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Greg Castilla’s Book “Learning” Traces The Extents of Human Spirit

BY ANDY VILLANUEVA, Naga City, Philippines –  “Learnings,” Dr. Greg Castilla’s latest book, is one of a few books I consider worth reading again and again. This 210-page work says a whole lot more than many thick books I have read in recent times. I find it difficult talking only about the book. I must include the author himself. I would go further to say that to some degree Learnings and Greg Castilla are shadows and definitions of each other.

The first part (Honoring and Celebrating) brings the reader face to face with fourteen personalities three of whom I have had personal dealings in my distant past: the Jesuit Fathers Jack Phelan and James O’Brien who were my co-mentors at the Ateneo de Naga and Ernie Verdadero my former high school student in the same school. It took the author’s sensitivity and appreciation of people to open my eyes and mind to a deeper admiration and regard of these three personalities.

The likes of Jun Quimpo, Rolando Federis, Chito Perez as well as others touched on by the author are all unknown to me. Even then the message and meanings drawn from them by Castilla and, in his inimitable way, conveyed in his short articles are eye-openers to a realization that this world has not ceased to be filled with inspiring persons like Gandhi, Mother Theresa and Nelson Mandela. As Castilla has shown in Learnings, there are others. It takes a book like Learnings to open our eyes and minds to otherwise unknown treasures of the human species.

In the second part (Reawakening and Discovering) are articles that shake our consciousness to look deeper into topics that initially look superficial. However, with his multi-dimensional experience and perception, the author leads us to go beyond the facade of topics – to mention but a few – like the American Dream, Adoption of the English Language, Life and Death, July 4th for Filipinos, Martial Law, and Catholicism. The articles’ worth is not so much the information given. What carries more weight are the meanings and learnings elicited for us by the author.

Space does not allow me here to comment on all the articles in the book. However, I am sampling out the article “Betrayed by Your Dream.” I have never seen America and, in all likelihood, at my age and situation now I will never see the place.

And yet all my life the U.S. of A to me has been portrayed as Heaven on Earth courtesy of colored American magazines, Hollywood, American candies and many other “Made in USA” items. I have met many friends and relatives who have been to the States. Most of them end up saying they are happy to be back and prefer to stay for good. But they keep silent or have no ample words to explain why. Castilla’s article tells it for them and me.

Are you scared of old age? Castilla may not be as old as I am, but in his “Life Begins at 60” he convincingly shows that old age is not as bleak as it seems.

The third part of the book (Remembering and Understanding) is lengthy with forty- three amazingly varied topics. They testify to the depth of the author’s memory and perception of persons, events and issues that obviously affected his life from childhood at age 8 when he had the first grasp of his mother’s integral image to middle age and late years, where he shares his learnings on burning issues like the controversial Manny Pacquiao and the Jesuit Pope Francis.

The book is a mirror of the author himself and his skill to convey in simple and easy-to-understand language his reactions and sensitivity to the times and world around him. .

The topics articulated show a writer who, to my mind, is like a decathlon athlete excelling in different track and field sports or an all-around basketeer who can play center, guard or forward as the coach wishes. I cannot help seeing an analogy between the author and that multi-pitched singer in my younger days, Mario Lanza.

Lanza could hit the highest pitch as a tenor and then sing down to the lowest note as a baritone. I was not crazed by his many operatic performances. What I do not forget was a rare LP by him where in a live concert for a pop crowd he mimicked the great Enrico Caruso and shifted to the blues with the voice of Sammy Davies Jr. and then crooned as Nat King Cole and Roy Hamilton and ended as the “cry-out lad” Johnnie Ray. Back to Castilla.

He may not be this year’s Olympic decathlon champion or a Lebron James or like today’s best tenor in your mind. He is the writer of Learnings where in a hodgepodge of articles he comes out with insights worth feeding on.

It is amazing how Castilla can be concise but effectively eloquent in all his articles. Chances are I may have missed many of his points prompting me to wonder why he wrote an article like “Dear God.” To some readers, this article sounds arrogant, defiant and irreverent. To others, however, it is plain human emotion or exasperation which many, out of inhibition, do not dare verbalize. For, after all, Learnings is not a catechism or a morality book. It is a work replete with challenges to many unprincipled and insensitive people.

One can tell that the author is one who thinks, writes, reacts, feels and speaks with his pen or computer keyboard. The articles themselves define the author’s well-rounded perspectives shaped by his rural roots in Sipocot, Camarines Sur, disciplined high school education at the Ateneo de Naga, deep-seated grounding in Ignatian spirituality during his Jesuit formative years, immersion with the marginalized victims of injustice at Tatalon, Quezon City, living life as a hunted activist during the martial law years , coping with the demands of an immigrant’s life in the U.S., working for a doctorate degree at a prestigious American university, and eventually finding his place as an accomplished writer based in Seattle, U.S.A.

It is this unique background of the writer that enables the readers to share the former’s memories and insights into the persons of his two daughters, his last moments with his dying father and mother, or the magnitude of the late Jesuits James O’Brien and Carlos Abesamis or the human affection and dignity drawn from a pet dog, such as Macchi, or the relevance of a Jesuit Pope to the needs of the times.

I wish the following articles in Learnings were written and read by me during my teaching years at the Ateneo de Naga 50 years ago: Life is Good, Welcoming Death, Friendship, Religion and Corruption, Tribute to The Human Spirit. Articles like these are thought-provoking which would have been excellent materials for lively and insightful group discussions by a class of intelligent high school students assigned to me back then.

Little did I expect and know that one teen-aged member of that elite class 50 years ago – Greg Castilla – would perfect himself over the years to write these articles.