Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Mass of St. Sylvester

Nicomedes 'Nick' Marquez Joaquin was one of the foremost Filipino writers in the English language. A legend in both the literary and journalism circles, Joaquin was the undisputed master of the written word. His prose was baroque, heavily influenced by the exuberance and passion of the Spanish language, which many of his colleagues (and indeed himself) later called 'Joaquinesque'. Nick Joaquin grew up in the Manila of yesteryears, when it was still very much a Spanish city. For him, Manila was the intersection of Europe and the Orient, exceedingly rich, and with a peerless cultural heritage to boot. In fact, much of the writer's stories take place in the City which he loved, hated, cherished, adored, criticized and defended.

Joaquin was something of a lagend himself. On one of his last lectures before his death in April 2004, Joaquin purportedly went on stage, dragging a huge cooler of beer inside. The lecture was a mere ninety minutes long, but the students who came out of it testified that, before he had even reached half of it, the cooler was already empty. And the 87 year old Joaquin was still craving for more.

Recently, in my literature class, I had to report on Joaquin and his infamous 'Tropical Gothic'. A collection of the author's short stories, it proved to be an easy, though often verbiose-- yet still very rewarding-- read. One story, in particular, caught my eye, the Liliputian (in length) 'Mass of St. Sylvester.' A mere nine pages in length, the story delved into the obscure legend of St. Sylvester, whom legend tells us baptized Constantine the Great, descending to earth from heaven to celebrate the first mass of the New Year. Joaquin had built for himself a reputation as a cerebral writer, who dissected the writhing entanglement that is the meeting of Christian civilization with the barbaric paganism of the past with the dexterity and skill of surgeon handling a scalpel. Indeed, most of Joaquin's works deal with the coexistence of the primitive and the civilized in the human psyche, and 'Mass' is no exception.

- - -

As the story goes, at the precise moment when the clock strikes twelve to herald the New Year, St. Sylvester, accompanied by an angelic host, descends to earth once more and celebrates the first Mass of the year in the cathedrals of the world. For hundreds of years, Manila and Goa in India were the only two cathedral cities in the Far East; hence, for Manilenos, to literally welcome the saint was a portentous and marvelous thing. Manila was a gated city back in the day; indeed, much of Old Manila is called Intramuros, that is, 'within the walls'; and it is within these walls that the Spaniards of old governed these fair isles. The greatest and best gate, the Puerta Postigo, was reserved for the use of the viceroys, archbishops, and governors general alone; and it is through this gate that the pope saint enters the city.

At the gate, he is met by St. Andrew,who is accompanied by St. Potenciana, the city's two patrons. And they are in turn met by Sts. Dominic and Francis, the guardians of the ever loyal city. St. Sylvester comes, arrayed in the finest cloth-of-gold, his head adorned by the tiara. Holy knights suspend a pallium above him, as he is borne on the soldiers by yet more knights in the sedia gestatoria. To his side, archangels swing censers of gold and wave peacock fans, as the Book, the Mitre, the Staff and the Keys are carried before him by a company of seraphim. These are in turn heralded by cherubim, who announce the passage of the pope saint by braying on silver trumpets.

Below the cherubim fly the Hours, carried by steadfast wings, while below them walk the Days, clad in silver and sable, playing softly on their viols. Behind the throne, the 12 angels of the Christian year. The first three angels are clad in green and crowned with pearls, carrying incense, gold and myrrh-- the angels of the Nativity. Next come the angels of the Lenten season, robed in mournful violet and crowned with rubies, and these angels carry the instruments of the Passion. Next come the angels of the Easter season, clothed with lilies and crowned with gold, carrying triumphal banners. But the last three angels are clothed with the purest flame and are emerald-crowned, and these bear the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost.

At the Puerta, the heavenly host prostrate themselves while the pope saint proceeds to open the gate with his keys. And as the gate opens, there is a pealing of bells, as the city's patrons come forth to meet the divine embassy. The bells continue pealing throughout the mystic hour, until the pontiff rises to give the final benediction. But as soon as the clock strikes one, the heavenly host disappears, and silence returns where only moments ago there was triumphant jubilation.

According to legend, those favored by even so much as a glimpse of the procession was granted length of days-- and it is said that anyone who witnesses the Mass in whole would be able to live a thousand years more. In Joaquin's story, there is an old man, Mateo by name, who is rumored to be a sorcerer, and who plans to seize this opportunity to prolong his life. It is rumored by the devout that Mateo was hundreds of years old, and that before the Spaniards came, he was a priest of the old gods and wielded immeasurable power. So it is said that he consulted his fierce and savage gods-- and they advised him that, save divine dispensation, none may see the whole of the Mass. Determined, however,Mateo seeks to witness it for himself, one way or another.

And so the crafty Mateo hid himself in one of the retablos in the cathedal, and with him he had a big of limes and a knife to keep him awake. True enough, the procession entered the church, and he saw the heavenly multitude-- the guardians of the city and those who have loved Manila in the past-- gathered about the altar, itself surrounded by a sea of lights. Mateo watched as the saint rose to give the final benediction-- but something catches his eye. Was that another pair of eyes that stared back at him from the back of the pope saint's head? And Mateo-- his organs slowing, his skin hardening, his breathing tightening-- turned to stone.

- - -

It is easy to imagine this story as a Christianized version of the Roman tales of Janus, the two-faced god, who opened the New Year. Joaquin grew up in a time where Catholicism was still very much 'medieval' here in the Philippines; it was a faith that still taked of wandering images of the saints, the secrets behind novenas, how much years a letter of prayer of this-and-that can remove from Purgatory, heck, there were even stories told around this time that the Pope said Mass lying on his back while being fanned by five sacristans! While these stories were mostly unwritten, they served as a kind of 'Golden Legend' to the people; it was popular religion, which did not necessarily have to be dialectics and moral dogmatic theology.

Sadly, in the advent of the Second World War, the Manila Cathedral was destroyed, and the story grew less and less in popularity since then (it has sinc been rebuilt). Joaquin's stories delve into popular religion of his days, and he handles his material deftly, and concisely. The tadtarin festival in honor of St. John the Baptist, for example, was only revived in the 1980s after an absence of several decades. In my opinion, stories such as these actually help the faith, instead of hinder it. It is just sad how many of these culturally and religiously significant practices have almost been forgotten.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Beati Pauperes Spiritu

I was browsing around Flickr the other day when I came upon the picture you now see. It is the portrait of an old woman, scarred and broken by the vicissitudes and cruelties of life. She has lost her sight in one eye, which is itself perpetually covered by her eyelid. Her face, semingly weathered by having seen too much tribulation, simulates more the texture of rough hewn stone than it does the skin of a living person. Her mouth is dry, her remaining eye is downcast, and the woman looks as if she were expecting death everyday of her life. Her name is Doña Ignacia Sanchez Botello, eighty five years of age, of Zinepecuaro, Mexico. Her story can be found here.

