Wednesday, August 01, 2007

On Religious Illiteracy


'A luminous morning, of unusual and mysterious splendor'. These were the very words His Holiness Pius XII used to describe that fateful day of November 1st, 1954, a day made solemn by the special honor that it was on this day that the Dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary was ratified, confirmed and solemnly defined as part of the Deposit of Faith. For Catholics, this was the pinnacle of papal infallibility; the ceremony was made doubly stirring by this most solemn exercise of papal supremacy, as well as the rareness of such an event. It is said that hundreds of thousands, from all walks of life, clogged up the mighty square of St. Peter's, spilling all the way into the Via della Conciliazione, as all over the world, millions more joined in on this most solemn of events.

From the faintest glimmer of dawn on that day, St. Peter's was already wrapped in a thick fog, the morning mist coolly kissing the cheeks of the attendees. At the end of a long procession, the Holy Father finally emerged from the great bronze door of the basilicas, seemingly swung open by some mysterious force. Seated on a magnificent sedia gestatoria with the canopy, carried by a handful of men, shielding the Pontiff from glaring heat, it is said that the sun burst forth at this very moment, the mist lending greater radiance to the dancing sunbeams. High above, gleaming brightly like a sickle of purest silver, the crescent moon blazed astonishingly clear.

But the spectacle and wonder of this day was yet to come. When the Pope, rising from his seat, reached the moment of the definition itself, it is said that the multitudes of people gathered suddenly became silent, so silent, that you could literally hear a pin drop. In his lofty and elegant timbre, Pius XII read aloud the Latin words, as the hundreds of thousands of worshipers dropped to their knees, trembling in awe at the majesty of what was about to transpire. For a whole minute, the crowd knelt motionless, as Pius XII's voice resounded through the airwaves, crisp and clear. But in that span of sixty seconds, the entire horizon of Catholicism forever changed as we knew it; it was an event of such significance that brought to mind the entire history of the Church, from Her earliest days of inception down to the trials She has had to endure. In those sixty seconds, the darkest depths of the star-gulfs bowed in the face of divine light, as even then earth and heaven trembled as one.

Such an event could not have transpired without the cooperation of prior established Faith. To the skeptic, the definition of the Assumption was, at the basest level, an act of mere legalistic rhetoric. Seen through the eyes of faith, however, it is an event of such greatness and profundity so as to be likened to the creation of the world. In the Philippines, it was used as an excuse to hold processions on an almost daily basis; it was the triumph of Marian devotees, the scourge of heretics, the banner of a proud and glorious Church. The populace, ever enamored of such baroque expressions of faith, would seem purveyors of distasteful and superstitious beliefs by those alien to our culture; indeed, many Protestants used this event to bolster their confidence in what they saw as the ungodly inventions of Mother Rome.

The Calvinists are wont to decry without a moment's notice the doctrinal errors of the Church, and they do so with an animated fervor driven by an almost pharisaic zeal. The Aglipayans decry the Catholics for being the dogs of the Spaniards; the Iglesia ni Cristo decry our festivities as the surest mark of our decadence, excesses, and subsequently, apostasy. It is no secret that the more radical Protestant sects have no desire nor use for such semblances of humanity in their theologies; the Protestant way of life is essentially a redaction of the Gospels into nothing more than ethical, moral treatises. Thus, we can see how they can so easily shove processions, parades, and sacramentals so easily: what difference, then, does it make to shove aside miracle stories of water turning into wine, the dead rising from their graves, and donkeys speaking to their masters?

The Jesus of the Gospels, let us recall, had a taste for the extravagant. In our modern culture, this word has sadly become too synonymous for 'excess' and 'indulgence'. However, the true sense of the word is more akin to 'extraordinary'; it is not so much as an exaltation of worldly vice, but a confession that what we are witnessing is not something out of the ordinary. When the penitent woman poured oil on the feet of Our Lord, whom was He praising? Certainly not the hypocrites who sought to make better use of it; like Martha, we too are often deluded into doing something else. Similarly, when David pranced naked in front of the Ark and made love to his mistress, his officials conspired against him. And yet he was the beloved of God, His anointed one--are we honestly too wise as to question the decisions of God Himself? The Protestant ethos, while ironically professing linkage to the historical Jesus of the Gospels, have, in stripping the narratives to their essentials, unearthed not the flood of divine grace that they would expect, but a legal tender, one no different from a Hallmark greeting card.

