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