Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Prayers for My Father

Of your charity please say a prayer for the recovery of my father, who was admitted to the hospital tonight after complaining of chest pains. This is the second time this has happened to him; the last one was in December of 2002. Please storm heaven for his quick recovery. Thank you.

Funeral Customs

Whenever someone dies, I always make an interesting discovery. Most of these revolve around various practices and curiosities I often see being done when a loved one dies. These range from such customs as putting an extra chair for the deceased on the dining table, the belief that the deceased's body can and must never be left alone in the funeral parlor, the telling of riddles, or bugtongs as we call them in Filipino, the severing of the clasped rosary, the ninth, thirtieth, and fortieth day commemorations. To be honest, I never quite understood the rationale and piety behind them, but I will try to list as many as I can in this post.

The first custom is holding a banquet in honor of the deceased. Now food is very central to Filipino culture, but during funerals, when there are hundreds of guests to feed (a local belief is that the average person will know 250 people in his lifetime, hence many wealthy families often prepare for this amount), banquets often turn into truly sumptuous events. A place of honor is reserved for the deceased; the chair is left unoccupied, and often has the best servings of food. This could probably be an influence of the Chinese, who often buried food, clothing, and other paraphernalia with their dead.

Another belief holds that the deceased must never, ever, be left alone in the funeral parlor. Local piety holds that the soul of the deceased will get angry if he is not prayed for, and would often haunt its negligent relatives. That is why many Filipinos often 'camp' in the funeral parlor; they sleep, eat, and sometimes even bathe in them (in the bathrooms, of course!) until the day of burial comes. Corollary to this is the belief that someone must stay awake and keep vigil with the deceased for the whole night. To accomplish this, the old-timers would often tell 'bugtongs'. A bugtong is a sentence or question with a hidden meaning, which often functions as a riddle. Here's an example of a bugtong:

Buto't balat

Loosely translated into English, it is:
Skin and bones

The answer is, of course, a kite. A bugtong often "fetishizes" mundane things and customs (kaugalian).As far as I know, this practice has been around since Pre-Hispanic times; it survived the Spanish colonization and was given a Christianized facade.

Another interesting funeral custom is the severing of the clasped rosary. Among Filipinos, it is a norm to place a rosary in the deceased's hands as a sign of piety. However, before the body is ultimately buried underground, a relative or loved one of the deceased, usually a female, severs the rosary; it is left in the clasped hands of the deceased, however. This is because they believe that, since the rosary essentially follows a circle, it thus goes round and round, i.e., forever. Thus, it could be seen as a sign that the deceased would have to spend time in purgatory forever (if he is bound for eternal glory, anyway). With the cutting of the rosary, the deceased's loved ones are symbolically freeing him from the fires of purgatory.

I've also seen, in old photographs, how the old-timers used to tie a band of narrow cloth around the deceased person's jaw, thus keeping it tightly shut. I don't have an explanation for this, but I've heard that it keeps the body from being possessed by demons (that is, they prevent them from entering the dead person's mouth). I've not yet heard a good or convincing explanation for this yet, though.

Finally there is the custom of commemorating the ninth, thirtieth, and fortieth days since the death of the loved one. The ninth day, of course, is the culmination of the novena masses for the repose of the soul; it is called the pasiyam, literally 'the ninth'. The thirtieth day commemoration is probably more of a Tagalog practice (I am not really sure), and is mostly held for women. Forty, of course, is a very loaded number in Scripture; there were forty days and nights of rain that flooded the earth, forty days and nights spent fasting in the desert; it is most probable that the fortieth day commemoration is symbolic of the soul's 'calvary' and is perhaps a celebration or reminder that, often life comes through death. It is, above all, a ritual of hope.

It is worth mentioning, too, that women often lead in the prayers; usually, the matriarch of the clan is the prayer leader, if there be no priest present. As is customary, all of these commemorations end in a feast.

Friday, September 26, 2008

St. Peter's Mother

Among the Tagalogs, this story of St. Peter's mother is a very popular folk tale. I remember reading a version of this story way back in second grade, with some of the circumstances altered; still, the essence of the story remained. This version was the one I often heard from my relatives groqing up.

It was said that St. Peter's mother was a very avaricious and greedy woman. One day, when she had lived almost the whole of her life, she summoned St. Peter to her bedside. With a weak but firm voice, she said to St. Peter, 'Entreat you the Lord for me that I be granted many more years to come'. St. Peter, being the obedient son that he was, went to the Lord to seek His help.

So it came to pass that St. Peter saw the Lord one day, after He had just performed a miracle. He flung himself to the Master's feet, and said 'O Lord, You are great and powerful indeed, and no earthly praise is fit to honor You. But my mother is old and sick, and has asked me to spare her life.'

The Lord looked at St. Peter and said, 'When a tree is old its leaves wither and die. But since your mother has asked to be given more years to her life, it shall be done. Plant this seed in your garden, and as long as the tree shall bloom, your mother will live.' St. Peter fell before the Lord and thanked Him. He reached home, when, in his excitement, he forgot to plant the seed in his garden. It remained in his pocket for days, until finally, St. Peter's mother died. The saint was inconsolable, and wept and cursed, but he resigned himself to the will of God.

Nine days after his mother's death, St. Peter had a vision. In that vision, he saw his mother, wrapped in flames, and once again, St. Peter's mother asked her son a favor. 'My son, I am trapped in purgatory, and I am parched beyond relief. Tell the Lord to snatch me away from these unbearable flames'.

