Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Beati Pauperes Spiritu

I was browsing around Flickr the other day when I came upon the picture you now see. It is the portrait of an old woman, scarred and broken by the vicissitudes and cruelties of life. She has lost her sight in one eye, which is itself perpetually covered by her eyelid. Her face, semingly weathered by having seen too much tribulation, simulates more the texture of rough hewn stone than it does the skin of a living person. Her mouth is dry, her remaining eye is downcast, and the woman looks as if she were expecting death everyday of her life. Her name is Doña Ignacia Sanchez Botello, eighty five years of age, of Zinepecuaro, Mexico. Her story can be found here.

Looking at Ignacia, the typical white collar person would perhaps shed a tear from the corner of his eye, and utter his disgust in his heart. For Ignacia, shunned by the powers that be, and cast into a cruel and unforgiving world, is a social pariah. She is disease-ridden, and is perhaps even an eyesore in the streets. Many people would not even so much as give a thought to ignoring her or turning a blind eye when passing her in the streets. Reading her story, it would seem that everyday of her life was a bad day: her husband, a policeman of that city, died eight years ago, and was not a good man. Her son, like her nephews, is a drunkard and a bum. Her only daughter could not see very clearly as well, and so it is left to this old woman, who should be resting quietly in the comforts of her own home, to fend for herself and for her family with what meager sum of money she receives on a day to day basis

The myth of a middle-class, Anglo Saxon Catholicism is one that irritates me to a nauseatingdegree. I don't have anything against anyone who seeks to lead a life of holiness; in fact, this is an admirable trait for me. But I do have a problem when people assume the American way of life, for example, to be the same in all parts of the world. No, I did not drive seven hours to attend the nearest Tridentine Mass, because I do not have th luxury to do so. I am sorry, I wasn't able to wear a three-piece suit last Sunday, I do not have that kind of money. And I am sorry, but my parish is tastelessly decorated with an overcrowded altar and bad acoustics. Mea culpa!

Like it or not, majority of the world's Catholics subsist on the dregs of society-- here in the Philippines alone, a staggering 37% of the populace consider themselves as living below the poverty line. In Latin America, this is also the case; many would have no qualms about leaving thir country altogether in search of greener pastures in a neighboring country. In India, Mother Teresa cared for the 'poorest of the poor', people who were more dead than alive, more bleeding, disease-ridden postules than human. And in Africa, AIDS and genocide and poor health in general are killing off millions and millions in broad, unforgiving swaths. But this has always been the way of the world. It has ever been cruel, and it will never cease to do so.

Ironically enough, a reader who refuses to reveal his identity, emailed me last night and congratulated me for having such a 'beautiful blog' (his words). He deduced that I must have come from money, and belong to the upple middle class set. But I am none of these things. To tell the truth, I was born in 1989 to a modest, one bedroom home in the poorer district of Manila. My mom was only a clerk then, and my father was a supervisor. Less than six months later, we moved back to my grandmother's house because of a robbery that traumatized my mother. We literally lived n my grandmother's backyard, and her own house was not that big to begin with. The 'house' if house it was, was nothing more than a large room, parted in the middle with a flimsy, plywood wall to give us some privacy, though we still had to huddle together in a rather small bed. And although we had solid walls, water would still seep into the ceiling. There was a certain time when we woke up, and the room was literally three inches deep in water

I was also sort of a troublemaker. I would play in the streets with the few friends that I had, and together, we would try to dodge as many cars as possible. I biked for hours and hours on end, and feared this huge, gaping sewer at the end of the street. Urban legend had it that a drunk man once fell through there and was never seen again. In my spare time, I was informally educated by my aunts; it was they who gave me some of my first books. I loved reading Aesop's fables, Grimm's fairy tales, Three Little Pigs, books on architecture, dinosaur books, and old National Geographic magazines. If there is anything 'patrician' about me, it was because my parents always insisted on proper decorum. Although we were poor, my parents were not about to let me miss out on table manners and good clothes and nice toys; they sacrificed themselves to give us, their children, not just a good childhood but an excellent one.