Looking at Ignacia, the typical white collar person would perhaps shed a tear from the corner of his eye, and utter his disgust in his heart. For Ignacia, shunned by the powers that be, and cast into a cruel and unforgiving world, is a social pariah. She is disease-ridden, and is perhaps even an eyesore in the streets. Many people would not even so much as give a thought to ignoring her or turning a blind eye when passing her in the streets. Reading her story, it would seem that everyday of her life was a bad day: her husband, a policeman of that city, died eight years ago, and was not a good man. Her son, like her nephews, is a drunkard and a bum. Her only daughter could not see very clearly as well, and so it is left to this old woman, who should be resting quietly in the comforts of her own home, to fend for herself and for her family with what meager sum of money she receives on a day to day basis

The myth of a middle-class, Anglo Saxon Catholicism is one that irritates me to a nauseatingdegree. I don't have anything against anyone who seeks to lead a life of holiness; in fact, this is an admirable trait for me. But I do have a problem when people assume the American way of life, for example, to be the same in all parts of the world. No, I did not drive seven hours to attend the nearest Tridentine Mass, because I do not have th luxury to do so. I am sorry, I wasn't able to wear a three-piece suit last Sunday, I do not have that kind of money. And I am sorry, but my parish is tastelessly decorated with an overcrowded altar and bad acoustics. Mea culpa!

Like it or not, majority of the world's Catholics subsist on the dregs of society-- here in the Philippines alone, a staggering 37% of the populace consider themselves as living below the poverty line. In Latin America, this is also the case; many would have no qualms about leaving thir country altogether in search of greener pastures in a neighboring country. In India, Mother Teresa cared for the 'poorest of the poor', people who were more dead than alive, more bleeding, disease-ridden postules than human. And in Africa, AIDS and genocide and poor health in general are killing off millions and millions in broad, unforgiving swaths. But this has always been the way of the world. It has ever been cruel, and it will never cease to do so.

Ironically enough, a reader who refuses to reveal his identity, emailed me last night and congratulated me for having such a 'beautiful blog' (his words). He deduced that I must have come from money, and belong to the upple middle class set. But I am none of these things. To tell the truth, I was born in 1989 to a modest, one bedroom home in the poorer district of Manila. My mom was only a clerk then, and my father was a supervisor. Less than six months later, we moved back to my grandmother's house because of a robbery that traumatized my mother. We literally lived n my grandmother's backyard, and her own house was not that big to begin with. The 'house' if house it was, was nothing more than a large room, parted in the middle with a flimsy, plywood wall to give us some privacy, though we still had to huddle together in a rather small bed. And although we had solid walls, water would still seep into the ceiling. There was a certain time when we woke up, and the room was literally three inches deep in water

I was also sort of a troublemaker. I would play in the streets with the few friends that I had, and together, we would try to dodge as many cars as possible. I biked for hours and hours on end, and feared this huge, gaping sewer at the end of the street. Urban legend had it that a drunk man once fell through there and was never seen again. In my spare time, I was informally educated by my aunts; it was they who gave me some of my first books. I loved reading Aesop's fables, Grimm's fairy tales, Three Little Pigs, books on architecture, dinosaur books, and old National Geographic magazines. If there is anything 'patrician' about me, it was because my parents always insisted on proper decorum. Although we were poor, my parents were not about to let me miss out on table manners and good clothes and nice toys; they sacrificed themselves to give us, their children, not just a good childhood but an excellent one.

Nowadays, we do live in a bigger house. From the modest barong-barong we once lived in, we now have a good house in an upper middle class district in the city. It wasn't easy transitioning from such 'lowly estate': my father had to work abroad for some years, and even now, he is bound for Japan on May 12th for an eight month stay. My mother literally starved herself sometimes just so she could save enough money to buy good furniture and plasma TVs so our patrician friends would be impressed. And even our maid, whom I revere like my own mother, still takes care of us, cooks our meals, and sees us off to school (at least my younger siblings).

But for the first four years of my earthly life, I counted myself among the blue collar class. And while we were never that poor, the lessons it imparted me are still helpful to this day. I will never forget those days when we still lived in the little house. I will never forget the pride I felt at living in 'two houses' (I always told this to my friends), and I will never forget how happy I felt, walking all the way to the park at City Hall to watch the beautiful sunset. Those were really the happiest days of my life.

Around a year ago, during the Feast of Christ the King, I was reading an article about restoring the 'Social Reign of Christ' in society, as a most effective way to bring about peace and justice to the world. But to my surprise, these people are the same people who frown upon processing the image of Christus Rex in the streets as empty, Baroque frillery designed at sating merely the senses, mere superstition and glorification of bad taste, that has no place at all in the 'new and improved' Traditional Catholicism. The irony was especially palpable in that situation, I thought. But some of us don't have the luxury of debating Aquinas and Scotus during our spare times. We don't have the luxury or the money to spend on gas while looking for that 'perfect' Mass with Solesmes chant, Gothic chasubles, ruby-encrusted chalices, and clean and polished floors. And while these things are certainly pretty and nice to see, there are far more pertinent things to which we must attend to.

I've often wondered as to why churches in poor districts are more beautiful than those in more urban areas. The Basilica of the Sto. Nino in Tondo, one of the poorest and most depressed neighborhoods in Manila notorious for the immeasurable spate of murders and crime happening there everyday, is surprisingly one of the most beautiful as well. There is a Baroque retablo, complete with a central niche spewing sunbeams where the Holy Child sits for all the people to see. But this is not a church built on hundred thousand dollar donations or fundraising concerts by a Gregorian choir; it was raised to the heavens on the mites of thousands of widows, and perhaps, this is why it is one of the most remarkable as well.

In the end, I will probably never meet Doña Ignacia in person, but I know that I will always carry her memory with me. I will never forget her expression, and how she could say a thousand, billion different things with just one glance. Her face, weathered and beaten by having seen the real nature of the world and being exposed to it countless times everyday, is nevertheless a living testimony of faith and hope. Hers is a faith not merely of the heart and mind, but more importantly, of the gut, to quote the Sarabite. And so, if ever you are ever faced with a seemingly insurmountable situation, always remember the face of Doña Ignacia, for like Christ, we have but to look at her, and we will understand all. In the words of the woman herself: "Dios te acompañe y te guarde."

"Beati pauperes spiritu, quoniam ipsorum est regnum caelorum." Matthew 5:3

Saturday, April 21, 2007


The following are notes and entries from my old diary, whose content are of similar nature but have otherwise required some streamlining. I don’t know if I can blog regularly for the whole of next week, as I have my business calculus class to attend to. All I can say in the meantime is that the next post will probably be posted midweek, and will probably deal with Gothic and Baroque architecture (If I'm lucky).

All paragraphs were written separately during the span of almost a year, from December 2005 to October 2006. They are each excerpts from longer entries, of which I've already lost the patience to type. Song is ‘Midnight, the Stars, and You’ by Rey Noble.

