Friday, May 25, 2007

Saints and Sinners


There is a rapidly spreading legend about one of Manila’s most crowded cemeteries, about how a curious statue of the Archangel Michael is drawing visitors from all over the country. Unlike most legends, however, this story is true. There is such a statue of the Archangel, and it is slowly but surely attracting a growing number of visitors. Is it miraculous? Does it move? Does it communicate revelations from God? Is it a long lost da Vinci? The answer is none of the above. The statue is crude, primitive and weathered by nearly a hundred years of exposure to the raw elements of nature. It is not even an exceptionally carved piece, and it is locked away in s rusted cage of wrought iron. And strangest of all, the Archangel is depicted not as the glorious champion of God—rather, he lies prostrate, humbled, his neck trodden down by the smiling figure of the Devil himself.

If popular lore is to be believed, then the statue and the grave upon which it rests is at least, if more than, a hundred years old. The final resting place of a sangley, it was supposed to have been erected to spite the Spanish friars, who discriminated against his people. The grave lay unnoticed, waiting in prodigious slothfulness, until it was ‘rediscovered’ within the last ten years. And if the tales of local residents (yes, some people here live in the cemeteries) are true, the sangley left one final curse to the friars, and had the words ‘ME CAGO EN LAS TETAS DE VUESTRAS MADRES’ carved onto its face. I have not seen the grave in person yet, so I cannot ascertain the veracity of this claim.

There is good, solid evidence to think this man was a sinner in life. The undeniably derisive depiction of the Archangel Michael and his supposed hateful vitriol against the friars are still cause for grave scandal in this deeply conservative country. So what is it about this sinner that still inspires conversation today? What is it about his sin that is so intriguing, despite the obvious irreverence it depicts?

It is true that the Church has always had sinners in its midst. We have had impious men arrogate the tiara for themselves, bishops who sow scandal and disorder among the sheep, priests who deny Her very doctrines, laymen who are more superstitious than faithful as well as charlatans, thieves and murderers, to name a few. So, should this really come as a shock to us? After all, even in this day and age, sinners still walk amongst saints in the Church. For every Mother Teresa striving to live out the ideals of Christianity, there are ten Alejandro Borgias and double the number of Gilles de Rais making a mockery of them. Indeed, one can even argue that today’s sinners are worse than the sinners of yesterday, and this is very true to a large extent.

So what makes the sinners of forty, fifty, even a hundred years ago infinitely more interesting than those of today? If there is any particular reason I can think of, it is probably due to the fact that these people knew exactly what they were doing despite always having the Church and Her morality in perspective. They knew they were flouting doctrine, they knew how much they lusted after women arrayed for battle, they knew the exact number of people killed in their petty wars. They knew above all that they were sinners, and that their impiety and severe lack of charity would be their ultimate demise. Call it melodrama if you want, but if there is something ‘positive’ about it, it is that they never sought to justify their being sinners, because a sin is a sin is a sin, and that was the incontrovertible, irreformable truth. They knew that they were sinners and they enjoyed every minute of revelry of their misdeed.

Compared with the sinners of today, they were vastly more interesting; the difference lies in the fact that heaps and heaps of souls will suffer everlasting fire without even knowing it. These days, may are damned and are being damned without their even knowing it or enjoying their sins. I attended a retreat almost six months ago, and during one of the many meditations we had, the priest mentioned that modern man must somehow learn what it means to be a sinner in order to distinguish just what is it in the silent nature of the cosmos that we are being saved from. This seems to be the fundamental dilemma in our postmodern age: there is no more fear, no more taboos, and therefore, no more excitement. Modern man is accustomed to having his whims fulfilled at the push of a button. It is not even out of malice anymore that men are being damned, but through a more dangerous path, that of ignorance and entitlement. This then effectively eradicates the concept of sin, and consequently, of sinners; thus, only the hell-bound remain.

