Thursday, August 21, 2008

Of Machismo, Lenten Rites, and Bread

Note: This was originally a paper for a sociology class. I've edited it slightly to make it more 'blog-gy'

I've been meaning to blog about the San Pedro Cutud Lenten rites for a while now. It's one of the most controversial practices here in the Philippines, owing to the obvious fact that it is, in the end, a ritual crucifixion, completed with scourging and real nails. For sure, the official Church decries this excess of devotion as bordering on fanatical, if not pagan; almost all the bishops of Pampanga province, where these rites take place, are thoroughly against it. I myself am ambivalent to it at best; it is a rite that involves a lot of spectacle and theatrics, that much is true, and one always has to be wary of that. But then again, I've never had to be crucified, so I will not pass judgment now.

Basically, on Good Friday, in the little town of San Fernando in Pampanga, a group of male devotees and the occasional woman would be taken to the small hillock-cum-rice field of San Pedro Cutud, three kilometers away from the city. Along the way, the devotees would cover their faces and beat their backs with makeshift scourges. To make the process easier, the backs of the devotees are first pierced by glass, to get the blood flowing. From there it is a simple matter of flogging the back with the flails, at the ends of which are attached thin strips of bamboo.

Whenever a church is passed, the devotees would stop, kneel outside, and increase the vigor of their penitence. Some who are flamboyant enough even ask help from other devotees; they prostrate themselves unto the dust, while the appointed onlooker flogs his back. This process continues until the mini-Golgotha of San Pedro Cutud is reached. From there, some of the men eventually depart; only a few go on to actually be crucified. The crucifixion itself is a different act, a different ritual; costumed men representing the Roman soldiers seize the Christ(s), dragging them onto the hillock. The crowd of onlookers, some dressed to look like the Jews, jeer and spit, all part of the ritual.

The crucifixion itself is a very straightforward business, however. Once the Christ(s) have lain themselves on the cross, their palms are nailed to the wood. To prevent possible infections from the ordeal, nails which have been soaked in isopropyl alcohol overnight, are hammered quickly, avoiding bone as much as possible. The feet, too, of the penitent are nailed to a small wooden platform, to prevent the body from sagging. Once this is done, they are left to stand for all of three minutes before being taken down; I've heard stories as well of some penitents pronouncing the words of Our Lord as He agonized on the Cross.

It's interesting to note that majority of the penitents are not exactly regular Mass-goers; I think it's safe to say that these men are on the 'periphery' of the Church's life. Some of them are borrachos, polygamists, some may not even have stepped foot inside a church in decades. Of course, I'm not saying that all of these men are of questionable character-- hell no! So what exactly is in this practice that we find so repulsive?

In my opinion, it's not so much as the San Pedro Cutud rites are repulsive, so much as they are 'different' and 'naive', that makes them so foreign. There are no prescribed liturgical texts or any official framework upon which the rituals are built. Hence, they are not regulated, and are therefore peripheral; it is integrated more into the sphere of daily life than it is with the commemoration of Our Lord's Passion and Death. I say this because, at the bottom of it all, these rites are attempts to petition the needs of the gut-- food, shelter, jobs, livelihood-- rather than mere pious attempts to edify the heart and soul. It is literally bargaining with God-- scandalous at worst, naive at best-- by the loudest, most theatrical ways possible.

I think it's very easy to blame the people who partake in the rites as seeking glory and fame for themselves; that may be partially true, but as I've already said, I have never in my life had to be crucified for a morsel of bread and water. Perhaps, in the end, we do not think life is so important as to suffer and die for it, so as to live. Most of us are too 'comfortable' to see life as it is outside our borders. and the truth is, life is hard. It's difficult. It's a back-breaking ordeal. So it may be that this is not exactly the most appropriate channel to ask for God's help and blessing; it could even be construed as mockery of Christ's sacrifice. I certainly won't be having myself crucified soon, that much I can say, but that's because I know I don't have to.

But it's a terrible fact of life that others have to. It almost shames me to think, that, had my situation been the other way around-- would I be so selfish as to show my love for God in such a manner? Would I be willing to be called a glory-seeker and a conman just so I can feed my family? My answer would probably be no.


Andrew said...

Holy crap! The picture I mean. I've heard of this before. IMHO, Jesus already suffered and died for us. We should walk the Stations, to remember his deed. But not actually get scourged and all that. What's the point?

All devotions should lead us closer to God. This includes obeying Him by following His commandments and the precepts of the Church (including going to Mass). Any devotion which does this is good, otherwise, the means is confused with the goal.

Archistrategos said...

Fair enough. Like I said, I don't exactly condone the practice, because like you said, there is a great risk of penitence becoming a show. There is always a 'human element' to anything, though, even devotions-- so I'm not really surprised. Some people seek forgiveness, some seek to appease God's wrath, some just want to give thanks that their loved ones are alive. I guess, in the end, it's something that has to be seen and experienced, since I can only do so much with words.

In any case, I think it's always an interesting--and yes, controversial-- event. Who knows, it may really be false penitence or mere theatricality, but it reveals alot about the human condition. :)

Andrew said...

However, I hasten to add that going up a hill on your knees, walking to a pilgrimage site barefoot, and offering them up for the conversions of sinners or in penitence etc, I absolutely condone and encourage.

These have a long pedigree in Catholic tradition and is a pious practice to be promoted.

Rita said...

I'm glad you're back blogging again!

I have to admit I'm quite ambivalent about this too. When you've seen the Spanish penitents in Holy week, and Shia pilgrims, and the Thaipusam Hindu festival in sort of takes things to their logical extreme.

There is still a need for religiosity for those scared of and ignorant of formal religion. I guess it is the mostly the same type of person who gets involved irrespective of the religious context; single-minded, male and not confident with silent, internal prayer and devotion.

Archistrategos said...

Thank you all for your interesting comments! I feel like I should post a follow up to this post soon. Maybe later, if have the chance.