Monday, May 21, 2007

De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine

Two of the biggest holidays in all the Philippines are the twin days of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day. On these dates, millions of Filipinos will migrate to their provinces to visit their beloved dead, as well as meet up with some relatives they had probably not seen in over a year. Almost all the cemeteries here are filled to capacity: many families bring food and are sometimes forced to dine on their loved ones' graves due to lack of space, children run around and get lost in the campo santo and come crying back to their parents for fear of ghosts, and charlatans dressed as priests extort money from the unwitting crowd to pray for their dead. Even the most sanctimonious Born Again Fundamentalists will lay aside their self-imposed rigidity and revert to their humanity, and maybe even utter a Hail Mary, if you are lucky.

Local custom holds that there must always be someone accompanying the deceased on these days, perhaps as a relief from the pains of purgatory, and for more practical reasons as well: if you ignore the grave for even a minute, chances are that some opportunists will spirit away your candles and flowers to sell them at cheaper prices. It is a joyous chaos, robbed of the solemnity and gravitas one usually expects in such hallowed grounds. But why such joy in the face of such sorrow? How is it that people can still smile and engage in ribaldry in the land of the vapid and the silent?

My paternal grandmother died in 2004, at the ripe age of 82. She and my grandfather had been married for fifty six years, and it was a lifetime spent in joy and sweetness, surely one of the best-lived lives I've ever known. Death is not a pretty thing; there is a shock and pain that goes beyond the sweet melancholy offered by flowers and prayers that either makes or breaks a person. My father loved my grandmother very much; with him being the youngest among a brood of six, he was naturally bound to receive much of the attention. The story goes that, on the day my grandmother died, one of her last requests was to see her beloved son one last time before she left this mortal world. My dad was stuck in a thicket of work that day; he left the office at 3 PM and drove as quickly as he could to Batangas, which is a good two and a half hours away from Manila. Worse, there was a storm that afternoon, lengthening the number of hours of travel. The traffic crawled to a mind-numbing slothfulness.

He didn't reach her in time. He arrived at eight in the evening, a good hour after she had died. I learned about the incident through my sister. I remember I was reviewing for a test that night, as well as chatting with some friends via MSN. When my sister finally blurted out the inevitable news, I didn't know what to think; I quickly prayed the 'Lux Aeterna' and recited the De profundis, which I gleaned from the Internet some days before (this was the time I was first rediscovering Traditionalism). None of us spoke that night. We were all gripped in contemplation, and gently, the rain wept outside.

They buried my grandmother in a simple grave beneath the shade of a lofty sampaloc tree. It was located on a farther side of a somewhat steep incline that was studded with an array of beautiful flowers and emerald green grass. On golden days, the sun's rays would pierce the alcove created by the tree and create a dazzling show of light. It was a haunting vision that stirred tears to well in the eyes and the coldest hearts to melt. My grandmother always said that she wanted to be buried in the ground; her beloved sons and daughters gladly fulfilled this request, despite having an old, if modest, family mausoleum in the same cemetery.

My father had always been a believer, but I could tell this incident had a profound impact on him. Although he believed in God, the depression and despair that gripped him in those days following the funeral launched him into the deepest recesses of abandon. If I were to crystallize his state of mind, it would be summarized into this single statement: "I know God exists, but I don't believe in Him." Indeed, he didn't go to Mass for the longest time, and I have to confess, this attitude also influenced us to an extent. When he spoke, his voice was always tinted with a certain sadness and detachment, as if he were caught in the grips of a perpetual sigh. Even my aunts would sometimes find themselves asking him if he needed to be alone, or to visit my grandmother's grave.

I sometimes wonder what might have happened if that despair never left my father. Would it have rubbed off on me as well? Would I have stopped believing? Would I have been angry for the rest of my life? Observed from a distance, the consequences do not seem so earth-shattering; but such is the nature of human beings, I guess. We are social animals, and whether we admit to it or not, the thoughts and actions of our peers will always influence us to a certain extent. My father’s hopelessness never really had a profound impact on me until now, and I have to confess that I am still a little bit confused as to what to think in the face of it all. Perhaps I am repeating this for the thousandth time now, but what is really the point of all the suffering? Why does despair still creep into a world that has been redeemed by the Son of God Himself?

Or is despair not really what it seems? In high school, our religion teacher once gave the whole class a single question with which to ponder on for a period of three months. The question was this: “What would you do if everything you ever dreamed and hoped for turned out to be a lie?” I don’t recall how I answered the question; I probably went off on a tangent and wrote something sappy life, “There is always hope!” or “God will make a way”. In hindsight, it probably wasn’t too bad, but I have always been easy to please. And seeing the question thrust at me again, I am at a loss to provide an answer, save the most desperate of all: that despair is the most sublime gift from God.

