Friday, September 28, 2007

The Communion of Saints

Follows an interesting story related by a friend of mine.

The picture above is of Baclaran church, one of the most renowned churches in the Philippines. The patroness of that shrine is Our Lady of Perpetual Help; and although it is a relatively new devotion compared to other venerable ones (it was established only in the1930s by the Redemptorist Fathers) like the devotion to the Black Nazarene in Quiapo, Baclaran's sheer popularity among the masses is something to behold.

My friend Harvey was born into a wealthy Chinese-Filipino family; his was a life of luxury and consummate ease, growing up with the best toys and studying in the best schools money could buy. As is the case among most of the wealthy, his faith never really moved past the basics; I say this not pejoratively, but objectively. Harvey's mom was a devout Catholic-- and, as it happened, a devotee of the Lady of Perpetual Help for over two decades now.

Harvey tells me that he used to wake up at 7 in the morning on summer just to accompany his mother to the church. Baclaran's day was Wednesday; the church itself is one of the biggest in the country, capable of sitting 2,000 at any one time and still having room for 9,000 to stand. It is estimated that at least a hundred thousand people troop to Baclaran church every Wednesday, when the novena is prayed. Yes, you read that right: one hundred thousand souls on a Wednesday, for a single church.

Of course, Harvey did not like having to wake up so early in the morning. He could easily have gone clubbing on a Tuesday night, but no: even in summer, religion had to interfere. And if you know anything about Chinese families, filial piety is a very important issue; he simply had no say in the matter (otherwise, he's liable to lose his inheritance, I think).

Harvey and several of his friends decided to troop to the hallowed halls of Baclaran just recently, as part of a research on Filipino spirituality in Theology class. For most of his group mates, Baclaran was as unfamiliar as a Sikh temple-- they had all heard of the place, its fame being spread by word of mouth among the superstitious and the doctrinally formed, but other than that, nothing else. For seven decades, Baclaran had been a fixture of this country, but just what made it so special?

Harvey describes a crucial moment in his story. As they knelt down in what little number of pews were left in the church (it was apparently only in the wee hours of the morning), Harvey suddenly picked up a novena booklet, the kind that his mother had been praying every Wednesday for the last twenty years or so. He recited the usual prayers, reading the words with heavy skepticism, thinking it more akin to some folk ritual than anything. But as he prayed, he recalls being struck anew by the stark, simple poetry of the words; they recalled an instinct far baser than doubt, hope.

In prayer, he felt like a kid again, reading aloud the same words he perhaps would already have known by heart had be paid more attention in the past. For several minutes, he knelt in silence, repeating the words again and again in his head. All of a sudden, he describes a wave of sound crashing through his mind, telling him he had prayed enough. When he turned around, the church was already teeming with thousands: in the span of a few minutes, what had only been a few hundred increased exponentially, so that the church soon became engulfed in a hushed, reverential sound.

He describes the sound of the prayers of thousands upon thousands like the waves of a sea, crashing against a rock face, a sound at once majestic and strangely serene. He looked around and saw rich and poor alike, in the same pews, heads bowed, praying the same novena to the lowly handmaiden who is at once the queen of heaven and earth; hundreds of men, women, and children, majority of them poor, lined up to touch the crucifix near the church's entrance, the line snaking away to a side chapel towards the middle of the nave. Sinner and saint alike trooped to the altar on their knees, some begging for misericordia (favors in Philippine context), others for peace in the country.

At the far end of the apse, atop a gleaming, modernist pillar of metallic, golden rays, the Lady of Perpetual Help smiled down at her children. In her arms she held the Christ Child, terrified from seeing a vision of the bleak future in store for Him. Hush, she says; and like a true Mother, she also says this to us. Harvey saw all these sights, and in that instant, understood why people could risk their lives hoping against hope and believing against faith in some 'superstitious' old practice. And, for the first time in ages, Harvey prayed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I want to move the Phillipines.. It is very different in the US.