Midnight, with the stars and you;
Midnight, and a rendezvous.
Your eyes held a message tender

There have been certain points in the past when I wanted nothing more than to escape reality. In those trying times, I ha ve often found solace reading about the 'good old days', when life in general was simpler. I longed, and I still long, to go back to the days when religious processions were community events, where Sunday Mass was routine, where men were men, women were women, and children were children. I'll admit that this type of nostalgia is precisely the kind I've been pining against in this blog; but sometimes, I think, it is good to reminisce, and dream dreams that have been forgotten or lost in this day and age.

Whenever I leave the city, I am always shocked by the discrepancy between the highly urbanized lifestyle I have been accustomed to, against the simplicity and serenity of rural life. The Philippines, in many ways, is still very much a feudalistic society; generations of sugar barons and landowners have forever instilled the agricultural way of life into the Filipino. Sometimes, I just want to lie down in a rice field under the shade of a lofty coconut tree, rest my feet against a rock, and just observe the tranquil idyll surrounding me. Cameras cannot do the scene justice; only a sketchbook and a bunch of battered charcoal can capture its essence.

Religion, too, has managed to retain the social and ecclessiastical hierarchy of those days in the rural areas. The parish priest is undoubtedly the Don, the head honcho, perhaps even the holy equivalent of a Padrino. Under his command, the landed gentry: heaps and heaps of women, young, old, married, single, religious, or otherwise, armed in ther lacy helmets and brandishing their cleaning implements, the wonder women of old, who were tasked with maintaining the prestige and pristine of the church.

Saying, "I surrender all my love to you."
Midnight brought us sweet romance,
I know all my whole life through

The Filipino is known for his Marian spirituality. When Blessed Pius IX proclaimed the Immaculate Conception as Catholic dogma, that is, de fide, there was practically a month long holiday in Manila. There were parties and social events everyday of the week, for a whole month. Thousands attended daily Mass in honor of the Blessed Mother. Even at the height of noon, fireworks would be set up, and many flocked to the streets to seethe ensuing spectacle. There were grand processions everyday, all of the 'participants' being the Virgin herself under her many and varied titles; yet none outshone the Purissima Concepcion, whose glory, reflected in the splendor of her statues, was unmatched, peerless, lavished with exceeding devotion that sometimes exceeded the worship and adoration due her own Son.

Mary undoubtedly played a central role in the life of the Filipino. Her intercession was sought in practically every case, from a good birth, to mortifying the flesh, from hopeless situations to the most mundane. She was the Mother, and as typical of Mediterranean culture, they are venerated and 'worshipped'; indeed, most sinners then would seek her intercession first, before facing the Judge Himself in his Divine Tribunal (i.e., the confessional).Thugs and toughs, who would otherwise not be caught dead inside a church, fear and respect her as an arbiter of justice, the only force in the entire universe who could hold back the horror of divine chastisement. Indeed, it would not be far from the truth to say that they treated the Virgin as their own mothers.

It would have been quite a spectacle, seeing these self-proclaimed machos weeping, on their knees, reduced to a quivering mass of flesh, before an image of the Blessed Virgin. And she, in turn, would look back, smile at them with her smile of ineffable assurance, and peace would descend upon the soul. Her clasped hands are a reminder that she prays and intercedes even for the most hardened of sinners. And like a true mother, she welcomes them with open arms. Hers is a quiet patience, and a resilience that have otherwise been erased among the denizens of modern societies. Nowadays, interventions are reserved for 'drugs' and ‘sex’, and the mundane things-- the simple things-- are left under the scrutiny of the blind eye, jaded from having seen too much of the great things in life too fast and too soon.

I'll be remembering you,
Whatever else I do,
Midnight with the stars and you

Sadly, such scenes are but memories now, yellowing, nearly forgotten, locked away in archives and dusty photo albums. The men and women in that photograph have undoubtedly aged since 1953, and it is sad to think that many of them may no longer be alive. Maybe I am just an old soul, but I miss those days of quiet reflection and tranquil surroundings. I miss the sight of knee-length mantillas and lacy rochets and six-foot tall candlesticks and paper flowers and canonized bad taste and glorified, overcrowded altars. I miss the days of genuine faith and piety. I miss the days of barefoot pilgrimages and bone-breaking venerations, genuflections, double genuflections, and prostrations. I miss those days which I cannot miss on account of my having 'missed' them in the first place (bear with me here).

The best way to fulfill a dream is to wake up from it, I've always been told. But the problem with us today is the fact that we have altogether stopped dreaming. And so I take pleasure in those starlit nights flooded by moonlight that hearken back to "the good old days", because it is there where I can once again dream dreams that have not been dreamt for a very long time.

Thursday, April 19, 2007


I am currently rereading Umberto Eco's 'The Name of the Rose' for the third time, and if you haven't read it yet, you are missing out on a lot. The title, and indeed the whole of this post, was much inspired by that book, specifically the discussions about the nature of heresy. We in the Church have often been warned to stay clear of heretics; in the old days, priests warned the faithful about Protestants by telling them how these people literally had hooves and horns, and that they spirited away children in the dead of night for their arcane rituals. In more sophisticated areas, a more sober and doctrinal approach is used. But just what exactly is heresy?

If you look closely at the man above, several things immediately jump out. His bloodshot eyes portray an intensity and conviction that could only be received from a 'divine' experience. On the other hand, those same eyes also tell a story of hardship and tribulations. He wears the maroon uniform of a devotee of the Black Nazarene, yet to other eyes, his costume is more reminiscent of the Nazarene's own. Upon his neck hangs a medallion, a charm, more a badge of superstition than true faith. To many, denouncing him as a 'heretic' would be a gut reaction, an act of righteousness, even.

Heresy is actually a very complicated thing, because more so than mere theology, it is concerned more about a specific way of life. A heretic is not simply one who chooses what to believe and what not, because this always comes second after adopting a certain lifestyle. I sincerely doubt if most heretics in the past became heretics because of doctrinal issues. The average Catholic, even in the Middle Ages, had not the capacity or the learning to understand the nuances and subtleties of dogmatic theology; that is a game reserved for the learned. Instead, he concerned himself with devotions and pious practices. Even the three Fatima children, after all, did not have any idea that the beautiful woman appearing to them was actually the Mother of God.

Heresy arises out of a certain need, or rather, the lack of this need being fulfilled. It's common knowledge that Luther never intended to set up a counter church: it was Melanchthon and his cohorts who set about doing this. So what drove Luther to do the unthinkable? Foremost perhaps is his unshakeable notion of guilt. Luther, ever the Augustinian, had a hard time reconciling his faith with his proclivities. Then there is also the fact that the papacy itself abused the concept of indulgences. It is often said that most, if not all, heretics start out as reformers. Being a reformer is in itself not an inherently sinful concept, but like in all things, too radical a change is bound to stir up unrest.

