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.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Slaying the Buddha

The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there.

-St. Macarius

The story is often told of the celebrated Buddhist monk, Lin Chi, who by all accounts was the founder of the Zen school of Buddhism. It happened that, once, when the venerable monk was in the midst of his meditation, a young disciple of his rushed up the hill where the sage sat in rapt concentration. The pupil made a mad dash for the master, and in a jubilant tone, loudly exclaimed 'Master, I have achieved nirvana!' The pupil was glad, for one, because he who was a mere novice had actually met the Buddha himself on the road.

Master Lin Chi sat still, hardly paying heed to his disciple's excitement. Suddenly, the venerable sage opened his mouth, and calmly proclaimed, 'If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.' Confused, the disciple waited around for his master to add something, anything, to that vague piece of information. When no further word followed, the disciple left Lin Chi, sulking back to his niche in the lower places of the hill.

The story is easy enough to understand: the pupil, in his mad desire to achieve enlightenment too fast and too soon, unconsciously desired nirvana, that he eventually became attached to earthly desires, and succumbed to human nature. The Buddha he encountered was merely an illusion brought about by his fantasies-- thus, he had not reached nirvana at all. In Buddhist thought, nirvana does not mean 'enlightenment' so much as a 'snuffing out'-- annihilation, basically. To achieve enlightenment, then, is basically to 'desire' to de-exist.

As a Catholic, I simply do not, and cannot, agree with this notion; Buddhism it basically too pessimistic and nihilistic a religion for me to even take seriously at all. If that is what it takes to achieve enlightenment, then I would much rather remain in the dark, and remain human. However, I think one thing that I can agree with Buddhism on is that we are all searching for answers here in the world. As I've learned, it is the simplest questions that can become the most difficult, and also the most profound. A simple query from a child, like 'Why do we die' has prompted many an adult to search for answers-- unfortunately, not always the right ones.

I live in the city-- I eat, sleep, and breathe the noxious fumes, the incessant cacophony of noise, the perpetual humdrum of the work place (in my case, the university), the non-existent smiles on people's faces-- all of these are a common sight, as I am sure it is for many. There is something about the city that tends to choke the life of someone, especially if he is not used to the hustle and bustle of 'the big life'. In time, I've found that this cocktail of smells and noises has ingrained itself into my system that I even yearn for it. Too often do I find myself thinking about things while listening to an imaginary recording of honking horns and heavy equipment pounding into asphalt. In the library, where I usually stay, I find myself listening to the drone of photocopy machines and subsonic whispers. Even when I think, it seems that I am always doing something.

Of course, it is very hard to put the blame on any particular person or reason. I also cannot blame myself, or any other person 'suffering' from the same things, if he chooses to leave the city for good. Admittedly, city life is dehumanizing-- it is no wonder many choose to live in suburban areas, where the traffic and pressure are relatively better. But then, one has to wonder: these areas do not provide any protective blanket from the problems of the world. At most, they provide a veneer of comfort and ease, but I've known far too many suburban families with dirty secrets of their own. I think we have forgotten far too well that God favors so specific places: He always is everywhere, filling all things.

It is very easy to be carried away into this way of thinking; no doubt, affluence plays a large part in shaping this mindset. With wealth comes clout, and it is this which allows many people to think that a small piece of land, for example, duly secured from all sides by walls and fences, can become a safe haven, a tower of refuge from the problems of the world. With wealth also comes a certain view which basically equates living a good Catholic life with studying in the best schools or knowing the right priests or worshiping at the right churches. The wealthy basically pick and choose, and consequently define, what is in or out. This is potentially a dangerous way of thinking; to wit, fascism, liberation theology, liberal theology, and ultra-dogmatist theology are just some of the products of this way of thinking.