Nowadays, we do live in a bigger house. From the modest barong-barong we once lived in, we now have a good house in an upper middle class district in the city. It wasn't easy transitioning from such 'lowly estate': my father had to work abroad for some years, and even now, he is bound for Japan on May 12th for an eight month stay. My mother literally starved herself sometimes just so she could save enough money to buy good furniture and plasma TVs so our patrician friends would be impressed. And even our maid, whom I revere like my own mother, still takes care of us, cooks our meals, and sees us off to school (at least my younger siblings).

But for the first four years of my earthly life, I counted myself among the blue collar class. And while we were never that poor, the lessons it imparted me are still helpful to this day. I will never forget those days when we still lived in the little house. I will never forget the pride I felt at living in 'two houses' (I always told this to my friends), and I will never forget how happy I felt, walking all the way to the park at City Hall to watch the beautiful sunset. Those were really the happiest days of my life.

Around a year ago, during the Feast of Christ the King, I was reading an article about restoring the 'Social Reign of Christ' in society, as a most effective way to bring about peace and justice to the world. But to my surprise, these people are the same people who frown upon processing the image of Christus Rex in the streets as empty, Baroque frillery designed at sating merely the senses, mere superstition and glorification of bad taste, that has no place at all in the 'new and improved' Traditional Catholicism. The irony was especially palpable in that situation, I thought. But some of us don't have the luxury of debating Aquinas and Scotus during our spare times. We don't have the luxury or the money to spend on gas while looking for that 'perfect' Mass with Solesmes chant, Gothic chasubles, ruby-encrusted chalices, and clean and polished floors. And while these things are certainly pretty and nice to see, there are far more pertinent things to which we must attend to.

I've often wondered as to why churches in poor districts are more beautiful than those in more urban areas. The Basilica of the Sto. Nino in Tondo, one of the poorest and most depressed neighborhoods in Manila notorious for the immeasurable spate of murders and crime happening there everyday, is surprisingly one of the most beautiful as well. There is a Baroque retablo, complete with a central niche spewing sunbeams where the Holy Child sits for all the people to see. But this is not a church built on hundred thousand dollar donations or fundraising concerts by a Gregorian choir; it was raised to the heavens on the mites of thousands of widows, and perhaps, this is why it is one of the most remarkable as well.

In the end, I will probably never meet Doña Ignacia in person, but I know that I will always carry her memory with me. I will never forget her expression, and how she could say a thousand, billion different things with just one glance. Her face, weathered and beaten by having seen the real nature of the world and being exposed to it countless times everyday, is nevertheless a living testimony of faith and hope. Hers is a faith not merely of the heart and mind, but more importantly, of the gut, to quote the Sarabite. And so, if ever you are ever faced with a seemingly insurmountable situation, always remember the face of Doña Ignacia, for like Christ, we have but to look at her, and we will understand all. In the words of the woman herself: "Dios te acompañe y te guarde."

"Beati pauperes spiritu, quoniam ipsorum est regnum caelorum." Matthew 5:3


Archistrategos said...

I apologize if this post sounds a bit cranky. I was having a headache while typing this.

Pseudo-Iamblichus said...

Dear Arch,

You are definitely a brother from another mother, to use the rather banal American term. I suppose if I were in a crankier mood, I would sue you for copyright infringement (I believe I had a post some months back on the myth of Anglo-Saxon Catholicism.) But this touched me very profoundly. This woman you described could be my grandmother, but my grandmother thanks be to God has had a much less tragic life.

You have made me think, and I suppose there will be a post on this tommorrow on my blog. To preview it a bit, I think that I now stand, after so much time in a phase of aesthetic radicalism, onn the abyss of this Platonic beauty, only to be facing life itself. God works with life, not necessarily with beauty. But I don't want to give much more away....