When St. Francis of Assisi and his Franciscans came into the fray, many saw their self-imposed poverty as something to be cautious about. Indeed, the Franciscan controversy is something of a main focus in Eco's book. It is when these reformers seek to impose their way of life on the system as a whole that they become heretics.

If there is anyone holier than a saint, it can only be a fool. Christian perfection is not so much concerned about the maximal as it is about its opposite, the minimal. Perfection in Christianity does not mean having complete knowledge of all the intricacies and inner workings of the universe; rather, it is reverting to the primordial state of innocence that is its very essence. When God created Adam and Eve, they were not born dogmatic theologians, nor did they know all the names of the stars in the universe. They were literally kids with ant farms, who viewed their surroundings as strange and foreign, who dwelt amidst paradise with all the attention of an infant watching a Michael Moore film. They were very much 'fools' in the sense that they saw God for what He is, and did not attempt to 'rationalize' him.

Perhaps the greatest examples of the holy fool are St. Simeon Stylites and St. Simeon the Holy Fool: the latter, the desert Father who dragged the decomposing corpse of a dead dog, threw peanuts at clergymen and feasted madly during the days of penance; the former, who lived for 37 years atop a pillar in sixth century Syria. These were men who did not consume even bread and water during the whole Lenten season and who bound their waist so tightly with a girdle that they had to be soaked in water for several days just to loosen it (in the case of Simeon Stylite). In our time, these two would probably be labeled as lunatics; but their deeds, rather than earning for themselves a place in hell, instead raised them to the glory of the altars. Both Sts. Simeon were fools, no doubt, but it is precisely in this state of innocence where they found sanctity. In the words of Scripture: ""the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; the weak things of the world to shame the strong."

On the other hand, Fra Dolcino was an Italian preacher burned at the stake for his exagerrated view of poverty as inspired by the Franciscans. The difference here is that Dolcino knew exactly what he was doing; he sought to change the whole life of the Church into what he thought it ought to be, and even engaged in violence in the process. He sought the abolishment of the feaudal system as well as the death of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and could very well have been the first Communist, what with his emphasis on holding property in common. Dolcino, however, was more foolish than he was a fool; the difference lies in the fact that his reformation was not only antithetical to doctrine and dogma, but even to the basic principles of society.

Perhaps an even more pertinent example is Girolamo Savanorola, the Dominican friar who earned the particular notoriety of rebuking Alexander VI to his face, and was subsequently burned at the stake. Yet Savanarola was also very much a fascist, who ruled Florence with an iron fist; under his rule, many priceless works of art, as well as countless books, were put to the torch, in an episode otherwise known as 'the bonfire of the vanities'. When Savanorola was finally captured, he wrote many beautiful pieces of literature, among them his infamous 'Infelix Ego' (which, by the way, has been set to music by many Renaissance composers, which he so vehemently despised in life). As the flames consumed his mortal flesh, and as he was preparing to expire and surrender his soul to eternity, one has to wonder: was it with the conviction of a martyr or the arrogance of a heretic that he died? And when St. Lawrence uttered 'Manduca, iam coctus est' while being roasted on the grill, was it with the virtue of the just or the arrogance of the wicked?

I no longer know the answer, nor do I want to know. Under the torture of the Inquisitor, the suspected heretic may utter what the Inquisitor wants to hear, instead of what really happened. Heresy, then, is almost always a reform or purification; but when change threatens to change the Church itself, and when reformers attempt to justify these with their authoritarian versions of 'the good old days', it is then that the reform becomes dangerous, and must be quelled. To this, I can only say one thing: Penitenziagite!

To see the '3D' version of this post, look at this gallery: Black Nazarene

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Ecce Dominator Advenit

This has got to be the grandest, most lavishly dressed image of the Santo Nino I have ever seen so far. It is around two feet tall, and is clothed with either beaten gold or heavily plated with it. I've seen so many Ninos with fancy robes before, but this is just outrageous, in a good way.

Title comes from Malachias 3:1 "Behold the Lord the Ruler is come: and the Kingdom is in His Hand, and power, and dominion." This verse, along with Psalm 71:2, make up the introit for the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. It is also used during the feast day of the Santo Nino de Cebu every 21st of January.

The Beauty of a Church

Stepping into a church for the first time, the non-believer is immediately drawn--and perhaps overwhelmed-- by the alien environment to which he has entered. Drawn by curiosity and impelled by some nameless fascination, he wanders his way inside, trailing his eyes at some of the most exquisite works of art he has ever seen. The soaring ceiling, majestic in its height, points heavenward, to remind the congregation of the dwelling place of God. There are countless statues of men and women, ancient and venerable, before whom burn countless candles, the faint light illuminating the intensite of their features.

As he contemplates his surroundings, he cannot help but look ahead of him. It is the sanctuary-- the holy of holies, thurible of sanctity, fortress of divine grace, the sweet home of God on earth. He marvels at the majestic altar screen, heavily covered in gold, and furnished with only the finest of materials. He is awed, and perhaps even repulsed, by such grandeur. With eyes enraptured, he moves forward, and finding the nearest pew, does the unthinkable, and kneels before a foreign and strange God.

What is a church? Common sense tells us that it is the house of God, and for Roman Catholics, this is the literal truth. The Eucharist, that most triumphalist and glorious of the Church's doctrines, is the root and center of a Catholic's life. His formative years will undoubtedly be centered around his first communion, when he receives the Body and Blood of the Lord under the guise of bread and wine. Indeed, most of his early years will be spent in church, especially when your mother is an hermana; the fate of many young boys, it seems, will have to be decided at the foot of the altar, and for some, the experience is a life-altering one (though for the better or worse, it depends).

A church is itself a microcosm of the Universal Church. It is the local and immediate 'version' of the worldwide and pan-national community of believers that make up th Mystical Body of the Lord. In a church, saints and sinners alike worship God, and if old stories are to be believed, there are more devils than there are angels during Mass. A church also has the unenviable task of instructing the faithful, often poorly catechized, about what the Faith teaches. Thus, a church is decorated with a plenitude of decorations-- paintings, stained glass, statuary, which all serve a didactic purpose, aside from being merely aesthetically pleasing.

But a church is not a church without one very important detail, and that is its ability to tell the story of creation, salvation and redemption. A church is not a church if it cannot impart wonder; wonder, that makes man long for the beauty of God, wonder that brings back the innocence of childhood and purges our arrogance and humbles our pride. There is something hollow and cold and distant about a church when it cannot show God to mortal man. A church is the meeting point of the Ineffable with the passing, the intersection of the Divine and the numinous with the physical and mundane reality of our world. It is a conduit that feeds our feeble minds with the transcendent and the glorious. But it is worthless if it cannot manage to provide what it should.

Perhaps that is why there is so little faith today. Our churches have become nothing more than a glorification of vain works, instead of an exaltation of what the works themselves signify. But there is always hope. As Scripture reminds us, Our Lord promised that He would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days; in many ways, the crisis in the Church mirrors this promise. Before there can be Triumphalism, there needs to be a conflict first. And perhaps, this conflict is given to us by God in order to make the sun shine all the clearer.