Some days ago, I came upon the medieval legend of the Irish bishop Gudmund. As the story goes, the bishop sent some missionaries to a far off island in the hopes of bringing the Christian religion to their shores. When many months passed without so much as a word from the missionaries, the bishop himself decided to investigate the island. Local lore spoke of monstrous beasts and devils that haunted the uppermost caves of the island. Undeterred, the bishop brought with him a quantity of holy water, and began to bless the island. Eventually, he found himself at the foot of a long and narrow bridge that crossed a gaping, immeasurably deep chasm. As he was crossing the bridge, a huge, hairy hand emerged from a nearby cave, a dagger in hand. Gudmund increased his prayers as even then, the mighty appendage severed one of the ropes.

The brave bishop continued to proceed, as another hand, this time more massive than the first, cut the second rope which held the bridge in place. But despite the threat he faced, Gudmund pressed on. This time another hand, carrying a tremendous sword, tried to sever the third and last rope, but the good bishop had given it a special blessing and was miraculously saved. Gudmund crossed the chasm eventually, and as he was about to bring the wicked beings to an end, a voice called out to him, saying ‘Bless no more, Bishop Gudmund. Even the wicked must have a place for themselves’.

A religion that does not know how to deal with evil—death, suffering and woe—is not a real religion, because real religion, in the end, is supposed to mirror life, and not an ideal. In our haste to proclaim the Church a vessel of every triumph and honor, we have somehow forgotten that there must be an adversary first to flesh out this victory. And the Church has suffered losses more than She has won victories in the twenty centuries of her existence thus far. This is the greatest tragedy of the Reformation: in its disdain for the popular and ‘vulgar’ religion of the middle ages, it produced a whole system of errors, of negation of negations, that we know as Protestantism today.

So what does this have to do with sin? When we consider Luther’s divorce of religion from the public sphere, there is naturally also a separation of what is true from what one’s ‘personal truth’ is. The Reformation, with its cafeteria set of doctrines and the chaos and disorder it consequently effected, is then essentially nothing more than Luther’s way of justifying himself, of his despair and the scarcity of any self-worth he had. It is a system that is devoid of any corporate aspect, and that which is more an ideal than reality. The end result is the compartmentalization of religion, and consequently, of sin itself. Despite this, however, Luther remains an ‘interesting sinner’ in my books, because he knew that trying to justify himself was his sin; indeed, there is an often-told anecdote about Luther’s mother, who asks him if she should follow him on the path he has chosen. Luther’s reply is a classic in itself: ‘Remain a Catholic’.

I think Luther genuinely had a desire to live his life as free from sin as possible, and while a noble thought, it is highly unrealistic in the end. As I’ve said a couple of times before in this blog, how can we honestly expect a life that is free from blemish and hardship when Our Lord—God Himself—underwent the most bitter ordeal in the history of man? It is not without reason that Cicero calls crucifixion, in his immortal words, ‘crudelissimum eterrimunque supplicum’—that is, the most cruel and atrocious of all punishments. Even Christ Himself warns us in Holy Scripture, that if they persecuted Him, we, too, shall suffer the same fate. It is good to be hateful of sin, and this has always been a very Christian perspective; but also part of this psyche is the notion of suffering and frailty.

It is not proper to expect of ourselves absolute and utter perfection; even the highest and most glorious of the seraphim do not have this honor. In the end, it is good to remember that all the elegance and majesty of the cosmos, from the splendor of a supernova to the primordial utterances of the raging sea down to the most poetic of the sun’s rays are as nothing compared to the dignity we have been gifted with by Our Lord. What the universe in all its glory cannot even fathom was content to walk the earth and live as Man. That is truth.

I have often lamented the fact that much of the sanctoral legend and pious customs which nourished the Middle Ages seem to have been lost in translation from that period to the modern era. I guess I am lucky enough to have lived in such Chestertonian settings. I am still fascinated by many-headed dragons crowned with ten crowns and armies that number two hundred million, and I find cute the image of the Christ Child resting His head on a human skull (Sto. Nino de las Suertes). The tragedy of the Reformation and the subsequent blight of the modern era all seem to boil down to the fact that it cannot tell stories anymore. In its quest to rid Catholicism of excess baggage, I fear the Council Fathers of Trent, though noble in conception, produced a religion that glories in its triumph, forgetting that the dragon remains unconquered. I recognize that Trent was formulated precisely to combat the Protestant heresy, so I won’t comment on this matter anymore.