Finally, I am now going to put you on my official list of links. Sorry for the delay, I have just been very busy.

God bless and keep up the good work.


Archistrategos said...


I found your post in question and I have to say that the similarities are so eerily alike that they could only have been "telepathized". Wow. Even right down to the 'Social Reign of Christ the King' bit.

I'm glad you liked the post. In a way, she reminded me of all the various women that have shaped my life since childhood: my mother, my aunts, my guardian/maid, and my Mother in heaven. Most of these women weren't exactly lookers (but my mom is though), but they managed to instill in me the true meaning of beauty more than any symphony or mountainside or indeed anything pretty could. In them, I saw the splendor of God, and perhaps this has been their greatest contribution to my development.

Andrew said...

Archistrategos, although I'd prefer to call you Archie or Mike instead as Leader of the Heavenly Hosts is rather a mouthful! ;) Even and St. Michael are on first name terms now.

First off. Great post.

Secondly, I think, like Arturo, we're from the same pod. I grew up living with my grandparents from a week after I was born. My parents were living somewhere else with my elder brother and younger sister and I seldom saw them at all. Perhaps my mom 6 or seven times and my dad once before I was 12.

My grandparents were extremely poor, their 'wealth' squandered on ungrateful nephews and nieces who never dropped by anymore. By the time I came along, there was almost nothing left. The car, an old antique, was promised to the petrol kiosk owner, in lieu of the petrol used. We did not have much to eat and toys were something you looked at at the store, not something you bought. I learned very early on never to ask.

I used to walk, with my grandfather, up a hill to watch TV at a wealthy aunt's place. We'd also go there Sundays for meals. Life was very tough and the sacrifices that they made for little bratty me makes me weep when I think about it. But it was also fun, as I remember the fishing expeditions, playing in the rain, sneaking to the marshy pond behind my school and squirelling through sewer tunnels under the road. That was really stupid, now that I think of it. Haha...

But still, through all that, they instilled proper decorum in me. Wear your best on Sunday, if someone gives you 10 cents for the Church collection and 10 cents for you to buy yourself an ice-cream cone and somehow 10 cents falls into a drain, say bye to your ice-cream, not sorry to the Church =) We might live simply, but God and other deserve our best.

We're slightly more comfortable now, as I'm an engineer now. But my grandfather has passed away along time ago and my grandmother is old, her features lined with the many cares and worries that life has thrown her way. But still, hope and faith spring eternal.

One of the saddest things that occurred after the council is the destruction of the old altars, which was built by the mites of the poor. This is truly sinful. It was the blood, sweat and sacrifices of the poor that put up many of the altars and statues that were cruelly torn down during the neo-reformation sparked by the Council. A bishop related to me that in the years after the implementation of the aggiornomento, the people came to Church only to see the French missionary priests personally smashing up the statues and breaking down the high altar that they bought with their blood.

The current condescending attitude of some priests that the poor will be scandalized if a church built in a poor area is 'grand' is ridiculous as they seem to think that the poor deserve to not only live in poverty, but worship a poor God in poverty too. The truth is, the poor will often give whatever little they have to God and the Church and it's beauty serve to lift them up from their current physical state, serves to point them towards the hidden realities that Heaven promises which the Church building itself is a foretaste.

The Church is truly a Church of the masses, of the people, simple though they might be, but God's children all the same. Their simplicity and trust, their pious and sometimes over exuberant devotion might seem excessive to the highly intellectual 'inquisitors' who seek to stamp out all forms of popular piety, but it is precisely their childlike faith and trust in God their Father and in His providence that Christ Himself commends.

For all their learning, some of the bishops, like the Pharisees of old, have lost the simplicity of faith that is required by the Lord Jesus for entrance into His Kingdom. They'd do well to keep the great Aquinas in mind who spurned all his books and vowed never again to write after seeing a revelation of Heaven. Perhaps it was the simple people, the unwashed masses whom God calls his children that he saw?
Only God and time will tell should we be ever so privileged to enter into beatitude.

