my teaching career. It was on this time when I started to entertain the idea of becoming a priest.  My mom and most of my friends friends were terrefied. "What…you? Are you kidding? You would like to become a priest?" She knew that I could not endure the training for the priesthood because she was familiar with the strict discipline of the religious formation. In fact, she was once an aspirant of the blue sisters, the SSpS founded by Saint Arnold Jansen. "Son, you are a perfectionist, you want to be alone always, you cannot become a priest…and besides you fling a lot…" 

She was right. 

I became serious once with my relationship with a girl and that was it - she could not even tolerate my eccentricity. So what would I expect with my community when I entered the seminary? I dismissed the idea finally. My inclination with philosophy brought me into trouble because I tend to attribute everything to philosophy. I could remember one time, I asked my ex-girlfriend, "If you will die, what will you become?" - she was shocked. It was a weird question, but she answered me, "What? You want me to die now?" and I laughed. Perhaps I was actually stupid.

When I transferred to Manila in order to teach and take another graduate degree course, I was transformed into a different being. My romantic orientation had shifted to utilitarianism or better yet Pragmatism. I needed to beat every deadline; to endure the heat and noise of the colossal traffic in España and to blow up my nose in order to catch up with the constant vaunting of my colleagues. It was so good that I took up Psychiatric Nursing in order to get a better glimpse on my sanity and to give justice to my meager salary because I would be spared from consulting a shrink.

My exposure with the Dominican fathers had brought me into another dimension… I became more religious. The seemingly useless seminars of St. Thomas Aquinas which I believed unnecessary for my Psychiatric training converted me into a religious fanatic venerating all the images of St. Thomas that I could see inside the University of Santo Tomas. I saw the indispensable totem in front of the university and the angelic bust of the saint at the pharmacy garden. Every time that I would speak about totem, I would remember Sigmund Freud who wrote the TOTEM AND TABOO and his BEYOND THE PLEASURE RPINCIPLE. Most probably, I had already a delusion of grandeur or self idolatry as represented by my unconscious veneration of the totem - to satisfy my needs. Now because of contradiction between St. Tomas and Freud, I was forced to select one of them to follow - like Sancho Pancha, the loyal knight of Don Quixote - and with the intervention of the Holy Spirit, I chose the saint and joined a religious order.

"Are you getting mad?" one of my classmates asked.

"Yes…for Christ." I answered back. It sounded romantic.

Once that I started my period of purgation and purification process before I would be allowed to wear my religious habit, I found that I was living in a different world. Probably my mom was right when she told me that I could not become a priest, yet I tried hard - praying all the time. Our religious formation would often emphasize the value of Ora et Labora (pray and work) - but how could I pray when most of the time, I found myself cutting grasses and washing my clothes - that was why I translated the dictum of Saint Benedict into labora et labora (better yet laba ng laba) and sometimes when we were on retreat, it would become Ora et Ora (dasal ng dasal).

It was fun to be with young seminarians. At least I would feel that I was young again. My mom and ex-girlfriend laughed when they saw my childish haircut. I have nothing left on my scalp aside from the traces of the once thick hair and the shiny reflection of the sun whenever I would come out from the cloister. I looked like a monk. The schedule inside the cloister was terrifying, that I could not adjust easily during my first year at the seminary. I hated bells. I hated doing things which I did not want. There was a definite schedule to follow, there was a definite adjustment to do, and there was an apostolate to attend to and a job to finish. In short, I did not have my own time. My day would start with a loud noise coming from the bell. To anticipate the nuisance, a minute before, my alarm clock that was placed on the table above my head would wake me up in order to prepare 2 cotton balls that would be used to cover my ears. It was unholy sound to hear in the morning especially when the weather was bad and I slept deeply like the cooking oil of Baguio. Our priest-formator would say, "Every sound of the bell is a voice from heaven…" - At first, I could not believe him but after a month, it was not only a sound from heaven but the voice of angels singing while I marched to attend the early morning prayer and the holy eucharist. After the morning prayer and the mass, we would eat breakfast and prepare for our classes in Philosophy. I thought that I had already escaped from psychiatry, but when I read the textbook on the philosophy of religion, I was surprised - I saw the name of Sigmund Freud again.

I sighed and whispered in disdain, "O' boy…here is Freud again, the walking phallus!"

Every week, I was scheduled to be with the informal settlers in Pasay City distributing medicines, getting their blood pressures and listening to their hearts. I always brought with me my stethoscope which made many people wonder why I was holding that instrument "Is he a doctor? Why did he enter the seminary?" Sometimes, I would be wearing a cassock with imposing crucifix pinned on the left breast of my religious habit. I enjoyed seeing the poor. Service and writing inspired me to go on with my missionary training. I did consider joining the Trappist monks in Guimaras but the austerity of their way of living and their vow of silence turned me off. I was once a secular monk during the time of my reclusion - so what I needed now would be a new environment which would be based on missionary works. Ambeth Ocampo, the well known historian had another thing in mind. Perhaps he was talkative when he was still outside the monastery that was why he chose to be silent and joined the monastic order. Until now, I was wondering if Nick Joaquin continued his religious formation as an Augustinian monk in Hong Kong, what would happen now with the Philippine Literature. Most probably, A WOMAN WITH TWO NAVELS would have not been written and his habit of drinking beer might be shifted into imbibing large amount of mompo, a kind of strawberry wind that was always used for the celebration of the holy eucharist. What about if Jessica Zafra entered the Poor Clares of Aurora Boulevard? Perhaps the monjas would all become Twisted; or if Danton Remoto joined the Jesuits and Ruel De Vera joined the Dominicans? Perhaps all the religious orders in the Philippines would be become eccentric writing Orders.

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