The true beauty of a church then lies not so much in the externals, but in its ability to instill the presence of God to even the most secular and the most non-religious person. It is the ability to quietly tell us, in the stillness and quiet of our hearts, the immortal words of the Psalmist: 'Be still and know that I am God'.

So, have you been to any churches lately?

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Faith and Superstition

Manila is notorious for its excruciatingly hellish traffic jams, and this is especially evident during the Holy Week celebrations. Since the Philippines is a Catholic country, Holy Week is universally regarded as a national holiday. At noon of Spy Wednesday, many business give their employees the rest of the day off in order to return to their respective provinces (almost all Filipinos have a home province). Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are untouchable, and indeed, businesses shut down entirely on these two days, although admittedly some still work on these days. When I was younger, we would also go along with the massive crush of people and return to my father's home in Batangas.

Holy Week is also an auspicious time for the superstitious. Many faith healers believe, for example, that Good Friday is an especially auspicious day to recharge their powers and anting-antings, or amulets. In Pampanga, many people--including a nun-- have themselves crucified on this day. Interestingly, this tradition only started in the 1950s, at the advice of a certain healer known as Apu Iro, who was reputed to have been miraculous even when still alive. Filipinos are a very credulous, and this combined with the superficial catechesis (especially in the 18th to 19th centuries) they received from the Spaniards gave rise to bands of theological outlaws, who infested the countryside with an exotic synthesis of mysticism, religion and philosophy.

In the island of Bohol, famed for its beautiful beaches and lush landscapes, there is a certain mountain that devotees climb during Maundy Thursday, capped with an ancient cross, that is believed to grant untold graces to whosoever touches it. They climb the mountain barefoot, and there have been numerous cases of accidental deaths in the past. Another mountain, Mount Banahaw, is sacred to Catholics, mysticists, and Rizalistas, who believe that its springs, like the waters of the Jordan, can cure any illnesses. They also hold it as the site where the just shall witness the tribulations of the last days, and indeed, it has gained a reputation as a hotbed for millenarianist movements.

Superstition, we say. A sensationalist, superficial and ignorant way of looking at religion, a mockery of the Church. But then again, this was how the Middle Ages were like. There seems to be a tendency among traditional circles that idealizes, even romanticizes, these times as an age where everyone knew what the Church taught, and an age of faith entirely free from the mangles of the Evil One. Yet what is forgotten is the fact that Europe was languishing under the shadow of the Plague and was under constant threat from Islamic invasion. Heresy abounded as well, though perhaps it was not so threatening as it was in the days of the early Church. Popes were living in sin, and Rome was left to the dogs.

In my opinion, the Middle Ages were truly Catholic because of all the afflictions it faced. I pointed out in an earlier post that there is not a single moment that the Devil doesn't try to tempt us into sin. And one of the main reasons why this era held out for so long was because the faith of the people was simple. It was not an overly complex instruction manual cum book of table manners sprinkled with some Latin and Greek, it was a real thing that can be grasped. I am fascinated by these stories because they hearken back to simpler times, when God 'dwelt' in living rooms and spoke to men through the rustling of trees and the roaring of waves. Call it superstition, if you want, but these superstitions at least concretize the Church as something more than a theological concept.

The Church is a church that worships relics, from finger bones to skulls to arm bones to eyelashes to flayed skin to a piece of nose-- heck, even Our Lord's own foreskin. The Church is a church that adores the precious wood of the Cross, that falls on its knees when God descends upon the altar to transubstantiate the bread and wine, that walks to shrines on knees, where women cover their heads in lace, where the manliest of men wear golden capes and fancy hats. Our Church is a paradox, at once divine by virtue of Her being founded by God, and human, because it is not a conglomeration of the saved but a house of rehabilitation for the wounded and the sick. There is room for the loftiest of theologies and he purest and simplest of devotions.

I grew up in the city, and perhaps this might have contributed to my largely secularized outlook; it was only in recent years that I began to rediscover our rich heritage as Catholics. But in the provinces these are still everyday occurences; who am I honestly to judge what is true and what is not? The greatest of saints often have the most incredulous stories; St. Joseph of Cupertino frequently levitated in ecstasy, and a host of other saints have been known for their ability to bilocate. Are these superstitions too?

Who is honestly closer to God? The man who uses reason and concepts to come to a knowledge of Him, or the man who falls down and kisses the feet of an image of the Nazarene? True unadulterated Faith will always be confused with superstition, because real faith is not so much concerned as to the hows and whys as it is about the whens and wheres. Faith is foremost an acknowledgment of the Divine, and only secondly an intellectual assent. It is something sensible and sensual, in the sense that faith will always manifest itself in the tangible and the physical.

Admittedly, there is always a very real threat of superstition supplating real faith. Afterall, the ardor of Lucifer is the same ardor with which the Seraphim praise the Ancient of Days unceasingly. But in the end, I would rather err on the side of excess than being overly cautious and 'reserved', for lack of better word. Chesterton once remarked that he did not want to belong to a religion that allowed him to possess a crucifix, but rather to one where there is a surfeit of such things and are perhaps even taken for granted. A real, working Faith is grafted onto the ordinary and the mundane, and this for me has always been one of the cornerstones of our religion.

A Protestant friend once remarked to me how Catholic practices resemble those of the pagans to an almost inextricable degree. It was nothing like the evangelical charismatic background to which he belonged, and oddly enough, he seemed to have developed a liking for these 'pagan influences.' I replied to him how unfortunate it was that most of these practices are no longer the norm in the cities, and how they have almost been relegated to museum halls as if they were dead. If we truly want the Church to be relevant in an increasinhly secular society, the first and most important step would be to make it popular again.

Vatican II tried to do that by taking away the 'superstition' and other dubious practices, and look at where it has led: empty pews, ugly churches, non-believing priests and whiny, bratty atheists. As for myself, I would much rather submerge myself in the hustling, bustling, clogged arteries that make up Catholic Tradition than have it served to me on a silver platter. Unless it is St. John the Baptist's head, of course.

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.

Saturday, April 14, 2007


"Canst thou draw out the leviathan with a hook, or tie his tongue with a cord?
Canst thou put a ring in his nose, or bore through his jaw with a buckle?
Lay thy hand upon him: remember the battle, and speak no more.
Behold his hope shall fail him, and in the sight of all he shall be cast down. "

-Job 40:20-28

The trial of Job is one of the most colorful episodes in all of Scripture. We read of Job, the just honest man, who loses everything he ever cared for in his life-- family, property, social esteem-- the unfortunate target of the Adversary's wiles. Throughout the course of the narrative, Job goes from being favorable in the eyes of God to a social pariah, ostracized by all including his closest friends. However, this post does not deal about Job, or the theological implications of his story; rather, I will focus on a seemingly marginal character, the Leviathan.