Archistrategos said...


That was a beautiful post. Your grandparents' story is like my own grandparents' story, actually. Although they would have been rich (they used to own a plantation, but the Japanese burned it down in WWII), my grandparents were always down to earth. Being both teachers, they always taught me that educations is an infinitely greater gift than all the riches in the world. They were always there for me when I needed them, and I will never forget them for that.

One of the things that always saddened my dad was how his old church-- where he and his five siblings were all baptized-- was bastardized by these people who wanted to make it a 'people's church.' Although it is still replete with wonderfu sacred art, many priceless statues and paintings were discarded like so much clutter. There was even an incident where an old side altar was destroyed with visible delight by the parish priest.

They never complained, although deep down, I am certain that most of them wept at the destruction of this altar, where in all probability, their own ancestors themselves worshipped. It wasn't the physical that concerned them, but the symbolism of its destruction. That all their works was ultimately just a pile of rubble.

And sadly, for many people, restoration has become a byword for self-imposed bitterness. Truly a sad situation :( .

Archistrategos said...


I re-read your post and I completely agree with you about how erroneous, even offensive, the thought that grand churches are something that the poor shouldn't be exposed to. I am reminded by an anecdote in my HS history class. When the Jesuit Fr. Ignacio Alzina had a 10ft. tall monstrance built for a poor town in the northern Philippines, his superiors criticized him, and told him that such a monstrance was more fitting to be in a Spanish cathedral than a lowly fishing town. The priest replied, 'Let it be built as ordered, for the God of the Filipinos is the same God as those of the Spaniards.' And this was in the 1700s!

Fr. Dwight Longenecker said...

Thank you for a well written and sensitive post!

Anonymous said...

THANK YOU! My travels outside of the Anglo-Saxon world changed my life and opened my eyes to a different kind of Catholicism. It is hard to explain what you are saying to people who have not experienced or witnessed the type of poverty you & I have seen. Some people naturally don't need to because they have open hearts and minds, but SO many American Catholics really truly believe the Church begins and ends with them. Thank you!!!

whosebob said...

Thank you for this blog-entry ... it serves as a powerful reminder and wake-up call ...

Four years ago, at the prompting of the Holy Spirit, I made a visit to the headquarters of the Missionaries of the Poor in Kingston, Jamaica. At that time I was coming out of a major moral slump that had afflicted my years 18 to 25. I would NEVER have imagined that four years later, at age 30, I would be poised to begin life as an aspirant brother in that very community -- I will be leaving from Tennessee, USA for their mission house in Cap-Haitien, Haiti on May 12, 2007!

Please see: Called by God, Unto the Least.

I invite any and all of you to come visit the M.O.P. in any of their houses around the globe (they are particularly well set up for visitors at their headquarters in Jamaica), the experience will likely affect you permanently! Come share in the corporal and spiritual works of mercy performed by the Brothers, in a context where you'll be strengthened and protected by the prayers of the Blessed Virgin, and you'll be nourished daily by Our Lord as He feeds us with Himself in the Blessed Sacrament.

May Our Lord bless you and keep you.


"It is a great joy to serve Christ in the poor" - Fr. Richard Ho Lung, founder of the Missionaries of the Poor

P.S. The M.O.P. are looking for more young men to join their ranks; at present they don't have any professed brothers from first-world countries. Please consider whether Our Lord may be calling you!

LL said...

Thank you for this beautiful post which reminded me of the many of God's beloved poor whom I met during my year working as a Dominican volunteer in Dagat-dagatan, Metro Manila.

Br Lawrence Lew, O.P.

Archistrategos said...

Thank you all so much for your comments. You have all given me much to think about, and for this, I will be always grateful.