How Shakespeare helped a young Jesuit meet the love of his life

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One of William Shakespeare’s classics became the unwitting theme to a love story involving a schoolteacher, a young Jesuit, and several students from a remote island off the coast of Zamboanga. Illustration by RAXENNE MANIQUIZ

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Prologues are sometimes custom to William Shakespeare’s productions, so here is one: This is a story that occurs miles and centuries away from the Bard, whose work has become an unwitting theme to a star-crossed romance, not of his own writing.

Shakespeare, long after his death on April 23, 1616, lives on in classrooms, stages, and in one instance, in a framed poster in a couple’s home, after articulating for them how the course of true love never did run smooth.

 

Act I.

William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18” had been a recurring piece of literature in Remmon Barbaza’s life. If he did not encounter it in high school, then it was certainly a required reading as he majored in linguistics. It was not after he signed up as a Jesuit pre-novice in 1987 that he studied it again, this time for memorization, under the required literature units he had to take as an aspiring priest.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate —

The meaning of the poem on his life did not alter until the first scene of his story: The Cubao SM Parking Lot, where Remmon Barbaza met Arlene on the third Saturday of September 1992. He had been in the Society for four years.

Barbaza, nicknamed Momok, had been the designated driver of the Jesuits’ Mitsubishi L300 van during their apostolate’s soup kitchen for the urban poor in Cubao. Arlene, an English teacher at the Ateneo de Manila University Grade School, used to head a college organization for the sector.

They played the usual games with the kids, until someone noticed they had forgotten some utensils. Someone told them, “Why don’t you get paper cups or paper plates? The two of you!”

“And I remember feeling strangely the first time we met, like we’d known each other,” Barbaza recalled.

The two went off to hunt for the utensils around Cubao. After the event, Barbaza and his company dropped her off on the way home.

He must have been smiling to himself, because one Singaporean brother teased, “Momok has a new girlfriend!”

Sonnet 18: Act II “I think Shakespeare is always concerned with the finitude. Things pass,” said Remmon Barbaza. Illustration by RAXENNE MANIQUIZ  

Act II.

The second scene is in the office of the rector of Arrupe International Residence, where Barbaza and his brothers from the Society lived. Barbaza and his rector enter.

His rector asked, “What is this I hear about you and Arlene?”

“She’s just a casual acquaintance,” he replied. “Nothing to worry about.”

By this time, Barbaza and Florendo were fast friends.

His own rector, after being unable to show up for coffee with Florendo, stuffed ₱500 into his hand and said, “Take her out for coffee!”

The Singaporean brother who teased him even helped him look for leaves to decorate a poster Barbaza found himself making for her.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? He wrote in bold all caps. Under it, in smaller writing: Thou art more lovely and more temperate.

What trap had been dug for them? Barbaza was supposed to be an aspiring priest. As Rosalind in “As You Like It” puts it: No sooner had they met — but they looked; no sooner looked, but they / loved; no sooner loved, but they sighed; no sooner / sighed, but they asked one another the reason; no / sooner knew the reason but they sought the remedy.

And the remedy seemed clear: to be together, or not to be together, that was the question. Barbaza had planned for so long to become a Jesuit. Yet their correspondence, writing and occasional dinners, carried on like this for two years.

“I think Shakespeare is always concerned with the finitude. Things pass,” said Barbaza, recalling a line from the sonnet:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date...

“The buds of May, the flowers — they can easily be blown away by wind,” he continued. “That’s how fragile and how finite things of this world are.”

The summer passed. Only four years away from his ordination and approaching a new assignment, he requested to be far from her, so that he could think.

Sonnet 18: Act III “But of course ... I knew how to interpret it — there were two rainbows in my life, and I have to choose only one,” he later recalled. Illustration by RAXENNE MANIQUIZ  

Act III.

The third scene is Remmon Barbaza and Arlene praying together at the University of the Philippines chapel. He had just received his new assignment: two years as a teacher in Zamboanga City.

“I was preparing her to ... to let go of me. I said, if it’s God’s will then we should accept it,” Barbaza recalled.

Florendo sat there, quietly, and began to shed tears. Barbaza had just suggested she get a boyfriend.

She said, “I’m not afraid of growing old single. I’m not going to marry just for the sake of getting married.”

This was how that conversation ended: should Barbaza carry on with his ordination, she would be there to support him, she said. She would slip quietly to one of the benches at the back, wait for his blessing, and leave, as quietly as she had arrived.

A few days before he left for Zamboanga, Barbaza had a dream. In the dream, he saw two rainbows. A photography enthusiast, he ran back inside to get his camera. But when he came out again, only one rainbow remained.

“But of course ... I knew how to interpret it — there were two rainbows in my life, and I have to choose only one,” he later recalled.

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm'd.

It was also Shakespeare who said, Let no one who loves be unhappy ... even love unreturned has its rainbow.

Barbaza was happy with her, but he was also happy being a Jesuit. That was precisely the problem.

The fourth scene unfolds thus: by the summer’s end of 1994, Remmon Barbaza settled into his life as a regent, teaching Religion and Grammar and Composition at the Ateneo de Zamboanga University High School. He was to reside at the local university’s Jesuit Residence for two years.

The school in Olutanga Island was so remote, Barbaza found, that none of his students had heard of Shakespeare. He picked “Sonnet 18” as an introductory piece, “apt to teach to young people who were usually wrapped in infatuation.”

One of the first things he did upon landing was tell Arlene of his safe trip through the old payphone fronting the university gym. Life went on, but he kept in touch with her through letters.

Some months in, she slung on a backpack and flew to Zamboanga to visit him, “just like that.”