In the Jewish haggadah, the Leviathan is supposedly a creature of utterly immense size and immeasurable power. Created originally male and female, the Leviathan was the undisputed ruler of the seas, the lord of the ocean deep. It was aptly described as 'the plaything of God' on account of its greatness. Now the reason why the Lord slew the other half-- the female, we are told-- is because when the two should ever copulate, there was a very real possibility that all of creation would be destroyed in the process. God preserved the male because it was destined to play a part in the Final Judgment, to do battle with the Behemoth in a final affirmation of the majesty and glory of God.

The Leviathan was supposedly 3000 miles in length, and required all the fish that flowed from the river Jordan into the sea for food everyday. When Leviathan fed, its rival, the Behemoth, though undoubtedly formidable, could not placate itself until the sea monster finished satisfying its hunger. The Leviathan, however, is not invincible, for it is wary of the stickleback, a fish only three inches long yet is also the only thing that keeps it in check. He stands in awe at this tiny fish, whose purpose was precisely to keep the beast from devouring all the produce of the sea.

Leviathan is also wonderul and terrible. When he is hungry, a hot breath flows from his jaws which makes the entire ocean boil. His fins radiate brilliant light, which obscures even the very ligt of the sun. His eyes evoke the splendor of the Creator, for when the beast opens them, the sea is frequently illuminated by the light that flows from them. Leviathan also exudes a foul stench, the foulest in all creation. This is the main reason why he was placed in the sea, so that this stench could not befoul the rest of creation. Indeed, the Leviathan's odour is so strong, that even a single whiff of itis enough to render Paradise itself an impossible abode!

The real purpose of the Leviathan is to serve as a dainty for the elect in the world to come. When the trumpet summons the last hour of this world, God will command his angels to do battle with the beast-- but not sooner than he casts his glance at them do they fail and flee in terror before this plaything of God. Three times will they do this, but each attempt ends in failure. And so when all seems lost, God will command Behemoth, Leviathan's ancient rival, into combat with the ruler of the deep. Both die as a result of wounds inflicted upom each other, Behemoth from a blow from Leviathan's fins, and Leviathan by a lash of Behemoth's tail. Thus the glory of God is affirmed and vindicated, and He is shown to be the Supreme Arbiter of all things. Leviathan's flesh is then served to the chosen of God, and his skin will be used to build a brilliant canopy over the celestial Jerusalem, and the light streaming from it shall illumine the whole world for all eternity.

Although the Haggada is defintely NOT Catholic in the strictest sense, I've always thought that it managed to portray the glory of God remarkably well. I have to admit that the Haggada was a salient impetus in my interest in religion. I was fascinated by the many beasts and monsters that filled its pages, from the Ziz whose head reached into the uppermost heavens and whose wings blocked out the sun, to the reem whose exotic mating habits filled me with wonder.

I like these stories not because they are true-- God help us if what was written about the Leviathan was true-- but because they show a certain truth. G.K. Chesterton once said that the main function of fairy tales is to remind us that dragons can be slain. Not all pious legends are credible and true, but I think it is because they are precisely so incredible that they become credible. The language of the Church has always been replete with symbolism; it seems that it was only after the Tridentine Council that a radical literalism began to pervade ecclesiastical jargon.

I like these stories because they remind me of the fact that 'dragons' do exist. In our time, we often look at the merely physical and empirical qualities of an object-- we know, for example, and we theorize, how dragons can breath fire, or how they flew, whether they thrived in water or not, or perhaps even their mating habits. But that is the main problem here: the dragon is reduced to a bumble of theories and words, an abstraction and merely that. We have forgotten that it is something to be feared and respected in the first place. I am not saying that we should willfully remian in ignorance, but it is always helpful to approach things as though we were approaching them for the first time. To see things through the eyes of a child is one of the greatest acts of humility we can do in this earthly life.

Friday, April 13, 2007

A Long-Delayed Easter Post

"What is happening? Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled.

Truly he goes to seek out our first parent like a lost sheep; he wishes to visit those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. He goes to free the prisoner Adam and his fellow-prisoner Eve from their pains, he who is God, and Adam's son.

The Lord goes in to them holding his victorious weapon, his cross. When Adam, the first created man, sees him, he strikes his breast in terror and calls out to all: 'My Lord be with you all.' And Christ in reply says to Adam: ‘And with your spirit.’ And grasping his hand he raises him up, saying: ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.

‘I am your God, who for your sake became your son, who for you and your descendants now speak and command with authority those in prison: Come forth, and those in darkness: Have light, and those who sleep: Rise.

‘I command you: Awake, sleeper, I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld. Arise from the dead; I am the life of the dead. Arise, O man, work of my hands, arise, you who were fashioned in my image. Rise, let us go hence; for you in me and I in you, together we are one undivided person. ‘For you, I your God became your son; for you, I the Master took on your form; that of slave; for you, I who am above the heavens came on earth and under the earth; for you, man, I became as a man without help, free among the dead; for you, who left a garden, I was handed over to Jews from a garden and crucified in a garden.

‘Look at the spittle on my face, which I received because of you, in order to restore you to that first divine inbreathing at creation. See the blows on my cheeks, which I accepted in order to refashion your distorted form to my own image.See the scourging of my back, which I accepted in order to disperse the load of your sins which was laid upon your back. See my hands nailed to the tree for a good purpose, for you, who stretched out your hand to the tree for an evil one.

`I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side, for you, who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side healed the pain of your side; my sleep will release you from your sleep in Hades; my sword has checked the sword which was turned against you.

‘But arise, let us go hence. The enemy brought you out of the land of paradise; I will reinstate you, no longer in paradise, but on the throne of heaven. I denied you the tree of life, which was a figure, but now I myself am united to you, I who am life. I posted the cherubim to guard you as they would slaves; now I make the cherubim worship you as they would God.

"The cherubim throne has been prepared, the bearers are ready and waiting, the bridal chamber is in order, the food is provided, the everlasting houses and rooms are in readiness; the treasures of good things have been opened; the kingdom of heaven has been prepared before the ages."

Thursday, April 12, 2007

.. Famularum Famularumque Tuarum...

I never understood why people liked 'The OC'; it is pure, unadulterated tripe that deals with the usual staple of angsty kids, nerdy kids, rich kids, and their hilarioulsy sexed parents. 'This is so like our lives!' I even heard a friend say. Okay. Nevermind that she is far from Anglo as possible and comes from a family of five children, an atonishingly scandalous thing in the upper middle-class microcosm that is the Orange County. I also have a friend who is enthused at the idea of 'scheduled dinners with the family' and black tie parties that are often shown in that program-- it makes everything so much more 'organized', he says-- and of course, he is only 16. I just have to let out drunken guffaw whenever I hear my fellow countrymen rave about that show. It's not like Filipinos are even white!

