Saturday, March 17, 2007

Auto da Fe

When I was growing up, I was always told to be prim, proper and decorous at all times. In truth, my childhood was rather Puritan in character. Instead of horsing around with the kids at the neighborhood, I would read Grimm's Fairy Tales and Aesop's Fables non-stop, since learning, after all, is a nobler endeavor. I learned about architecture, music and art through my aunts-- I had six whom I always saw-- and they would always tell me how rock music incites the mind to worldly things, how smoking can be a precursor to 'the fire that quencheth not', how cleanliness IS Godliness. They would also tell me about the Bible; I particularly liked the Old Testament and its stories, which to me seemed exceedingly rich and bursting with excitement.

It was in my seventh year when I lost my 'innocence'. One night, as my brother and I were playing with our Power Rangers action figures ( he had an eight inch Ivan Ooze, while I sicced the (MY) mighty Dragonzord at him), one of my aunts came up to us. Like any concerned relative, she advised us to be careful, and not be overly violent. Then, as we were taking a break, she brought out a rather thick volume from her bag; it was a book, bound in black. It wasn't the biggest book, nor was it probably the most interesting. But it carried with an omen of doom.

'Have I got a story for you two. I'm going to tell you about the end of the world.'

That night, I couldn't sleep. I could still see in my mind's eye that vision of the world-- the same earth that Captain Planet just saved from evil industrialists that morning-- shrouded in a sea of fire. It was utterly dark; pitch black was an understatement. I could hear the wails of torment of the damned, their bones being crushed by the massing darkness, the cries of their lamentation lingering like shreds if cloud in that inescapable realm. I could smell the foul mixture of blood and filth, and my skin crawled at the thought if having devils-- murderers, charlatans, ingrates, the proud, the arrogant, the damned-- as my eternal companions.

Later on, I was to find out that the book in question was Bellarmine's perennial classic, 'Hell And Its Torments'. Why an Evangelical was reading it to me would later puzzle me-- and it still does, mind you-- but all of that wasn't important for me. What mattered for me then was how to save my soul, and to avoid such a horrible fate.

For the next few years, I lived in the shadow and fear of this memory. It was in 2002 when I first started to read more into Catholicism. It was during this time that I first came across Sedevacantism: I still remember reading, and being shocked and scandalized, at the supposed '101 Heresies of John Paul II'. I was intrigued when I heard stories about Paul VI's corpse exuding a foul stench during that pontiff's wake, and how John XXIII's body supposedly faced downward (Hell) when his coffin was opened. I lived in an almost millenarianist paranoia, thinking that the end of the world was literally waiting around the corner. I kept thinking about my fate, of whether He would count me among the blessed, or if He would turn His face away from me, and condemn me to everlasting fire.

Ironically, it was also this time that my Evangelical relatives told me about how the Catholic system was a deluded mess, and that it was a synthesis of abomination, with its 'Mariolatry', 'bread-worshipping', and its 'necromancy' (obviously referring to the veneration of saints). In particular, they pointed out to me how the Mass 'killed' Jesus again and again, and that it mocked Him by making a ridicule of His sacrifice (a wafer can never save my from my sins, they said); as well, they called the Pope the anti-Christ, and that this pope (then JPII) would be the final one; Christ, they said, was coming soon to render glory to the just and vengeance to the wicked. Amen.

A couple of months later, I found Catholic Answers. That site provided a blow-by-blow counter-attack to even the most vicious Protestant punditry. It analyzed the Church not just from a Biblical perspective, but also through historical, cultural and sociological methods. The myth of Sola Scriptura was forever crushed, in my eyes. Without that doctrine, everything else in Protestantism falls. Then, in that same year, I came across Traditional Catholic Apologetics ( To me, that site contained the most detailed and the strongest attacks on the errors of Protestantism. I particularly liked that site's sections on the Protestant Bibles-- that, for me, ultimately sealed the deal.

That was somewhere in late 2003/early 2004. During this time, I became more confident in my resolve. I started hanging around in the Yahoo! Chatrooms and debated the Prots, often through vicious and violent means (I called many of them worthy of death). I was practically a militant; I felt like Christ when He drove the moneychangers and simoniacs out of the Temple, or when He called the Pharisees 'a brood of vipers'. It was like a mad sugar rush, only it made me angry. Very angry.

Then, in the middle of 2004, I became re-acquainted with the Sedevacantist movement. I came to believe that the Novus Ordo Missae was possibly tainted with the odour of heresy some months before; but my frequent visits to Traditio and Novus Ordo Watch bolstered this conviction to a soaring degree. Eventually, I ended up being a Sedevacantist (though only for a short time). I was convinced that JPII was a pertinacious heretic, and that the Council and its popes were irredeemably and hopelessly damned for their destruction of Catholicism. I was a fanatic and proud of it. If your mantilla wasn't long enough, you are a Jezebel; if your knees buckled at your genuflection, that was a sign of weakness, perhaps even homosexuality. And if you dared so much as smile or laugh or turn your head during Mass, you are disrespecting God, and are deserving of a punch to the face, a kick in the spine and a hammerfist to the head.