I don't claim to know the proper Christian response to these problems are; I, too, am one who seeks answers to these questions. What I say in this blog are just my opinions, after all. But if I may be so bold as to offer a 'solution' to this problem, it would be to place it in God's hands. We city dwellers have become too embroiled in the business of city life that we assume true religion can only exist outside its confines. But that is simply not the case. If we follow this logic, then Rome and Constantinople would necessarily have had 'false' churches, on account of the sin and decadence of their residents. It would also seem to follow that the papacy was a sham, given the number of malefactors who have wormed their way up St. Peter's throne (I know a former Catholic who cites this very reason why he left the Church).

I mentioned in my last post that conversion is not a one-night deal. Of course it's not! You do not transition from infant to boy to man in a couple of nights. Similarly, starting off with a riotous amount of trivia about Catholicism will not get you anywhere. The biggest problem with this way of thinking, I guess, is that it rationalizes the things which are beyond reason into overly simplified 'facts'. Honestly, what good does knowing how many tassels a dalmatic may have or how many rites there are in the Western Church,have? I hate to say it, but this kind of bourgeoisie Catholicism is only a simulacrum of the real thing.

I guess the biggest difference between traditionalist Catholics and Catholics by tradition (meaning, those who grew up in a Catholic environment) is that the former 'came' to the Church via an intellectual assessment, while the latter, born into the Church, believe in Her as a matter of faith-- more akin to a mother's tender caress than anything. I have met many traditionalists who unfortunately think more like Protestants than Catholics, in that they view their conversion as the 'end' of the process. Thus, perhaps, why many are quick to assert how most cradle Catholics are really just Catholics by culture. The cradle-born have a sense of the supernatural that is glaringly absent from the clean book traditionalism espoused by traditionalists. It is this mixture of vice and piety which fascinates me, and so many others. It is something I know I can never fully answer, and I rejoice in this fact, because then I know I am fully human.

Are we really busy? Are we really free? It is interesting to note that it takes a housewife the same amount of time to clean her house one hundred years ago as today. Of course, the inevitable protest is bound to come up: we have more tools today than yesterday, surely there is a mistake? I think the answer lies in the skewed priorities of much of society today; we are giving ourselves more and more things to do which are not really priorities to begin with. A drink with friends or a shopping trip in the height of noon become more important than maintaining the order and dignity of a household or the cleanliness of its floors. I'm not saying we should not do these things-- but I am saying that we have to be answerable to ourselves.

One thing which I think most of us have forgotten is that the path to holiness is straight and narrow. It is not bridged overnight, and we must not expect to; to do so would simply be laughable and ridiculous. Therefore we should not hurry this process to the point that it exacerbates us to the degree of impatience. I cannot stress the point enough: many heresies have been birthed from the impatience of numberless men. Like a towering Gothic cathedral, faith is built, heap by heap, on smaller stones. To expect such a monolithic growth in our own expectant time would be the greatest misfortune we cannot afford.

Have you seen the Buddha on the road yet? Be careful-- you are never too sure if it is the Buddha himself you are now about to kill with your sword, or just another simulacrum, drifting along empty corridors like a phantom.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Divine Compassion

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the innate capacity of the human being to remain in ignorance. Bliss, some of them say; for others, endless monotony and confinement. From the moment of birth to that eventual encounter with death, we all share a common denominator in that pursuit for the transcendent, the liberating and the mysterious; we do not always know what 'it' is, of course, and this is not surprising especially in a society that has completely shut off its ears to this simple truth.

First, let me begin my saying that this post is not a paean to exalt the virtues of illiteracy, stupidity and willful blindness; but neither is it a canonization of knowledge as the ultimate good. I am referring, however, to that sense of wonder which we so often have confused with foolishness.

My experience with many non-Catholics can be synthesized and described in a few words: illuminating, repulsive, interesting, and worrying. Usually, my most frequent non-Catholic correspondents are Protestants of the Evangelical kind. The next most frequent 'variable' are people who come from quasi-Catholic churches; I say quasi-Catholic because these churches maintain a veneer of Catholicism on the outside but profess a completely alien faith interiorly. Falling under this category would be the Aglipayans, members of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente or Philippine Independent church. In both variables, I have noticed a certain tendency to lambaste the Church for keeping people in ignorance.

