Sunday, April 15, 2007

Faith Of Our Fathers

Growing up in the 1960s, my father would often reminisce about the days of his youth, and how, for him, they were also the last days of innocence in the Philippines. My father grew up in Batangas, a province known for its courteous people and the quality of their balisongs (butterfly knives). Rural life was remarkably different than life in the big, bustling cities, and even here, the disparity was quite apparent.

My father would often remark how only the very rich could afford television sets those days; he himself was only able to own one in 1975. People then still bathed in the rivers, and still wore concealing undergarments for this purpose. Farming and agriculture was the way of life in those days, which often intertwined with religion in the sense that the two often blended together, so that the farmers could not plant crops without the priest's blessings first and the priest could no hold his processions without the participation of the farmers.

My father was the youngest in a brood of six. His parents were both educators-- my grandmother had a Ph.D. in education from the University of the Philippines, while my grandfather was the city agriculturist. They lived in a modest two storey house in a charming and quaint neighborhood. My dad's chores included feeding the pigs they cared for and buying meat from the market, which started at the early age of six. Life was simple in those days. In the house, beneath a small alcove near the stairway was the family altar. There was an image of the Holy Child at the center, carved from solid ivory and lavishly dressed in embroidered robes, while Christ the King sat in his throne to one side, and a painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe stood on the other.

Whenever I visit my grandparents' house, I always make sure to look at that image of the Child. Its hand raised in benediction, and the faintest trace of a smile plastered on its lips, always struck me as a bit unsettling, almost like the Mona Lisa. Behind the Child's cherubic face lay a secret, though I did not know what it was yet. There eventually came a day when my dad found me looking longingly at the image, its robes tattered and worn from age and the ivory face starting to crack, little by little. Curious, he approached me and asked me why I was seemingly enraptured at the image; and like all good fathers, he told me a story, one that he himself held, and still holds, in wonder.

As the story goes, my great grandfather, who had just renounced Masonry, was suffering from a terrible fever one stormy night. To make things worse, the electricity was cut off by the freak weather-- and in those days, power in the rural areas could take as long as several years to be brought back. There were literally entire towns and villages whose electricity had been cut off for ten, twelve, even fifteen years. My great grandfather was, like all men in those days, incredibly handy with electronics and machinery. Though a schoolteacher, he did not let this stop him from getting a good grasp on manual labor, and liked to consider himself wuite skilled in that regard.

Taking matters into his own hands, he proceeded to go down the stairs in the dead of night in the hopes of trying to remedy the situation. But as he was climbing down the wooden platforms, he somehow slipped, lost his balance, and came crashing to the floor. Blood oozed from his head, and he could hardly move at all. It was my dad who found him the next morning, still alive, but seemingly in his death throes. He ran screaming and awoke my grandparents, who were seized by panic. My dad's elder brother ran to fetch the only doctor in town while his sisters helped Lolo get back on his feet, nursing him with their tears and prayers.

One of my dad's sisters decided to step out of the room for a moment to fetch a basin of water. As she was proceeding to climb down, she noticed that the Child was not in its usual niche, but rather, it was lying on its back near the spot where my great grandfather had his accident. It seemed to have fallen that night, but they did not notice it at first; its body was bent, presumably crushed by something heavy. My aunt returned with the basin, and relayed the incident to the rest of the people in the room. My grandfather started to regain some strength eventually. In the middle of the conversation, he started to tell those gathered how his hands managed to latch onto something before he fell, and how something, somehow, managed to keep his head from hitting the wrought iron table near the spot he fell. Could it have been the Santo Nino?

It could only have been a miracle. My dad stood in awe, while the women of the house hurriedly decided to pray the rosary. Someone once told me that miracles can be defined as the temporary suspension of the laws of nature, and in my great grandfather's case, his miracle was his being preserved from what could only be the logical step of his head hitting the rough corners of the side table. Looking at the Santo Nino, I wondered what could possibly have caused it to fall. Could it have been placed too near the edge of the niche? Was there a slit at the back of its shrine that somehow let in the stormy wind? Or was it something far more extraordinary?

Years later, as I was conemplating the serene gaze of the Little Lord, I understood the secret that it had been hiding for so long. I gazed into the face of the Ineffable as even then I slowly began to understand that there was no secret, and that the only thing that mattered was God's love for us. This is and has always been the 'secret'.

For my father and the rest of the family, the Holy Child was the most concrete expression of their belief in God. It was a tangible and concrete faith that filled the eyes with wonder, where God 'revealed' Himself continuously in the most mundane of things and also in the greatest of them. He was in the laughter of children and the rays of the sun and dwelt in His throne at the tabernacles of the myriad churches of these islands. It was then that I knew what Faith was, and it is something that no words can ever express.

Those days are now long gone. In our time, real faith is a dying breed, and most of us have to contend with a faith that is nothing more than dressed up articles of assent. I have grown tired of debating and all the stubbornness and belligerence that often comes with theology; give me back REAL religion instead.

I no longer want to hear why Thomism is superior to other philosophies or whether the Novus Ordo Missae is invalid or not (these debates reduce the Mass into the realm of magic, I've always thought); instead, give me back those stories of the Santo Nino de Cebu strolling around the gardens of his basilica at night, and how he would often appear to children and play with them and disappear all of a sudden. That is the Faith of our fathers, and when men were wiser, that same Faith was ever in bloom.


Fr. Dwight Longenecker said...

you write well. Beautiful blog. i've linked to mine:

Soutenus said...

Your experiences are different than mine but your words ring true and familiar in my heart. I agree, "I have grown tired of debating and all the stubbornness and belligerence that often comes with theology; give me back REAL religion instead."
I feel blessed to have stumbled upon your blog. I will be back - and I have linked to you.
In Christ,
Soutenus (over at CatholicNotebook)

Andrew said...

Great blog. Excellent post.

I've borrowed your Easter and Altar of Repose photos and linked you at my blog. I hope you don't mind.

From Malaysia.

Archistrategos said...

Dear all,

Thank you very much for all the comments! I will be linking to your blogs as well. God bless!