TANAY, Rizal - It's a walk of sacrifice to reach the image of Regina Rosarii, commonly called "Mama Mary on Top of the Hill," in Sitio Aguho, Barangay Sampaloc, Tanay, Rizal.
But every year when Holy Week comes, Catholics come in droves to make that climb. I've known that all along, but hadn't tried it until a last-minute decision on Holy Wednesday in a chat with policemen in San Juan City.
"You should try that trek up Regina Rosarii in Tanay. It's quiet there. The experience is worth it," they said.
At first, I was still hoping I could find a recollection to join at a fancy retreat house or just go with most of the crowd doing the "visita iglesia," a visit to at least seven churches while praying the Way of the Cross.
But I was too late to join the full-packed retreat houses I frequented, so upon getting home that day, I happened to mention to my sister my conversation with the cops and their scheduled walk up Regina Rosarii.
She picked up on my suggestion pretty quick, woke me up at 5 the morning of Maundy Thursday and got us heading for Tanay from our Quezon City residence by 8 a.m. It was going to be a smooth, stress-free trip, we thought. So we along the way, we had my sister-in-law, Raquel, and her granddaughter, Sarah, join us.
To our surprise, it wasn't so smooth a trip as heavy traffic seemed to follow us from Antipolo to Teresa to Morong and almost all the way to Tanay.
If it hadn't been for the traffic jam, though, we would not have passed by a stall selling Buko Pie (Tholits Buko Pie) in Teresa - truly a taste to savor on the trip along zigzagging roads.
Military personnel informed us we had reached the point where no vehicles were allowed and that to visit Mama Mary, we had to go on foot. My sister Neth served as our tour guide.
We entered a gate from where there's a clear vista of the 71-foot high image of Our Lady of Regina Rosarii atop the hill, under the care of the Regina Rosarii Institute of Contemplation in Asia (RICA)m which was put up by the Dominican Sisters of Regina Rosarii and serves as the sanctuary of the contemplative nuns who vowed to devote their lives to God.
To get to Our Lady, Regina Rosarii, you have to pass through the S-trail of the El Shaddai Hills. This place is teeming with symbols and acronyms that will surely enrich the life of those who visit.
El Shaddai or the breasts of God symbolizes God's abundance for Regina RICA like a mother's breast from which milk flows to nourish her child. It's no wonder their motto is "We breathe God's love."
The S-trail is made up of 308 steps and has 13 candle stations where you can leave your candle offering. While ascending these steps, we are encouraged not only to marvel at the beauty of nature but also to pray for the abundance we've had in life and thank God for His many blessings.
Further uphill is a Station of the Cross placed under the mahogany trees wherein you will walk into a scatter of dried falling mahogany leaves in the area. Trees offer shade and a cooling of the summer breeze. Then, the walk took as through a row of nipa huts where we rested and spent time meditating on what we'd seen so far.
As you keep on walking little by little to the top of the hill you can see a very clear picture of the face of Mama Mary - an image very inviting. Her smiling face seemed to reassure us with a calm voice: "A few more steps and you will be here with me."
And indeed, we got to her. The sculptured image carrying baby Jesus, also smiling, brushed away all our tired bodies, cares, and stresses. It seemed one's thirst while trekking is replaced by a thirst for Our Lady's embrace.
To think that this place is free and open to the public for pilgrimage, I felt quite ashamed it took me only now to discover it.
At the sanctuary, vegetarian meals are served - the products of organic farming. The sisters are also committed to preserving thousand of trees and encouraged us to plant trees, through their "ATM Program" or Adopt the Trees Movement. For smokers, sorry, but this is not a place for you to light up. One's body must be clean just as the environment's upkeep here.
This trek was just one of the traditions of Lent that has been kept alive in Rizal.
As millions of pilgrims and penitents also flocked to Antipolo City the other night for the traditional penitential walk.
In Taytay, Good Friday morning saw flagellants converging outside the town plaza before walking along the narrow streets of the town from 6 a.m. until before 3 p.m., the holy hour of Jesus Christ's death on the cross.
Upland and mountain villages of the town, Antipolo, Jala-Jala and Pililla, have also been favorite sites of talismans and amulet holders who spent the day testing of their so-called mystical powers.
In the Art Capital of the Country Town of Angono, residents participated in a unique Stations of the Cross by contemplating on the Passion and Death of Christ with the statues of the Jesus of Nazarene and the Weeping Mother of God (Mater Dolorosa) making a brief stop over at the fourteen stations of the cross situated all over the village.
In Morong, people here join the "Pabasang Bayan" on Black Saturday at the town gymnasium where huge religious statues are displayed as the people participate in the chanting of the Christ's "Pasyon".
Easter Sunday is observed as the day of dancing and merry making with an Easter Ball for several pairs of youth and the elderly in Antipolo's city plaza and the traditional Easter morning dance at the town plaza of Angono, of young girls known as "kapitanas" and "tinyenta" dressed in white or blue gowns to celebrate the Christ's resurrection.