The Evangelical Protestant tirade usually starts off about the Crusades, the Inquisition and criticisms of the Eucharist and Papal supremacy, with facts spouting off their mouths' with machine gun rapidity. The intention is obviously to make the Catholic question his faith in light of these revelations of erroneous doctrine and blind dogmatism. The Aglipayan attack is usually more subtle, hitting at disciplinary norms like the practice of priestly celibacy more so than doctrine (they don't attack processions, because they also have them). The Catholic, when faced with these accusations, has two options: to defend his faith, or the more common tactic, to run away.

Sometimes, it is difficult to formulate an answer on why many Catholics act this way. It is even more difficult, however, to arrive at an answer on why Protestants can choose to be, and remain, Protestants. As I mentioned in a post some months go, my aunts used to take me to Protestant worship services when I was much younger. As a boy of five, I remember seeing an aunt being 'slain in the Spirit', falling to the floor, weeping, wailing, and flailing her arms in a flurry of movements. My gut reaction was to hit the pastor in the face for hurting her, but I was scared, so I just let it be. Of course, there are countless Protestants out there whose faith is unquestionable. I'm not denying that.

My beef with most of Protestant theology, however, is that they tend to simplify things too easily. Redemption in Protestant thinking is essentially reduced to a transaction, and salvation becomes mere head knowledge. And since that is all that is required to reach heaven, faith is ironically reduced to nothingness as well. Sometimes I can't help wonder whether Christianity is just another piece of information to the Protestant: it is useful, yes, but once its purpose has been fulfilled, it can freely be disposed of at the opportune moment. Again, I am not saying this applies to all Protestants; my maternal grandmother is a 'devout' Evangelical who would probably reach heaven long before I do.

But the problem does not lie exclusively with Protestants-- many Catholics too suffer from the influence of this knowledge cult. There are also those dyed-in-the-wool Roman Papists who reduce the life of Jesus into the space of a few words, basically acknowledging His death on the Cross as a suitable ransom for our sins, but failing to see anything else beyond. Personal sanctity is reduced to knowing how many obscure saints and feast days and liturgical vestments one can cite at the drop of a hat. It can a very immature and dangerous way of living one's faith.

Most Catholics who lived before Vatican II were 'in the dark', in that sense that they did not concern themselves with too much facts, but with the Truth. The typical pre-VII matron wore a massive, four-foot long mantilla to church, prayed the Joyful, Glorious, and Sorrowful mysteries at one time and was probably a member of Adoracion Nocturna or Legio Mariae; however, she also kept her superstitions, counting things in threes (oro, plata, mata-- gold, silver, death), and probably could not differentiate a protonary apostolic from a canon, let alone a bishop from an abbot. Most did not even have missals to read from during Mass, preferring instead to make their novenas and devotions 'when the priest faced the altar' (that is why scheduled novenas rarely work here).

Even with the True Faith, many still suffered from the corrupting influence of ambition. That is why we have had such colorful personages in Philippine history like La Santa de Leyte, a prophetess who claimed the world would sink in a year's time and who founded a messianic cult to prepare for this doom, and Apo Iro, the wandering miracle worker who mystified commoner and noble alike in the halcyon days before the Second World War. Yes, to us, they sound like heretics, laughably superstitious men and women who knew nothing of what Christianity is 'really' about. We laugh at their ignorance from the distance afforded us by centuries and cold, rational examination, while forgetting the fact that even hallowed Councils like First Nicea involved much back door manipulation and even threats from one Christian to another.

It is my opinion that we would probably not be recognized by our Catholic forebears-- yes, even the rad-trads-- not because we have a different faith from them, but because our faith is essentially different from theirs. As Mosebach writes in his magnum opus 'The Heresy of Formlessness', it is a tragedy when it requires a particularly pious priest, a breed above the rest, to celebrate the immemorial holy mysteries today, when before, saint and sinner alike celebrated the same liturgy. We have freely handed our collective heritage as Catholics to an oligarchy of the few so that what remains of 'authentic' pre-Vatican II Catholicism is only, ironically, the ignorance and 'vapidity' this very same Council set out to destroy.

