Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Faith and Superstition

Manila is notorious for its excruciatingly hellish traffic jams, and this is especially evident during the Holy Week celebrations. Since the Philippines is a Catholic country, Holy Week is universally regarded as a national holiday. At noon of Spy Wednesday, many business give their employees the rest of the day off in order to return to their respective provinces (almost all Filipinos have a home province). Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are untouchable, and indeed, businesses shut down entirely on these two days, although admittedly some still work on these days. When I was younger, we would also go along with the massive crush of people and return to my father's home in Batangas.

Holy Week is also an auspicious time for the superstitious. Many faith healers believe, for example, that Good Friday is an especially auspicious day to recharge their powers and anting-antings, or amulets. In Pampanga, many people--including a nun-- have themselves crucified on this day. Interestingly, this tradition only started in the 1950s, at the advice of a certain healer known as Apu Iro, who was reputed to have been miraculous even when still alive. Filipinos are a very credulous, and this combined with the superficial catechesis (especially in the 18th to 19th centuries) they received from the Spaniards gave rise to bands of theological outlaws, who infested the countryside with an exotic synthesis of mysticism, religion and philosophy.

In the island of Bohol, famed for its beautiful beaches and lush landscapes, there is a certain mountain that devotees climb during Maundy Thursday, capped with an ancient cross, that is believed to grant untold graces to whosoever touches it. They climb the mountain barefoot, and there have been numerous cases of accidental deaths in the past. Another mountain, Mount Banahaw, is sacred to Catholics, mysticists, and Rizalistas, who believe that its springs, like the waters of the Jordan, can cure any illnesses. They also hold it as the site where the just shall witness the tribulations of the last days, and indeed, it has gained a reputation as a hotbed for millenarianist movements.

Superstition, we say. A sensationalist, superficial and ignorant way of looking at religion, a mockery of the Church. But then again, this was how the Middle Ages were like. There seems to be a tendency among traditional circles that idealizes, even romanticizes, these times as an age where everyone knew what the Church taught, and an age of faith entirely free from the mangles of the Evil One. Yet what is forgotten is the fact that Europe was languishing under the shadow of the Plague and was under constant threat from Islamic invasion. Heresy abounded as well, though perhaps it was not so threatening as it was in the days of the early Church. Popes were living in sin, and Rome was left to the dogs.

In my opinion, the Middle Ages were truly Catholic because of all the afflictions it faced. I pointed out in an earlier post that there is not a single moment that the Devil doesn't try to tempt us into sin. And one of the main reasons why this era held out for so long was because the faith of the people was simple. It was not an overly complex instruction manual cum book of table manners sprinkled with some Latin and Greek, it was a real thing that can be grasped. I am fascinated by these stories because they hearken back to simpler times, when God 'dwelt' in living rooms and spoke to men through the rustling of trees and the roaring of waves. Call it superstition, if you want, but these superstitions at least concretize the Church as something more than a theological concept.

The Church is a church that worships relics, from finger bones to skulls to arm bones to eyelashes to flayed skin to a piece of nose-- heck, even Our Lord's own foreskin. The Church is a church that adores the precious wood of the Cross, that falls on its knees when God descends upon the altar to transubstantiate the bread and wine, that walks to shrines on knees, where women cover their heads in lace, where the manliest of men wear golden capes and fancy hats. Our Church is a paradox, at once divine by virtue of Her being founded by God, and human, because it is not a conglomeration of the saved but a house of rehabilitation for the wounded and the sick. There is room for the loftiest of theologies and he purest and simplest of devotions.

I grew up in the city, and perhaps this might have contributed to my largely secularized outlook; it was only in recent years that I began to rediscover our rich heritage as Catholics. But in the provinces these are still everyday occurences; who am I honestly to judge what is true and what is not? The greatest of saints often have the most incredulous stories; St. Joseph of Cupertino frequently levitated in ecstasy, and a host of other saints have been known for their ability to bilocate. Are these superstitions too?

