Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Authentic Yet Exotic

Like many in Mexico, Tzintzuntzan is a Catholic city. The name literally means 'place of the hummingbirds', and it holds the distinction of being the capital city of the Tarascan region. In Pre-Columbian times, Tzintzuntzan covered only a measly seven square kilometers, a far cry from the 165 square kilometer city that it is today. Tzintzuntzan is also famed for its weaving; in fact, baskets are one of its main exports. As well, it is significant to note the presence of many steppe pyramids, many of whose stones were hewn to provide suitable building materials for the first Catholic chapels in that region. It is a quaint, rural spot, largely untouched by the hustle and bustle of the Twentieth and Twenty First centuries.

Holy Week, as observed in this quaint little Tarascan outpost, follows the general pattern of exuberance and solemnity particular to countries which have been colonized or influenced by Madre Espana. On Palm Sunday (or Good Friday? I forgot), a detail of ten or so crimson hooded men enter the church, presumably to herald the arrival of the King of kings. Also central to the celebration of Holy Week are the various parades that speak of the pageantry of bygone days, when the world was still innocent. On Good Friday, seven, ancient crosses, entrusted to the same families for hundreds of years, are brought out of storage. They are paraded several times that day, with the greatest of pomp and most solemn of ceremonies. When the procession is finished, the crosses are taken to the town church, where they are displayed for veneration in the church's entrance. And, as is customary to many Mexican villages, the Passion play is performed. It is interesting to note that as recently as thirty to thirty five years ago, penitents still had themselves crucified, as is still practiced here in the Philippines.

To many of us, such scenes are reminiscent more of superstition than faith, of exaggerated machismo rather than true contrition. We are appalled by the sight of blood, by the gore-dripping depictions of the Christ, even by the solemnity in which all of these things happen. We are scandalized by the un-orthodox depictions of His suffering; we frown, for example, at a bow-legged Christ, hanging from a cross by the palms of His hands, which by now are reduced to no more than a mere bundle of sinew. For us, these are the vestiges of an age of mysticism, an age that has been replaced-- conquered-- by an age of reason.

However, exotic as it may seem, such scenes used to be the norm.

I remember my grandfather telling me stories about his youth. He was born in 1922, a mere 24 years after Las Islas Filipinas became independent of Spain, and when the American Occupation began. My grandfather, being a Nationalist, was incensed at the Church in those days. He would tell me, for example, how we would give food to the wandering Aglipayan ‘priests’ while hiding the rest from the Catholic ones. He contemplated joining the Masons, but even they were too ambiguous and anti-religious for him.

Some years later, he met my grandmother. Her mother was a very devout Catholic, although her father was a Mason. On Sundays, she and her mother would both sneak off from the house to attend Mass while her father slept. She recalled gutting an old screen door to use the mesh as a veil, because any sign of the ‘Spanish religion’ was dealt with accordingly. My grandmother grew up to be a very religious person. And by the grace of God, her father left that horrid group and was reconciled into the Church in the 1940s.

It was my grandmother who taught my grandfather to pray. When they were still newlyweds, she would also act as a catechism teacher to him, and together they would pray the rosary, go to Mass, visit the major shrines of the Virgin, attend the evening Benediction and read Scripture daily. It was a simple life, a life characterized by vigorous piety and a genuine, deep-rooted love.

In those days, penance was a very strict affair. There were none of the penances we are so accustomed to these days. In the early part of the Twentieth Century, a typical penance for missing Sunday Mass would have the penitent kneel on a handful of rock salt for half an hour straight. It was an excruciating affair: I tried it once out of sheer curiosity, and needless to say, that was the reddest I’d ever seen my knees. The salt dug onto my flesh, scratching the delicate covering and leaving gaping pock marks for the rest of the day. Another penance, usually for sins of the flesh, would be to crawl to the altar on one’s elbows and knees. This was very interesting for me; in my grandfather’s case, he would make sure to visit an important Marian shrine to do his penance. One such famous shrine is that of Nuestra Senor de la Paz y Buen Viaje, located in Antipolo.