The joy of 'ignorance' lies not in keeping minds in a vise-grip of self-imposed nostalgia, but the sense of mystery and wonder it endows us. One of our greatest tragedies today as Catholics is that the faith we have today has essentially been sanitized to a point that it becomes a textbook religion. It is basically like writing a ten-step program on the proper way to eat hamburgers. It has been robbed of a sense of the supernatural: when before, conversations about the favors granted by a saint were common fodder, we are struggling with polemics and apologetics on why we even pray to the saints in the first place. It is understandable when this phenomenon is confined to secular countries, but even here in the Philippines, one of the most Catholic nations in the world, more and more are they who feel the urge to rationalize what cannot be grasped by reason alone.

The mysteries of Christianity are far greater than what any mind, be it of man or angel, can ever fathom. It is perhaps one of the greatest ironies that what we call 'traditionalism' today is not the same tradition which nourished and enraptured our fathers and forefathers before us, but a systematic, standardized reaction against this very same tendency. I am not saying that it is hopeless to fight for our heritage; I am not a pessimist. There is much good that the Holy Father's motu proprio can, and will, do-- but we must not expect things to change overnight. What is needed in this case is more than just a document, but a complete change of heart.

Again, we need to be reminded that conversion is also not an overnight process. True conversion does not rest on baptism alone, but is only the beginning of a lifelong process. Saints are made, not born, and almost always from the fires of turbulence and suffering. Sanctity cannot be reduced to an affair of the intellect, and neither can gold be purified without fire. Let us be positive with the limited things given to us. In God's time, everything will be better-- and this is a pledge of hope we can all cling to.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Controlled Normative Isomorphism

One of the most exasperating things anyone can ask a Catholic is how he can continue to call himself a Christian even in the face of overwhelming evil, evil, which, no doubt, has also influenced him in the past. Many an atheist has used this situation to crush the notion of theodicy, and concludes that God is evil, because the world around him is evil. Evil is everywhere, they say: it is in the highest places of authority, in the deepest bowels of poverty, in passivity and activity, in omission and commission. The image that results from these negativities is that of a bleak and powerless world, constantly at the mercy of a bloodthirsty deity-- that is, if he even exists in the first place.

I have talked with a number of Protestants in the past, and one thing that always pops up in the conversation is the subject of 'holiness'. For many Protestants, especially of the Evangelical-Fundamentalist-Baptist kind, holiness is simply something impossible to achieve. They see it as an unnatural desire to rival the glory of God, a lingering Babel in the hearts of men, that is sure to be the cause of shame and retribution in the final days. Indeed, calling something 'holy' for some Protestants is an unholy thing; for them, God is the only one worth calling holy.

The reason I am writing this is not to disparage Protestants, or to necessarily poke fun at them. I am writing this because it seems that a large number of Catholics fall prey too easily to this rigid and constricting view of holiness. So what is holiness in the first place? If I remember my grade school catechism classes correctly, holiness is (or should be) the goal of every human being on the planet; to call something 'holy' or 'sacred' is to recognize that it is set apart for some important function. It is thus something of the world, yet at the same time not of the world. Of course, holiness isn't the same as being in a liminal state; that would be lukewarmness.

I remember the subject of holiness being discussed in a family gathering some five years ago. It was a few days before All Saints' Day, and my relatives had come over to our house to attend a function at our parish, some sort of beauty pageant for children, which my sister had joined. The 'coronation' took place at our quaint little chapel; and as expected, my Protestant relatives were bombarded by an excess of images and altars and gold and silver during their stay there. One of my cousins was visibly uncomfortable in front of an image of the Virgin Mother, which was dressed in a beaten robe of gold; my aunt's eyes kept wandering all over the place, spotting Sacred Hearts and Teresas of Avila everywhere.