Who is honestly closer to God? The man who uses reason and concepts to come to a knowledge of Him, or the man who falls down and kisses the feet of an image of the Nazarene? True unadulterated Faith will always be confused with superstition, because real faith is not so much concerned as to the hows and whys as it is about the whens and wheres. Faith is foremost an acknowledgment of the Divine, and only secondly an intellectual assent. It is something sensible and sensual, in the sense that faith will always manifest itself in the tangible and the physical.

Admittedly, there is always a very real threat of superstition supplating real faith. Afterall, the ardor of Lucifer is the same ardor with which the Seraphim praise the Ancient of Days unceasingly. But in the end, I would rather err on the side of excess than being overly cautious and 'reserved', for lack of better word. Chesterton once remarked that he did not want to belong to a religion that allowed him to possess a crucifix, but rather to one where there is a surfeit of such things and are perhaps even taken for granted. A real, working Faith is grafted onto the ordinary and the mundane, and this for me has always been one of the cornerstones of our religion.

A Protestant friend once remarked to me how Catholic practices resemble those of the pagans to an almost inextricable degree. It was nothing like the evangelical charismatic background to which he belonged, and oddly enough, he seemed to have developed a liking for these 'pagan influences.' I replied to him how unfortunate it was that most of these practices are no longer the norm in the cities, and how they have almost been relegated to museum halls as if they were dead. If we truly want the Church to be relevant in an increasinhly secular society, the first and most important step would be to make it popular again.

Vatican II tried to do that by taking away the 'superstition' and other dubious practices, and look at where it has led: empty pews, ugly churches, non-believing priests and whiny, bratty atheists. As for myself, I would much rather submerge myself in the hustling, bustling, clogged arteries that make up Catholic Tradition than have it served to me on a silver platter. Unless it is St. John the Baptist's head, of course.


Anonymous said...

My brother in Christ,

Easter greetings, alleluia! My name is Nick and I am the founder and administrator for Mount Carmel Bloggers which is a team blog. Andrew from Unam Sanctam actually sent me your link, and after checking your blog out and talking with Andrew, I would like to invite you to join our team. We currently have like 10 or 11 bloggers! We discuss primarily liturgy and abuses, but we also talk widely on sacraments, sacramentals, doctrine, devotions, etc. If you are intrested, email me at larkiniv@msn.com because I would love to send an official invite. Keep up the blogging!

Andrew said...

Firstly, I hope you'll take up the offer and join us in Mount Carmel.

Secondly, well written. We, who are so 'sophisticated' often confuse an innocent but intense faith, a simple faith, a faith that still believes in a Living God who still works wonders and miracles, and expresses itself in fervent, heartfelt devotion with superstition. That is indeed sad.

God did not become man so that man can become Dogmatic Theologians, expressing faith is precise scholastic formulas.

Faith and devotion are expressed in a myriad of ways, none of which require my blessing and approval, thank you very much. A sinner once expressed her repentance and faith by pouring perfume over the head of Jesus as recounted in St Mark's Gospel, chapter 14 and St. Matthew's Gospel, chapter 26. Jesus says "I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her." In John's Gospel, the woman who anointed Jesus was forgiven of her sins. Why? Because her outward expression, her pouring of perfume which might seem and did seem wasteful and even superstitious to the more sophisticated disciples, manifested her interior faith in Jesus which He recognized and rewarded.

Culture also plays a role. I once saw a priest comment that some women who touched the feet to the statues of Jesus and Mary of put flowers around their necks were excessively devotional. I told them that in Indian culture, the touching of the feet symbolized and expressed respect. A child would do the same to a parent or elder. The practice of garlanding also expresses respect for someone important. But culturally, we might see it differently. So culture plays a role as well. I've seen old military men click their heels are they entered a Church, Japanese bow deeply, etc.

Better to have more piety than nonchalance, indifference to the great mystery and miracles that occur all around us, especially in God's gift of His Presence in the Blessed Sacrament.

Archistrategos said...

I actually emailed Nick already, I'm just waiting for him to respond :D . In Philippine culture as in Indian culture, flowers also play a great part in devotions; indeed, as you can see in the picture, garlands of 'sampaguita' are frequently used to adorn devotional statues. And as someone once told me, the more pagan it looks, the more Catholic it is.