I have never known an atheist in person until I entered college; I had some acquaintances before, but for the most part, the people I knew were all very religious and very devout. This person wasn’t the most intelligent student out there, and neither was he the best looking, nor the richest. He was perfectly normal, sans the fact that whatever he wrote or said always seen laden with all the cares and problems of the world. Perhaps it may have something to do with the fact that two of his siblings died in childhood, that his mother left them for a foreigner, or maybe even the fact that his own father was a sexual deviant. He hated God and hated everything that had to o with religion, and avoided those subjects like the plague. What is most admirable about him is how, even in the face of such concerns, he still manages to take care of his remaining siblings, provide himself with a good education, smile a lot, tell good stories, and live as if everything in his world was assured and that they will all be taken care of.

To see with the eyes of despair is to see the world, scars, bruises, blemishes, warts and all. Indeed, it is a revolting thought to have that our lives all ultimately boil down to living for the day and nothing else, that we are, as Scripture says, only ‘dust and ashes’. Were I raised an Evangelical, I am almost certain that I would have slipped into such a mindset; I am a person with a generally melancholic temperament, balanced occasionally by bursts of the choleric, and the rare dab from the sanguine. Perhaps this is the reason why we have the phrase ‘it is best to die as a Catholic’; the Church is not just some abstract juggernaut that caters itself merely to those wise and smart enough to understand its legalese; it too, is found in the gutters and the slums where the simple and the ignorant thank God everyday for even so much as a piece of scrap metal or discarded chicken bones. As a friend of mine once put it, the Church is the only conceivable institution on this earth that proclaims the Gospel of the mundane and the worthless.

This naturally goes without saying that religion is not, and should not, be seen as some sort of divine magical apparatus that is nothing more than the Midas touch so many of us dream and hope for. The power of the Church does not lie in its ability to change the things around us, but in its unsurpassed ability to change ourselves into something more than dust and ashes. Nowhere is the meeting of the Divine and the human better celebrated than in the Mass; to an atheist, the thought that the God we worship is contained in that single white wafer is an absurd, ludicrous and even utterly stupid notion; but more than mere melodrama, we believe this to be irreformable, undeniable Truth. Yes, it is the same God who created the universe Who humbles Himself to take the guise of bread. And it is the same God Who suffered, Who descended into hell, Who rose again on the third day, Who now lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Ghost, Who will come again to judge the quick and the dead.

I often think of despair as the deepest seedbeds of hope. It is when we have been pushed to such an extreme when we only realize the goodness and grace of this world. Surely even a person like Doña Ignacia Sanchez Botello thought about giving up on more than one chance; but unlike the atheist, she used the bleakness and severity of her condition to see that there is still some good left in this world. Perhaps society in general is indeed doomed to be a habitation of devils; but where most give up, there, too, is to be found hope. The shadows are always darker than the light, but it is nevertheless always dispelled.

It was Mother Teresa who taught me what it means to love through her example. Here was a woman who looked more like a corpse than a human being, whose face was furrowed with long nights of grieving and praying just to give some nameless man, abandoned in the streets for the sport of crows and predators, another day, hoping against hope that someone would come pick him up. In many cases, such days never come. If there is anything this should teach us, it is this: to despair is the greatest proof of God’s love, because in seeing the world as meaningless and shrouded in all its defects is a way of perceiving the haunting truth that there is a God out there Who loves us, and Who wants everything for us to become more than dust, more than ashes.

I pray that my atheist friend will one day see the light; it would be such a sad thought if he were to think all his efforts and hard work ultimately amount to nothing but sentimentality and obligation. He is such a wonderful person to talk to, and it would be a shame if he were never to see that there is still a spark of goodness in an otherwise clouded and stormy world. As for my father, he has thankfully overcome that brief, though seemingly eternal, period of intense trial and tribulation. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, after all. Perhaps the surest and most surreal sign that his ordeal has finally come to an end occurred last year, when we visited my grandmother’s grave. He didn’t cry; he merely smiled, which in all probability she too would have wanted for him to do. The flowers beside the grave were in full bloom, and the grass carried the fresh scent of spring, while under the shade of the tree everything looked golden. As we were finally leaving, I heard a song playing on the radio of a car some three hundred feet away. It was the Beatles’ classic ‘Here Comes the Sun’. My dad smiled, and we pretended not to notice. It has indeed been a long and lonely winter.

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