The typical Filipino family consists of a father, his wife, their children, one of whom is usually a black sheep, the father's mistress or mistresses, and the black sheep's 'live in partner'. You might ask, just how different is this from what is shown in The O.C.? The difference lies in the fact that the families in that show are families onl in the sense that they share a common surname. They never fight. They always look good. They don't seem to have any problems at all, and if they do, they almost never talk about it openly.

My own family is small, although we love each other. I know that this love is genuine because we almost always take each other for granted, in fact, my brother and I, back when I was still in high school, exchanged only the complimentary hellos, and almost nothing else whenever we passed each other. Isn't this a major sign of dysfunction, though? For me, nothing says unhappy, dysfucntional and filthy rich family than one that has to schedule quality time together, or one where everyone seems so friendly. At least we have the guts to tackle our problems head on.

When I fight with my parents, both sides make sure it is as melodramatic as possible and I always make sure to utter the most guttural heavy metal death grunts I can. My parents in turn would call me all sorts of names, maybe my dad would even throw a vase at me or something. To me, a loving family is called 'loving' precisely because its members love each other in spite of and because of their defects. I hate it when my mom nags me, I hate it when my dad reprimands me, I hate it when my younger siblings would not do as I want. But I love them, not because my status in the community would be damaged if I did not, or because it would ruin my thousand dollar botox. I love my family because they are part of my life, a natural extension of it. Admittedly, it's hard to do so at times, but then again, I've always taken my thumb for granted, and without it, my hand would be useless.

It's the same thing with the Church. One of the biggest problems with our Church today is the loss of this family identity. Traditionalists who love the Church most are, ironically, ostracized from this very institution that they loved most. In the process, they start a new family that is very bitter to the parent family. Vatican II goofballs want so much to identify with the younger crowd that they have thrown away every trace of authority and respect that they have; and make no mistake, it has as much visual impact as your grandmother suddenly dressing up in fishnets and a red, lacy thong while gyrating to he macarena. Que horror!

Someone once told me that the greatest sin a family can commit is to imagine themselves as something straight out of a toothpaste ad, replete with the staple pearly white teeth and all immaculately clothed in high end beach wear (preferably on a picnic mat with flowers and perfectly packed sandwiches). It is simply folly. Real families have overweight, overbearing mothers, balding fathers with large guts, dumb elder brothers, nerdy younger brothers, slutty sisters, maybe even a mangy dog or two. But we love them just the same and perhaps even more because these same imperfections are what make them so perfect. At the end of the day, mom still makes the best baked chicken in town, dad still gives us more allowance than what we need for the week, and your siblings, no matter how much they may annoy you, can still melt your stonecold heart with a simple 'kuya'. You may live in the biggest house in the world, but if it is not cozy, it will never be home. It is a hearth without a fire, a library without books, a body without a soul.

I am reminded of a certain relative who had an almost unnatural, inhuman penchant for eating barbecue without so much as making a mess; but as admirable as this ability is, barbecue is supposed to be eaten messily, because this is exactly where its barbecue-ness comes from.


Feast your eyes on this, quie possibly the grandest, most glorious, most triumphant Altar of Repose ever conceived by man. Located at Bacolor, Pampanga, this silver-surfeited monument took six days to assemble and rises to a height of two stories.

The picture is the sermon. I have loved, O Lord, the beauty of Thy house, the place where Thy glory dwelleth!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Ubi Caritas

Et Amor, Deus Ibi Est

There is a story often told about St. Francis of Assisi. As the story goes, the saint was visiting a certain Italian town where the Waldensian and Albigensian heresies were well represented. When Francis arrived, a group of villagers came to meet him, and having heard of his holy reputation, immediately proceeded to complain to him of their parish priest. The villagers told Francis how the local priest had despoiled his vows by living in concubinage for several years now. They told him how the priest would feign moral rectitude at day and how he lived with his mistress with wild abandon at night. And so the villagers wanted Francis to get rid of their morally decadent priest.

The next day, the saint had occasion to meet with the cleric. The villagers came with him in tow, and expected the saint to rebuke the erring priest and possibly chastize him in public. But to the utter surprise of all, Francis, upon seeing the priest, knelt down on his knees and kissed the other cleric's hands with great love and devotion. The saint told him in weeping: 'When you celebrate Mass, you are the holiest man on earth; continue to do so, for without the Eucharist, these people would die and be cast into eternal fire.'

Easter has come and gone, and I suspect that most of us would probably be back to our sinful ways. Berdugos who had themselves crucified on Good Friday would probably be back gambling, drinking and swearing right about now, just as filthy politicians who knelt and prostrated themselves inside their churches all day would be back to their corrupt and decadent lifestyles. Indeed, many of us begin to wonder, 'Just what is the point of Holy Week if we still return to sinning?' Is it all just for show? Even when the God-man still walked this earth, His own disciples would fall prey to various sins. Peter was brash, proud and stubborn. James the Greater was hotheaded, who confused his zeal for charity. John was an egocentrist who always referred to himself as 'the beloved disciple'. Paul, of course, was a murderer who viciously persecuted Christ's early followers, and Thomas doubted the words of his own Lord. What does all this say about us? Do the sins and imperfections of the very apostles themslves mean that we, in the end, are hopelessly doomed to a life of hypocrisy?

In my 18 years on this earth so far, I have had many ups and downs in my spiritual life; there were times when I felt like I was a melancholic Calvinist, a happy-clappy evangelical, an incorrigibly strict Irishman stuck in scary 1950s piety, and so much more that I've practically lost count. There were times when I thought I could never dispel with my predilections to the sins of the flesh, and times when I thought I could never humble myself and get rid of my pride. There were times when I lost hope, and times when I risked all that I had on novenas that 'have never been known to fail.' I am not going to deny the fact that, even though I have been a Roman Catholic all my life, I have been a pretty bad one throughout as well. Guilt is practically my best friend, and if it were a real person, we would probably have shared one too many beers by now.

Redemption is a pretty risky business: the trick is convincing yourself that there is hope yet in you. Perhaps this is the biggest problem I have with what passes for charity these days. To be 'charitable' is to be frank, and it has degenerated into nothing more than the ability to say to someone 'You're going to Hell, a**hole' with a straight face. It speaks only of hell, and never of heaven. But to be charitable to someone involves more than guts to say these things. When our Blessed Mother stood by Christ on His cross, it wasn't hatred that flowed in her veins. Even after seeing her own flesh and blood nailed to the tree, and after witnessing His being scourged--flayed seems to be a more apt word-- she never once uttered a curse upon the Roman soldiers or called for the blood of the Jews. Our Lady simply wept.

Our acts of charity are worthless if we do not show even a glimpse of heaven in them. Justice flows out of charity, yet how can this take place if the sinner is condemned too soon, too fast? Are we honestly doing what the Lord would have done in our stead, or are we following Caiaphas and his motley crew in going down the road to perdition? When Christ hung on the cross, His hands were not clenched like a fist, which is indicative of vengeance, nor was He flipping the bird at us and damning us in the process. Instead His hands were fixed in the sign of benediction: to this extent He has humbled Himself for you and for me. Can we honestly still castigate our neighbors with the same intensity in the face of the cross? Is this not reminiscent of the parable of the wicked servant who was justly condemned by his master?