It is strange, perplexing, and oddly amusing how Protestants can go on thinking that the Faith is just some set of abstractions and legalisms. Too often people have derived a certain schadenfreude at seeing Protestant missionaries, who, while doubtless of good faith, are still shocked and scandalized that the Philippines is not the ordered, structured communities they have come to associate their religion with. In Manila alone, it is still a common sight to see old, graying women, walking to the altar on their knees, wailing and sobbing their penitence for all to witness. In a certain part of Lucena, penitents on Good Friday go about their business drunk; flagellants whip themselves into bloody frenzy; images of the Virgin are paraded in festivity, festooned with flowers and lights to dazzle even the most baroque and rococo in spirit. All of these things seem 'illiteracy' and superstition to him: this exuberance and extravagance seem to suggest, not the faith of the Gospels, but the frenzy of the bacchanalia, the chaos of the dervishes and the decadence of the orgy.

However, it is an interesting thought that even the most primitive cultures have an inkling that true religion transcends mere virtuousness: the former, anthropologically speaking, is myth, while the latter is but a social fact. And lest we forget, the earliest followers of Our Lord were not exactly scholars themselves-- their conviction in Christ rested on His being a miracle-worker alone, and if they believed in Him as the Messiah, they expected Him to be the divine man, conquering hero to crush the invaders, and not the human God Who suffered. The Gospels point out to a Christ that is majestic and unchanging, and Who, while being fully human, was nevertheless still God veiled in flesh. Our salvation does not come from intellectual assent, but from a continuous confession of faith in the Crucified Lord; perhaps one reason that many Protestants have all but ceased to include the more 'fanciful' baggage that comes with the Faith is because they have forgotten this side of glorious humanity in the divine equation. And ironically, this is born out of a desire to restore our conception of the Lord to the 'pristine' image of the Gospels.

When His Holiness Pius XII spoke those words which forever fixed the Assumption into the immovable, irreformable Deposit of Faith, the faithful Catholic rightly saw it as proof of the glorious continuity of the Church, at once timeless and 'semper reformanda'. He is able to tremble on his knees, not just out of conviction, but by the simple fact of his being able to witness it firsthand. For extravagance has a part to play as well in the dramaturgical realm; it serves as proof that there is something far greater, something primordial, that is above us. It is the action that moves our counter-action, the movement of the puppeteer's hands that gives life to lifeless strings, to paraphrase van der Leuw. It is this reason why we have always regarded relics with such care and attention and why we have always seen this potent mixture of frenzy and divinity with such loving eyes. Man craves for the extravagant, and for the atheist, this is the one thing that seems to be a perennial thorn in the side.

True theology, then, necessarily transcends the legalisms we have otherwise come to know, and these, in turn, should necessarily adumbrate to the transcendent. When we are told of how St. Francis once licked the pus-bleeding wounds of the leper, we are shocked and appalled; either he was the most extravagant pervert on earth, or the greatest and most profound of saints. The Church, in Her judgment, has rightly chosen the latter. As I have written before, the Cross is not easy to bear: it is the cruelest and most ignominious of punishments, the fount of humiliation and a death that not even the most depraved of criminals deserves. The least we can do is to honestly bewail our sorrows. Sophistry and exegesis will not help you carry this cross, and neither will they help ease the burden of your humiliation. It is a strange and sad day when illiteracy is equated with the beautiful and the extravagant. It is sadder still that we are increasingly becoming 'illiterate'.

1 comment:

Ken said...

Great writing, great thoughts! Good work, I rarely read anything on blogs, but this was superb.