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MAGIS: What Matters Most in Life – A Book Review

Written by Marilen Abesamis, the only sister of the theologian Fr. Carlos H. Abesamis, SJ, and the granddaughter of Encarnacion Arejola Hilado, whose brothers Don Tomas Arejola and General Ludovico Arejola played important roles in the Propaganda Movement and the armed struggle against the Spanish and American colonizers in Naga City in the 1900s.

The only quibble I have of Greg Castilla’s latest book is that he considers MAGIS his “swan song,” meaning his farewell masterpiece, his last act.

But at 71, he is good for so many more books, and I sincerely hope he will write more. Bicolanos like him lead carefree magical lives. They know how to balance work with fun, befriend the dolphins or the butanding, dance with the grace and constant rumblings of Mayon volcano, and hoard the gold abundant in the shores of Camarines.

And they know how to share generously with others whatever they have. As Greg has, in this his latest HUGE book.

It is huge because Greg writes intimately, so simply and so forthrightly of deeply personal events -- like the passing of his father who waited for him and Lynn, before drawing his last breath in Naga, at age 95; like the birth of a grandchild and the miracle of healing after a freak accident; like the sudden death of a niece; like his impending arrest in the hands of the Marcos military, and other intimate joys and pain, powerful in its detail and specificity.

MAGIS is a pleasure to read, and made more so because I have known Greg and his wife Lynn, and have talked intermittently to their lovely daughters, Laya and Mutya. We have also shared many memorable meals together.

Once, many years ago, I ate durian with Greg at his brother-in-law Ricky Polintan and my cousin Pacita’s house in Seattle. We ate the creamy globs with such relish, allowing the slow drip drip of durian into our taste buds to trigger happy memories of our activist days and the homeland.

I knew then that Greg – who derives joy in the sharing of the Filipino meal -- can never write an inconsequential book about our people and our land.

At first, I thought MAGIS refers to the three wise men who traveled to Bethlehem to offer themselves and their quintessential gifts, but no. MAGIS refers to the Ignatian way of life, so familiar to Greg.

As Greg explains it, MAGIS connotes “doing more for Christ, doing more for others, always doing the greater good, and not just what is good.”

What!? The received wisdom is that men (and some women) choose the Lesser Evil, meaning the world we confront is replete with Darkness and Sadness, and often we are compelled to choose between Two Evils. But the Jesuit circles emphasize seeing the Good, not the Bad, and challenging the Jesus seeker with the question, what is the Good, and what is the Greater Good?

“Should I remain silent or express my views? Should I keep my emotions to myself or should I express them?”

“If it makes sense to write about what I feel, I write about it because feelings have a way of teaching me to be more reflective …”

“If it makes sense to write about politics and hot button social issues, such as human rights violations or questioning society’s or a politician’s core values, I let my position be known...because to be a cowardly act…”

Now you understand why I call this 256-page book “HUGE.” It is huge because it comes from a generous spirit, helping the reader to “bracket” a day, an event, a person, a mystery. Then helping the reader understand the issue and apply the meaning of MAGIS in the context of everyday life.

It is huge because it comes from a place of deep knowing --- Greg has traversed so many roads, and shares the lessons he gleaned from the multitude of roles he played in the past.

He was a teacher: “After I graduated from college in 1973, I was assigned to teach high school at the Ateneo de Davao … I learned a lot about myself. I also got involved in more political activities…”

He was a meditator: “For one week we lived the life of a sacada (sugar cane worker) … up to now, whenever I meet some of my former students they still talk of the immersion experience and are thankful …”

He was a community organizer, organizing a squatter community in Tatalon, Quezon City.

He briefly led a celibate life, entering the Society of Jesus, during which time he recalls writing an article “where I challenged government leaders to do something constructive for the country. It made the front page of the Weekly Nation because I put the initials S.J. after my name. And Jesuits are known for their intellectual diatribes...”

He was an activist against the dictatorship: “One day, while on a spiritual retreat in Novaliches, I heard that the military were coming to arrest me. I decided to escape without telling any Jesuit and joined the underground movement full time. That was the end of my Jesuit vocation. “

He entered a married life and now feels rewarded with an “apostolate” as a grandfather.

In between these roles, he also identified as a migrant, an athlete and cyclist, an office manager, a caregiver, a journalist and writer.

I find the book powerful because he lets us in on his most intimate thoughts such as his conversations with Lynn which blossomed into a lifelong romance, his lasting bond with his mother, and the mysterious energy that runs between him and his beloved pet.

Unlike other male writers who put family and wife into a footnote or in token acknowledgment on the book’s last page, Greg puts wife center stage. Family members are made so visible, honored as vital elements in the environment, without which one knows life will come to an end.

I could see Lynn with Greg at his desk, the room so well ordered and lit (and as her American neighbors say, her house is so clean, you could eat off the floor); Lynn checking out the details of a trip or an historical event; Lynn giving the final approval of the copy.

Perhaps it’s because the first section of the book is all about Family Matters. But even in the second section, devoted to Life and Society, his loved ones are also very much woven into his essays. Life continues through the people who love you, he says, and no one should fear death.

The list is too long to quote here, but throughout his interactions with people, Greg dutifully notes important lessons.

Example: “A real friend is a rarity. It pays to look for one.”

“War will never solve the problem, it will just compound it.”

“Friends are those with whom we shared indiscretions.” Etc.

But what I found particularly haunting are the memories of martial law, under the 14-year rule of Ferdinand Marcos.

“I was in my 20s when martial law was declared in 1972 by the late strong man. What emerged was a dictator who had no respect for human life.”

“It would have been easy to forget the 3,000 plus victims of extra judicial killings, the 35,000 tortured victims and the 70,000 women and men incarcerated.”

“Yes, I only knew a few of the thousands, but one person mercilessly murdered or tortured is one too many for me.”

Three of his colleagues Rolando Federis, 24, Flora Concepcion, 18, and Adora Faye de Vera, 16, disappeared on their way to the Bicol region on October 1, 1976. At their disappearance and death, the harsh reality of martial law, Greg says, “hit me like a sharp knife scraping my spine.”

Then he says, “I owe it to these people to continue, in whatever shape or form, the struggle they have started.”

MAGIS, as a collection of essays written over the years, is a brave and truthful chronicle of the past five decades (‘70s to 2020s), mirroring the lives of a generation that would not revise the horrors of the Marcos martial law era, nor quit searching for social justice in uncertain times.

My brother Fr. Abe, who is now in his heaven, used to pride himself for having married Greg and Lynn some 40 years ago at the Ateneo de Manila Grade School Chapel. There were three other Jesuit concelebrants. He must be smiling at this ringing testament to a life (and lives) that have chosen, not just the good, but the path of the greater good. Read it, buy it, MAGIS will lift you up from the discontents of our time and the crisis of the pandemic.


For Orders:

Naga City/Bikol – Contact Djai Rugeria at 0916 239 8306.

Metro Manila – Contact Vic Nierva at 0917 307 6291.

The book is also available at the Ateneo de Naga University Press/Bookstore (054) 881-4112.


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