The trek to this place alone was already penance enough. Antipolo was nestled on top of a hill, some 1 to 1.5 hours away from Manila. Traditionally, devotees would walk all the way to shrine barefoot, as a sign of penitence and humility. This arduous journey usually left its mark in the many blisters that dot the devotee’s feet. The whole trek was so exhausting (this was around 30 kilometers at least, if I'm not mistaken), that may devotees sang this song along the way:

Tayo na sa Antipolo
At doon, maligo tayo
Sa batis na kung tawagin
Ay Hinulugang Taktak

* Translation: “Let us forth to Antipolo/and there let us bathe/in the river called/Hinulugang Taktak)

The ordeal doesn’t end here, however.

When the shrine’s glimmering roof is first glimpsed, penitents immediately drop to their knees. From there, they crawl to the Shrine, heads bowed, hands clasped at the chest. Pious old women bring out their heavy lace mantillas and cover their heads, while men take off their hats, if they have any. A group on a pilgrimage might sing a Marian song, like ‘Salve Regina’ or ‘Ave Maris Stella’. The rosary is also usually prayed. Remember that this is no small group: a typical day at the Antipolo Shrine, even on weekdays, draws up to several thousand devotees.

To enter the shrine church is everyone’s dreams. When one first enters the shrine, his eyes are immediately drawn to the gilded silver retablo. In the central niche, beneath a solid silver baldaquin, rests the image of Nuestra Senora de la Paz y Buen Viaje. She is no more than three feet tall, but her devotes throng in the thousands. One might even argue that it is not an exceptionally carved image of that it looks almost too provincial; but then again, this is not the main concern. These man and women have come to Mary’s shrine to honor her with praise. The devotees usually bring flowers with them, whether it be a single red rose or a bouquet of the most exquisite kinds available, and lay them at her feet, the devotion of a child to his mother.

My grandfather, sorry for his sins and those of his past life, crawled on his hands and knees. It seemed like an eternity to crawl all the way to the altar. His head was bowed down, his eyes contemplated the floor. He dare not look at her whom he has shunned, ignored and rejected. But from the corner of his eyes, tears well. They are the tears of hope and joy.

Most of us, sadly, don’t have such stories to tell. Such is the unfortunate fruit of the dreaded 60s affair. What we formerly held as being the norm is now viewed, almost like a specimen in a museum, as something strange and exotic. Our traditions are no longer part of the cultural mentality, but reduced to a severed limb, a nude on display for the fascination of an unknown age.

The problem with many traditionalists is that we often forget that we are not the whole of tradition. This was the main reason I became alienated to so many self-proclaimed “rad trads”. Beneath all their pretenses of being traditional lies the fact that they view the soul of tradition as being theirs for the taking. In short, what is considered ‘traditional’ may, in fact, just be someone else’s opinion of what is. For what it’s worth, being a ‘rad trad’ is really nothing but taking tradition into our own hands and owning it—the very antithesis of what tradition is all about.

We look at such devotions as being remnants of a superstitious age. But these criticisms come not only from the hated liberals—they also come from conservatives and traditionalists. Sometimes I wonder what the point of being a traditionalist is when these people (including myself) cannot even agree on what traditional means. Is it merely the Mass? Is it merely devotions, processions, parades and badly-garbed statuary? Common sense tells us no. For me, this is our ultimate tragedy as Catholics—the loss of our culture. It is sad when holiness is measured by how long a woman’s chapel veil is, or how much of a dialectic philosopher one is. Gone are the piety of old that did things with the heart and the mind, which has now been replaced by a thoroughly intellectualist spirituality. It is sad when such pious customs as crawling to the altar, walking barefoot for the Stations of the Cross, or offering flowers to Our Lady are relegated to the dusty museum halls of the past.

It is a sad thing when we start to lose that gift our fathers in faith have tried to hard to procure for us, by sweat and blood and toil.

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