He took her to see the local sights. They were at Sta. Cruz Island, known for its pink sand, when a rainbow appeared.

“Of course, maybe I'm over-reading it — it's probably just a coincidence, but still a wonderful coincidence, right?” said Barbaza. “Is God telling me what I should do?”

He added, “But it never occurred to me that that visit had a big effect. Nothing changed. I still loved her, and I [was] happy whenever she was around.”

In “Sonnet 18,” Shakespeare contrasts the beloved’s beauty to that of summer. Summer, he said, gave in to autumn, and to the tide of the seasons, but the beloved was constant.

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st...

After that weekend, she returned to Manila.

 

Act IV.

Two more years passed, and Barbaza was still unsure of whether to take his theological studies, a stage that would put him “one foot in” the priesthood. So his superiors assigned him somewhere farther, for a third year.

Olutanga Island was remote, reachable from the main Zamboanga Peninsula by boat. Word was that the boats were sometimes intercepted by pirates.

The school was in an area called Mabuhay, right next to the convent where the Jesuits resided. The high school was a dilapidated building made of wood — “when students would come in, the building would shake” — run by not more than ten faculty members.

It was so remote, Barbaza found, that none of his students had heard of Shakespeare. He picked “Sonnet 18” as an introductory piece, “apt to teach to young people who were usually wrapped in infatuation.” He had them memorize it, and the class would dedicate each session to a line of the poem.

Although the sonnet’s turn of thought — its volta — usually occurs just before its last couplet, Barbaza and his students were only two lines in when his life took a volta of its own.

“I woke up one day and said, ‘Hindi ko na kaya,’” he said. “[I can't] continue going on like this.”

And then he felt a rush of relief: “When I decided I would leave, I felt a different kind of freedom — that finally I made up my mind. And I [could] move on.”

“That’s the genius, I think, of Shakespeare ... Shakespeare is universal, eternal. He will keep on resonating with people. He will be read ... by every community for as long as there are human beings on earth. You can be sure of that.”

 

That very day, he packed his bags and called for a faculty meeting to tell his colleagues he was leaving the island the next day for reasons he could not yet reveal. He deliberately did not tell his students, for he simply “did not have the courage.”

But the island was a small one, and word got around fast.

At approximately one o’clock the next day, as he exited the convent with his bags in hand, he found about twenty of his students by the gate. They cleared their throats and recited in their crisp, Cebuano accent, the fragments of “Sonnet 18” they had learned.

“I could still see in my imagination, my mind, the gentle light over their heads — and they recited the sonnet,” he recalled of that moment. They did not get past the second line; that was all they had studied so far, and some of them were already in tears. Barbaza hugged them, unable to say anything — “if I said anything, I would have burst into tears also.”

When Barbaza had first selected the sonnet for teaching, it was for it to resonate with the puppy love of young adolescents. And yet, in a most curious way, it struck them differently. Here they were, young teenagers from a rural developing community thousands of miles in time and space away from William Shakespeare’s own reality, and they took his words as their own.

“That’s the genius, I think, of Shakespeare ... Shakespeare is universal, eternal. He will keep on resonating with people,” said Barbaza. “He will be read ... by every community for as long as there are human beings on earth. You can be sure of that.”

And after he made it past the students, he crossed the threshold of the convent.

All the world’s a stage, and in his time a man plays many parts, at times overlapping: linguistics major, young priest, reluctant lover, professor. It was a sunny afternoon in August when Remmon Barbaza hung his cassock, to play a new role from the one he thought destined to be his.

As the small boat sped out toward the mainland, the island slowly disappeared from view.

Sonnet 18: Act V “The sonnet encapsulates what Arlene is to me. She is more than a summer’s day. She is really more lovely than a summer’s day to me,” said Barbaza. Illustration by RAXENNE MANIQUIZ  

Act V.

Remmon Barbaza and Arlene were wed on December 27, 1997. He wrote every wedding invitation by hand and composed a poem for each wedding souvenir, reminiscent of the poster quoting “Sonnet 18” that he had given to her all those summers ago. ‘Til death do them part.

Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

The poster is now framed in their house.

“The sonnet encapsulates what Arlene is to me. She is more than a summer’s day. She is really more lovely than a summer’s day to me,” said Barbaza. “In a way Shakespeare gave me the words to express what I was feeling for Arlene.”

It was no easy journey — he had been used to the Jesuit intellectual life. He rented a room across the university, and all of a sudden found himself with “no superior, no community.” Barbaza hoped the Philosophy Department would have teaching units to spare for someone who had just left the priesthood. But deep inside, he felt certain of what he was doing.

The young couple moved to Munich in 1998 while Barbaza completed studies abroad. They returned to Manila after four years, where Barbaza continued the academic life — he is now head of the Philosophy Department at Ateneo de Manila University, and Arlene became a collage artist and furniture designer.

Just a few days before the interview, Barbaza said they were listening to a reading of “Sonnet 18” by a linguist they studied in his undergraduate days, David Crystal. Every time he comes across it, the same aspects of the poem resonate, but in deeper ways.

One summer in Munich, passing by the English Garden beside his university, Barbaza noticed whole families sprawled naked on the grass, soaking in the sun. It occurred to him that Filipinos, subject to only two seasons, did not pine for summer as Europeans — and likely Shakespeare — did. The season to them was a bright light at the end of the tunnel that was winter. His observation deepened his appreciation of the sonnet: how the Bard spoke of summer and how he thought his beloved, Barbaza said, was “even better than that.”

Barbaza regarded his wife, and truly thought her better than summer.