Later that evening, after dinner, the conversation shifted to my maternal grandfather's oncoming death anniversary. Somehow, from that topic, the subject of holiness popped up. The aunt who was scandalized in church spoke very strongly about it; she mentioned how the Church's teachings relegated 'holiness' to the realm of routine, so that any and all significance it may have had was 'destroyed'. She criticized this 'tendency' as a form of controlled normative isomorphism, a phrase she still relishes today. Basically, she is saying that the Catholic concept of 'holiness' is very similar to 'a lie repeated a thousand times becomes the truth'.

My apologetics then was still creaking and heaving with rust; I let the incident pass by without much thought. Incidentally, this was also the same time when I first began to explore Protestantism, albeit on a theoretical level (I did not have the guts to tell my father that I did not want to worship with him). In the passage of time, these criticisms found themselves renewed and reinvigorated, so much so that I have even been tempted to believe them once again. But are they really warranted?

Now that I think about it, these criticisms from Protestants don't really hold much water at all. These are the same people who made excessive capitalism possible, and these are the same people responsible for the separation of life into two spheres, the public and the private. I am not basing my accusations on polemics alone, but it definitely plays a huge part. It is this separation which, in my opinion, make Protestants an entirely different breed of Christians than us Catholics. It affects not just their way of lives, but also their conception of the world around them, effectively splitting it into two: the Kingdom and the Anti-Kingdom (terms which Fr. Sobrino also uses). One has to wonder, are Protestants really closet Gnostics?

The loss of the concept of holiness for Protestants seems inherent in their theology, especially those of more Calvinist bent. Just last week, I met my first dyed-in-the-wool Calvinist; she was one of the most intelligent students I've ever met, excelling in literature, the arts, as well as hard sciences (her past time is integral calculus since she was 14). Ironically, despite her erudition, my Calvinist friend thinks of herself in an entirely different manner-- she sees herself as the unrepentant sinner with one foot already placed firmly in hell for all her sins of intellectual vanity. She was one of 'them', as opposed to being in the side of God (although she says she already accepted DNJC as her personal lord and savior multiple times)I felt sorry for her, sorry that the 'God' she served could be so cruel as to place someone in hell for intelligence.

The ancient Greeks, too, were of this mold. Ironically, this civilization which brought light into much of the West lived in fear of its gods, who were fickle, vain things, made in their image and likeness than the other way around. The Christian God, however, is different. He is the kind of God willing to become lowly like one of His creatures, even descending to its primordial depths and encountering its most salient weakness, death. This is a very hard notion to grasp, a fact which manifested itself in the various Christological heresies of the Early Church: the notion of the Perfect and the Uncaused becoming one like His flawed creatures was a repulsive thought for the Greeks, who esteemed perfection (whether physical or otherwise) to unscaled heights.

I pity those Protestants who can never see themselves as anything but sacks of meat, the majority of which is bound to perish in everlasting fire, anyway. Of course, not all are of this mindset, but it is definitely a cancer metastasizing in the bosom of the Church. I simply cannot, for the life of me, choose to see only the negative things in the world. The Psalms are very evocative of a gracious and bountiful God, Who freely saves those who want to be saved, and Whose works declare His glory.

On the subject of holiness and routine, I can't help thinking that one of the main thrusts behind its criticism is the false notion that sanctity can only be sanctity if it can be visibly manifested. What an utterly despicable idea! It is more worthy of the perfidy of the Jewish high priests than the ministry of Our Lord. It confines holiness to mere philantrophy, which, while admittedly a positive thing, does not equate to holiness. Again, the compartmentalization brought about by Protestantism essentially makes it impossible to reconcile a flawed human being to the infinite love of God; is it any wonder that secularism is so rampant now? Being holy is not about being the absolute perfect human being on earth. Sanctity is effected, not inherent.