I was in a perpetual state of tension, and I prided myself on that achievement, if it can be called that. I congratulated myself for reading as much papal (pre-conciliar) encyclicals as I can, and I flaunted the fact that I knew Latin, however rudimentary, to everyone claiming to be a good Catholic-- and when they gasped in amazement, I would smirk, give him or her a condescending look, and proudly say 'Everyone knew Latin before that f-----g Council introduced heresy into the lifeblood of the Church'. I liked being called a 'Triumphalist'-- to me, it was the surest sign of holiness and love for the Church. I was a 'son of thunder' and I thundered across the plains of heresy, schism, weakness and lukewarmness with the zeal and conviction of the martyrs.

But my conviction peaked. It had reached a maximum point, and the only place left to go was downward. Somewhere in 2005 or 2006, I just lost it. I came back to sinning. It seemed as if I would ultimately be consigned to hell, and that I would forever share in the company of the wicked and the damned.
In early May of 2006, around the time I started this blog, I visited San Agustin church in Manila. This venerable stone shrine, run by the Augustinians, was a perpetual 'sermon in stone', having survived several earthquakes and natural disasters in the past. It was a masterpiece of the Spanish Plateresque: inside, the mighty vaults of the ceiling declared the glory of God with its magnificent trompe l'oeil, and the fourteen side altars, all singularly glorious, were awash with the grace and wisdom of the ages. As you walk down the nave, your gaze is drawn to the imposing main altar: a vision of such grandeur and beauty that it moves you to tears. In the central niche was housed an image of the Apostle Paul, sword in hand, gazing from his 'throne', a look of compassion in his face. Two candles burned perpetually beside him. The silver altar fittings gleamed with faint light in that rainy day.

St. Paul, of course, is the greatest apologia for Catholicism. This man, who was single-handedly responsible for the destruction of many ancient Christians, who traveled to Damascus, who encountered Christ on that fateful road, and who would ultimately become one of the pillars of the very Faith he sought to vanquish by fire or force; this man who sinned and was forgiven, who killed and 'died in Christ'; I saw this man, looking at me from his niche, with eyes full of vigor and compassion. The expression on his eyes put to shame every Catechism, encyclical, exhortation, dissertation or spiritual writing I've read to that point.

I did not cry, but I looked at that loving gaze for what seemed hours. I felt like Pilate, and I wanted to scream with him: 'Quid est veritas?'

Moments later, my concentration was broken, as a group of women, clad in white, their heavy mantillas shrouding their heads, marched to the front pews and took their seats, some two rows ahead of me. They were a motley crew of eleven: some were rich, some were poor. I concluded that one of them was a teacher, another a mid-level executive, some housewives, and some widows. A number of them spoke in hushed tones. I heard some mild laughter. One pulled out her antique mother-of-pearl rosary with the flourish of a conductor brandishing his baton. Two or three intoned the 'Salve Regina', their voices frail, while another said the Golden Arrow ('May the most holy name of God...'). For me, that scene was the visual equivalent of St. Paul's metanoia-- and how fitting this would happen in this noble and venerable church dedicated to the very saint!

The women eventually finished their devotions. Then, I saw the ministers vesting the altar for Mass. The lights were turned on, the candles lit. Soon, more and more trooped to the church, and took their seats under the church's great ceiling. I saw several tourists pose for pictures near the altar, while a cute American five year old boy descended from the pulpit. I soon left, as I still had business to attend to.

It was then that I realized how much I've fooled myself. I prided myself in my vast knowledge, and took this as a sign of my personal holiness. I lived under the shadow of a lie.

That experience in the church was more powerful than any theological construct I've read. Like Paul, we too have sinned: and like Paul, we can still find redemption. Often this comes to us in our darkest hours, when God has seemingly abandoned us to whims of this world. By blood, sweat and tears, we try our best to make amends for our myriad faults. We beg Him to grant us the grace to face the challenges ahead. But this is not the affair of the mind, but of the heart. Redemption is after all, a unitive thing. We cannot redeem the 'mind' alone, or for that matter, merely the 'heart'.

The Christian life is inherently a life filled with contradictions. But it is the only path worth taking, because it is the only path that makes the prize so much sweeter. That is the beauty of our Faith: more than anything, its idea of 'perfection' stems from the basic acknowledgment of our inherent weakness. I am reminded of a story Sir Anthony Hopkins once told. As the story goes, the actor once asked a Jesuit priest regarding the shortest and most effective prayer he knew. The Jesuit paused for a moment, looked hims straight in the eye, and said: 'Fuck it, it's in God's hands'.

The women in that church viewed their whole lives as an auto da fe: an act of faith. They sin and pray and hate and forgive: but behind their human weaknesses lies a conviction, tempered with fire and harder than steel, that there is a God out there Who loves them. And it is a God who became man, Who suffered as man, Who now lives and reigns in glory undimmed for all eternity.

The Jews expected a divine man to deliver them from tyranny and oppression. Ours is a human God, Who, by entering our world and suffering with us and for us, has forever delivered us from sin and death. We have only to realize this fact. After all, it is by our own choices that we are rewarded or punished in the life to come.

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