Perhaps the reason why there are so many people rebelling against Christianity is because it does not offer them taboos and excitement anymore. To be Christian these days has degenerated into nothing more than attending the service on Sundays, feeling good, and driving around in SUVs that poison the environment. I once quipped in class that Christianity is the ultimate form of rebellion, in that is saw as ugly and aberrant what so many people otherwise see as just ‘part of this world’, and sublime and beautiful what we would consider the small and the broken. It didn’t set out to be praised or to look good, and it certainly didn’t shy away from hard questions. In a way, the Christian religion seems to have ‘sold out’ and become just another drone.

The thrill of rebellion, after all, lies in the negation of what is commonly perceived as normal and substituting an alternative and often radical view for it. So it is not any wonder that more and more Christians of all stripes and colors are leaving their churches in droves; but sadly, and perhaps even thankfully, this has happened before in the past. The genius of God lies in His eternal creativity, and it is through life that He works primarily to bring out the reds and greens and blues of daily routine and flesh them out to extraordinary brilliance. Who knows? Maybe there is hope yet for them. Who would have known that when the Europeans were languishing from the ‘fruits’ of the Reformation that God would raise entire populations of indios from Latin America and the Far East to restitute the Church?

To say that the Church is rebelling against Her rebellion is probably an accurate way of summarizing things in the end. But this rebellion is not exactly ‘rebellious’, either. It is rather like substituting an English garden party for a rave, or God forbid, Green Day for Led Zeppelin. Boredom and tepidity can kill, after all, and it is precisely these two that are affecting the majority of Christians. It is too pretty and sanitized for its own good.

5 comments:

Pseudo-Iamblichus said...

Reminds me of this post from the Lion and the Cardinal.

"What makes the sins of the consumerist, sexually liberated West so despicable is not the objective level of their depravity, but the dull, ordinarily indifference with which they are committed. Sodomy and fornication and contraception no longer even have the thrill of violating societal taboo; any depravity that a man can imagine can be ordered on videotape and watched in the privacy of a suburban home after putting the kids to bed. Our own odes to fornication are played in elevators and on airplanes and on oldies stations. Compared to the Archpoet, Mick Jagger sounds utterly bored with his own depravity. One of the saddest things about modern times is that the vast majority of people damn their souls to Hell without ever even really enjoying their mortal sins."

Do you know Spanish, by any chance?

Anonymous said...

Hi, that was beautiful post.

Just a few questions:
Did you leave something out? What does that phrase mean? What did that man do (what was his sin?)? Did the man put the statue there? Is that phrase carved into the statue's face (St Michael)?

I love the meditation that followed but I obviously didn't get the story.

Best,
Hannah

Archistrategos said...

Wow! Thanks for showing me that post, PI. I've not read that before. I know very little Spanish, though obviously enough to know what that phrase meant! Anonymous, the story is a bit like that. Some history: sangleys were another name for those of Chinese descent. Now, not all of them were Christians, and there have been incidents in the past where they and the Spanish gov't engaged in deadly combat. I'm not sure if the words were carved on the statue itself, or on the grave (A friend who'd seen it just said 'it was carved on its face')

As for his sin, well, I don't think we'll ever know what he did, or if he meant it. The phrase in Spanish means in as clean an approximation I can: 'I defecate on your mother's mammaries'. Perhaps it was really a final insult to the friars, or maybe it was even themselves who carved it. I'd like to see it for myself personally, because there's never been anything like it before, and because it offers a peek into the mentality of the times. What we do know is that there is a man out there who was very frustrated with the friars, who decided to spite them once and for all by mocking their faith. I should really visit this place and get some pictures soon :) .

Anonymous said...

Now I get it!

Thanks so much!!!

Hannah

Brother Burn said...

Your post made me stop and ponder over how wicked people do not know how wicked they are because it is somehow "acceptable" to be wicked and to picture the devil himself trampling on St Michael gives me the chills.