The world in which my ancestors lived was a place touched by God; in those days, seeing the Christ Child walking in church gardens, finding crosses miraculously stuck in the bosom of a tree, images of the Virgin being rescued from the raging sea, Hosts that bleed rivers of blood, and saints miraculously appearing out of nowhere were very much common things, that pointed to the mysterious and the wonderful in the most mundane of things. This was the world of the prophets, of the Early Christians, of the men of the Middle Ages and the Counter Reformation. It was a world wherein God dwelt, where His power was taken for granted because it was never lacking, and a world where routine was the normal way of life. It is interesting that only after the Reformation did the notion of routine become associated with impassivity and staleness.

Interestingly, this model of the 'split world' also extends to the Protestant notion of heaven; an Evangelical classmate of mine once gushed that the ultimate joys of heaven will be the endless mansions and properties accorded to the saved, and not the beatific vision. Needless to say, I was shocked. That was all the proof I needed to pull myself out of that rut.

It is a sad thing that many Protestants do not see the magnificence, the splendor, and the grandeur of the world around them. Theirs is a world that is bleak, haunted, and evil. It is such an irony that by arrogating holiness to God alone, they are confessing, if subconsciously, that they are unsaved.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Ave Regina Coelorum

Ave Regina coelorum,
Ave Domina Angelorum:
Salve radix, salve porta,
Ex qua mundo lux est orta:
Gaude Virgo gloriosa,
Super omnes speciosa,
Vale, o valde decora,
Et pro nobis Christum semper exora.

A brief post.

For Catholics, these are more than just theological speculations-- affairs exclusively contained and mediated in the mind. No. They are truths, realities that go beyond mere actualities or opinions. Of course, for Protestants, crowning six-foot tall images of the Virgin, dressed in sumptuous cloth-of-gold robes and adorned with the most precious jewelry will perhaps always appear like idolatry, and I understand that. But as I said, beyond dogmas, creedal formulae, theological speculation and reasoning, and even beyond our limited grasp of divine revelation, the objects of our faith are very much real. And they watch over us from heaven, in the bliss of eternal beatitude, praying, interceding, and guiding us. That is the beauty of the Church.

That is why we crown Mary with these crowns which appear scandalously blasphemous to Protestants. Sometimes, I can't help but think Protestants have a very narrow view of God's glory-- it is very by-the-books, safe, tested and boring. It comes as no surprise, then, that mere religious iconography can incite such repulsion among most of them. It is incredibly ironic, since Scriptures themselves say that Jesus is the image of God Himself; that many Protestants deny this in practice (or non-practice) is very sad to me. They claim to worship a personal God, but are repulsed by the thought of Him taking the form of lowly, wretched man.

We crown those images of Mary because she is real, because she is with God, because she, too, is our Mother. As a virtuous soul once said to me, truth is truth, no matter what the facts say, or don't say. Ave Regina coelorum, indeed!

Saturday, September 08, 2007

On Knowing God

"I was afterwards flogged and dressed as a mock king; wounds in the body, 1000. The soldiers who led me to Calvary were 608; those who watched me were 3, and those who mocked me were 1008; the drops of blood which I lost were 28,340."

-Excerpt, "A True Letter of Our Saviour Jesus Christ", Pieta Prayer Booklet

There is something oddly alluring about knowing the exact details of the dolorous Passion of Our Lord. When I first found a copy of the Pieta Prayer Booklet, stashed to the side of folders and other envelopes containing documents in my mother's closet (don't ask), I was instantly captivated by its wealth of promises, revelations, devotions and novenas. The Booklet was old, as evidenced by its crumbling, yellow pages; inside, written in blue ink and in flawless script, was a dedication from my grandparents to my own progenitors. At the margins of some pages, I found blue dots, the occasional underline, and even some liquid stains. It had obviously been used much.