One of the most humbling experiences I've had in my entire life occured after our Baccalaureate Mass last year. As it happened, we were having a chat with our chaplain when this old woman, beleaguered by having sold sampaguita necklaces all day, her back hunched from fatigue and sickness, came to us to beg what little spare money we had so she could eat her first meal that day. I didn't have any money with me, and neither did my parents. She hung around for some three minutes, and we ignored her the whole time. Finally, incensed at being ignored for so long, she shouted at us at the top of her lungs: 'Ang dadamot ninyo! Bakit pa kayo nagsisimba kung hindi naman kayo marunong magbigay?' (You people are so greedy! Why do you even bother going to church if you cannot even give alms to the poor?) Needless to say, I felt guilty the rest of the night. I was haunted by her comments, and the words of the Gospel ('What ye do to the least of your brethren ye also do unto Me'). I felt like a total wreck, and the memory of that incident still shames me to this day.

In the end, it is never about us, but Jesus. It is He, who, even when hanging from the cross, continued to bless sinful man with His own blood, and it was He who came to save us from our sins, not to condemn us in them. If there is any reason why I persist in being Catholic, it is because God Himself became man and died for us. It is because the suffering face of Jesus, bloody and bruised from our fists, spittle and whips, that is the synthesis of all theology and exegesis. Faith is a very difficult notion, even for those who have spent all their lives within the bosom of the Church. But to have faith in the midst of the surrounding darkness is not to invent a cocoon for ourselves, but rather it is an ongoing search for the Light that no shadow can ever touch or darken. To have Faith is to acknowledge that we have sinned, and at the same time to know that Christ, the God-man, has forever broken the bonds of slavery and death.

The Resurrection, as all Catholics know, was the greatest miracle performed by Our Lord. It is the conerstone of Christian belief, without which all Christians would be the most miserable lot on earth, as Paul tells us. The Resurrection gives hope to the dying, new life to the dead, and fills with joy the wrathful and the gloomy. It is the single greatest joy to have befallen our earth, the triumph of the angels, the glory of the saints. Whereas in Good Friday we weep over the wounds of our slain Lord, the Resurrection of Christ is God's gentle kiss to mankind. And it is the Resurrection that enables us to keep on hoping, in spite of the many sins we have committed in our past lives. Let us now rejoice, for the Lord has truly risen, as He said. A blessed Easter to all, alleluia, alleluia!

"Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and blessing!"

-- Apocalypse of St. John, 5:12

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Three Days With No Title

I am such a creative bloke. Heh.

Jueves Santo

Maundy Thursday is my favorite day throughout the entire Holy Week-- the drama is palpable, and it is always a joy to do the traditional visita iglesia, where one visits seven churches to keep vigil with Our Lord. There is something truly awesome about walking into a dimly lit church along with a sea of other people, all silent, kneeling, praying and keeping watch against any possible threat. In the Philippines, this is a very popular custom; literally thousands will swarm into churches all the way till midnight, and in some provinces, the vigil lasts all the way until the first rays of the sun. It is an incredibly moving experience, to say the very least.

We visited seven churches that night, all of them in Manila. Though the altars of repose were all very beautiful--and jam packed with people-- I could not help but think they lacked the vitality of provincial churches. Here in urban Manila, although the sight of multitudes of people adoring Him was enough to melt even the hardest of hearts, there seemed to be something lacking. It all seemed too suburban. In the provinces, the sight of veiled women occupying the first five rows, the Adoracion Nocturna chanting their prayers, men and women alike prostrating themselves before His Presence, and sheer, unadulterated devotion are a common sight. But we make do here in the city; I saw some sights that night that have left their mark on me forever.

Our first stop was Stella Orientis oratory, a chapel in an Opus Dei run university. As expected, the crowd there was unabashedly middle class to upper crust; the priests, all Spaniards, wore exquisite gold vestments for the Mass of the Last Supper; the Pange Lingua was chanted beautifully during the translation, and the altar of repose itself was top notch, a liturgical thing of beauty to shame even the most hardcore traditionalist chapel. Next, we headed to Manila itself; the Shrine of Jesus, Malate church, Ermita church, the Manila Cathedral, San Agustin church and Sta. Cruz church were all in our itinerary.

The first church was finished only five years ago, but is slowly establishing a name for itself. Malate church was a gem from Spanish times, and is home to Our Lady of Remedies. It was a beautiful church, filled to capacity; I noticed a lot of nuns and other religious crowded along the altar of repose, and priests were hearing confesssions from what seemed like at least a hundred people (Malate church is quite small). Ermita church is also a shrine, this time to Nuestra Senora de Guia. Ermita was famous as a red-light district in olden days; in many cases this is still accurate, as the number of putas parading in that area can attest to. The church itself was charming; the altar seemed to have been gutted in the 60s, but luckily, the ceiling survived; the altar of repose itself was gorgeous.

Manila Cathedral is obvioulsy the seat of the Archdiocese of that city. I've attended several liturgies here before, and even for cathedral worship, it is very solemn and traditional. As can be expected, the altar of repose was elegantly arranged: no excessive baroque frillery or shitty modernistic arrangements here. The repose was located in a side chapel,which housed some seventy five people. But that was not the moving part about the church: we had to approach it on foot, as the plaza and road leading to it were clogged by a sea of humanity. It was an especially emotional sight, seeing these men, women, and children walking on their knees to approach the Sepulcher.

San Agustin church, which I have a special love for, moved me most. As I entered that church, I was immediately struck by how dimly lit it was-- I'm not talking about candle light here, just good old indandescent light. It lent a stark and dreary feeling to the whole church, and the sight of the opened tabernacle was quite haunting. The people were quietest in this church; I also saw some people venerating the three hundred year old crucifix near the church's entrance. And the fact that some people even approached this chuch barefoot, and the sight of sleepy yet dutiful altar boys guarding the side entrances, were the only reasons I needed to stay Catholic all my life. I wasn't too fond of the last church we visited, Sta. Cruz. While the exterior was reminiscent of old, Spanish colonial churches, the interior was just... ghastly. Where a reredos should have been was a mosaic of Christ as the Agnus Dei, although you couldn't really tell that It was; It looked so much like a bird on one angle, a lizard on another, and even a bug on yet another. The only consolation was the massive number of people that trooped to that church; though the square leading to it can be crossed under one minute, the sheer number of worshippers prolonged this to ten agonizing minutes. I could smell the sweat and stink of unwashed bodies, the scent of burning wax and scented rosaries all coalescing in one noxious ball of stench. But it is a stench that edifies, not divides.

All in all, it was a very good experience. I felt like a kid again, visiting all these churches. And perhaps, that was the best thing that happened to me that night.