Of course, now that I re-read those same words after a distance of some years, it becomes a lot harder to believe. The skeptic in me loudly wonders how Our Lord could have found the time to count, individually, the number of drops of blood He lost, or how He could, in that bitter hour, have survived such violence and 'live' to tell about it. The whole tone of the letter seems to clinical for me; it reads too much like a counting song, with a definition and certainty that seems so absent in real life, which is full of chaos, despair, and uncertainty. I still appreciated the deep piety and quiet intensity of the prayers, but deep down, I wondered if I could put much so much stock in a mere private revelation. After all, there were the heresiachs and demoniacs currently running the Vatican and who aim for the complete destruction of Tradition to worry about.

In my theology class recently, we started discussing the Resurrection of Christ. As you all know, many Jesuits have crazy ideas, and none are bred wilder and more insane than the controversial theologian Roger Haight, whose book, 'Jesus: Symbol of God' has been damned by the Vatican for its heretical pronouncements on the nature of Our Lord(and rightly so; even my teacher agreed). For Haight, Jesus was the Exemplar-- the homo verus, the genuine man-- Who is at once symbolic of the Father and yet at the same time is distinct from that which He symbolizes. Haight's Christology has been praised by most of the current crop of 'theologians' as a fresh way of examining Christian doctrine in today's post-modern era; he subjects two thousand years of Christian tradition as just another 'phase', a mode of understanding the Divine. In reaching post-modernity, Haight argues that a 'new way' must be devised to see these 'stale' things in a new light.

One of Haight's more 'solid' chapters in the book is the chapter on the Resurrection. In it, Haight argues that the Christ's Resurrection should not be seen as a mere resuscitation, nor as a purely spiritual phenomenon, a position which another liberal theologian, Gerard Loughlin, takes. Haight argues that, since there were no witnesses to the Resurrection event itself, it should not be seen as a purely historical event, but meta-historical. To some degree, I find myself agreeing; in the Philippines, and in many Latin American countries and even Madre Espana herself, a common title for the image of the Risen Lord is Cristo Resucitado, Christ resuscitated. This fails to grasp the full meaning of the Resurrection; it is just another miracle, albeit the greatest one Our Lord performs. If this is the case, then why wasn't Lazarus' resuscitation sufficient to trample down death by death?

The other extreme is the spiritual resurrection. Loughlin argues that the true locus of Christ today is in the action of the Church, His Mystical Body-- but this presence is merely spiritual. To me, this position is simply untenable; I like being made to believe things that are not readily believable. Besides, by this logic, then Elvis Presley is also 'resurrected' in his countless imitators. Consequently, I guess I should revoke my 'membership' in the Church and just hop into the Elvis bandwagon; at least, shiny, rhinestone-buckled shoes look good on them, as do large coiffures. On priests, not so much.

It is so easy to disbelieve these days. We have opportunists at every turn and every corner coming up with 'new research' (which is really nothing than the same old heresies rehashed for a more modern audience) to discredit Christianity. You need only wait for Holy Week and the preceding 'ber' months (that is, September to November) to hear another slew of 'Jesus was only human' hullabaloo from the same, trite, old sources. Of course, globalization also plays its part: nowadays, kids are more concerned with the latest bumble of their teen idols than they are with more important, social concerns. In the Philippines, this is especially true of Westernized rich kids, who have such a warped view of their wealth and such condescension for the concept of noblesse oblige that is not funny anymore. Church just seems to be at the bottom of everyone's priorities.

I would be lying if I said I have never been guilty of what I am writing on before. Truth be told, I simply hate doing chores. The concept of helping others seems more a burden than a duty to me, and I certainly don't like waking up at 6am on a Saturday morning to do that. I could always say, 'I am only human', but I guess that would be like slapping God in the face: in fact, now that I think of it, that answer has been at the forefront of much disbelief among believers. If we hold true to the Christian notion that we are all made in His image and likeness, and if we have such a miserable view of ourselves, the resulting image of God is miserable too. The God Who saves thus slowly morphs to Calvin's greedy, elitist despot, Who is absolutely aloof and is probably an entirely different Being than the God Who appeared to Moses in a burning bush.

But in the midst of all the suffering, the endless monotony and the dehumanizing rationalization of the world, there, in the middle, stands the Cross of Christ. When I see a crucifix, I cannot help but look at it; most of the time, my reasons are not always pious. I enjoy a finely crafted crucifix, because it pleases my aesthetic; I enjoy looking at one because it just seems so out of this world. In countries where Spanish or Portuguese (add Italian to the list as well) influences were especially dominant, crucifixes take on the most vivid and startling depictions. The corpus is pocked by bruises and oozing with rivers of blood from every wound imaginable; the breast, pierced by a lance, drips with gore, exposing raw muscle and the faintest sliver of bone; the head is brutally adorned by a crown of thorns, cruelly slammed onto His head by a reed. I have said it before and I will say it again: the sight of a crucifix is a powerful sight. It has the power to repulse and edify at the same time.

In Jesus, the events of the Old Testament are summed up and re-enacted with startling economy. In the theology department of the university, there is a painting of Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac, and in the background, snared by a fierce flurry of strokes, was painted the ram 'caught in the thickets'. Who is Jesus here? The answer is both. Indeed, the answer is all: for He, too, was prefigured in the bronze serpent, lifted up high by Moses for all to see, and He too was Job, upon whose frame were heaped the most bitter sorrows.

An interesting episode in the Resurrection narrative was when the apostles did not know they were already speaking to Jesus in the flesh. A face is not something you forget overnight, and a voice is not something that can be drowned in a sea of other voices. So how comes it that His own apostles did not recognize Him? Perhaps they did not really believe His promise at all, or perhaps they were expecting Him to come back to them a bloody mess. I will admit that I do not have a good answer to posit, and if my readers find it so, it has probably been said before by men much wiser than I. For me, the reason why the Apostles failed to recognize Him was because they did not really know Him at all. They confessed Him as the Messiah and vowed to follow Him wherever He would go, but that was about it. Their knowledge of Jesus only became complete when they, too, encountered their own deaths. But their demise should not be seen as something divorced from their persons; their demise was a natural consequence of who they were.

And just who were the Apostles? They were the men that Christ spoke to, but failed to listen; the men that He reprimanded, but continued arguing; the men He died for, but nevertheless remained glued to their despair. The Apostles' encounter with Jesus healed this rift. In the Resurrection, they were no longer just His inner circle, but have themselves been circumscribed by it. It is a strange thing that one could derive such comfort from reading about the tortures and humiliations of a Man who lived more than two thousand years ago, Who died one of the most violent deaths ever demised by His fellow man. St. Josemaria Escriva once wrote in 'The Way' that the Jesus we see in the Cross is not really Jesus; to see Him, we must first deal with ourselves-- by prayer, mortification and sacrifice-- and only then, when the scales from our eyes have fallen, can we truly behold Him in all His glory.

How does one begin to know God, then? The answer lies in the Cross. The answer lies in His Passion and Death. The answer lies in His wounds, the number of drops of blood He lost on the way to Calvary. The answer is in the Church. The answer is in His miracles, the great feasts and days of penitence. To begin to know the Risen Lord, we must first pore over His wounds, the sweltering, pus-infested, wounds from where His blood flowed out and from where the salvation of the world rained down. Then, and only then, when we have encountered Him in His humanity, can we appreciate Him in His fullness.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

On Vacation

A brief note: I've been on an impromptu vacation since the 28th of August. My doctors say I am too stressed lately, and wisely advised me to take a break from school and all that jazz. So far, I've had on-the-spot road trips, a 'buttnumbathon' of cheesy Godzilla movies and old Vincent Price flicks, attended a party, shopped for new shoes, and practiced target shooting. It's strange, but I'm really feeling stressed at enjoying so much goodness right now-- but it's the kind of stress I would rather have than a six hour long accounting test, LOL. I'll be back by the 7th of September, and if you are in any way familiar with Filipino culture, by the time I'm back, I would probably be greeting everyone a Merry Christmas already.