Guilt gnawing at his conscience, but at the same time afraid of being rebuked by the Lord for his incompetence, St. Peter debated whether or not to go to the Lord. But in the end, he decided to muster up his courage, and ask the Lord for another favor. So it happened that he chanced upon the Master once more; and again, he flung himself at His feet, and asked 'My Lord, my mother has died because of my incompetence; but now she is in purgatory, and the flames, she says, are unbearable. She asks you to free her from that unspeakable prison!'

The Lord looked at St. Peter and said, 'As I told you, a tree that withers is near death. But since your mother asked for a respite against the pains of purgatory, it shall be granted her. Take you this rope, and when you see her again in your visions, throw the rope to her, and she shall enter Paradise. But be you warned, this is the last favor I will grant your mother.'

That very night, St. Peter's mother appeared to him. 'Mother, the Lord has granted your request! Take the end of this rope and climb up, and you shall enter the gates of paradise!' Overjoyed, St. Peter's mother quickly snatched the rope, and began to climb up in earnest; but just as she was about to escape the mouth of purgatory, she felt a tug on her ankle. Below, she saw a chain of souls, all miserable and yet at the same time hopeful. The soul immediately below her said, 'Take us with you that we too may quench our thirst!' But St. Peter's mother, being greedy and avaricious, tried to shake away the souls clinging to her feet.

And suddenly, in the midst of it all, the rope snapped, and St. Peter's mother fell into the deepest pit of purgatory, eventually landing at the gates of Hell. She alone fell to such a great depth. There she remains to this day, waiting, beyond all mortal rescue, until that Day known to the Lord alone, when heaven and earth shall pass.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Dostoevsky on Hell

Fathers and teachers, I ponder, "What is hell?" I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love. Once in infinite existence, immeasurable in time and space, a spiritual creature was given on his coming to earth the power of saying, "I am and I love." Once, only once, there was given him a moment of active lifting love, and for that was earthly life given him, and with it times and seasons. And that happy creature rejected the priceless gift, prized it and loved it not, scorned it and remained callous. Such a one, having left the earth, sees Abraham's bosom and talks with Abraham as we are told in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, and beholds heaven and can go up to the Lord.

But that is just his torment, to rise up to the Lord without ever having loved, to be brought close to those who have loved when he has despised their love. For he sees clearly and says to himself, "Now I have understanding, and though I now thirst to love, there will be nothing great, no sacrifice in my love, for my earthly life is over, and Abraham will not come even with a drop of living water (that is the gift of earthly active life) to cool the fiery thirst of spiritual love which burns in me now, though I despised it on earth; there is no more life for me and will be no more time! Even though I would gladly give my life for others, it can never be, for that life is passed which can be sacrificed for love, and now there is a gulf fixed between that life and this existence."

They talk of hell fire in the material sense. I don't go into that mystery and I shun it. But I think if there were fire in material sense, they would be glad of it, for I imagine that in material agony, their still greater spiritual agony would be forgotten for a moment. Moreover, that spiritual agony cannot be taken from them, for that suffering is not external but within them. And if it could be taken from them, I think it would be bitterer still for the unhappy creatures. For even if the righteous in Paradise forgave them, beholding their torments, and called them up to heaven in their infinite love, they would only multiply their torments, for they would arouse in them still more keenly a flaming thirst for responsive, active and grateful love which is now impossible.

In the timidity of my heart I imagine, however, that the very recognition of this impossibility would serve at last to console them. For accepting the love of the righteous together with the impossibility of repaying it, by this submissiveness and the effect of this humility, they will attain at last, as it were, to a certain semblance of that active love which they scorned in life, to something like its outward expression...

I am sorry, friends and brothers, that I cannot express this clearly. But woe to those who have slain themselves on earth, woe to the suicides! I believe that there can be none more miserable than they. They tell us that it is a sin to pray for them and outwardly the Church, as it were, renounces them, but in my secret heart I believe that we may pray even for them. Love can never be an offence to Christ. For such as those I have prayed inwardly all my life, I confess it, fathers and teachers, and even now I pray for them every day. Oh, there are some who remain proud and fierce even in hell, in spite of their certain knowledge and contemplation of the absolute truth; there are some fearful ones who have given themselves over to Satan and his proud spirit entirely.

For such, hell is voluntary and ever consuming; they are tortured by their own choice. For they have cursed themselves, cursing God and life. They live upon their vindictive pride like a starving man in the desert sucking blood out of his own body. But they are never satisfied, and they refuse forgiveness, they curse God Who calls them. They cannot behold the living God without hatred, and they cry out that the God of life should be annihilated, that God should destroy Himself and His own creation. And they will burn in the fire of their own wrath for ever and yearn for death and annihilation. But they will not attain to death....

- The Brothers Karamazov

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Liturgical Excerpts from 'Ivan the Terrible'

These are incredible. Clips from a 1943 Russian film, 'Ivan the Terrible'. I actually saw these a couple of months back but have only remembered to put them up recently.

And here is Part 2

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Pater Noster

Not all modern sacred music is bad; case in point, this divinely sublime setting of the Pater Noster, as sung by the Philippine Madrigal Singers. This was composed by a local composer, John August Pamintuan; the Madrigals have won countless praise and accolades for their impeccable singing. This piece is simply moving!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The New World Order, circa 1942

From Strange Maps.

Follows a quick explanation of which nation belongs to what coalition. It's interesting, to say the least.

* The United States of America (USA): the US, Canada, all Central American and Carribean states, most Atlantic islands (including Greenland and Iceland), most Pacific islands, Taiwan, Hainan, the Philippines and several now Indonesian islands, including Sulawesi. This was to be the dominant power in the world, military and otherwise.

* The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR): the Soviets were to be rewarded with Persia (Iran), Mongolia, Manchuria, Finland, and all of Eastern Europe, which subsequently would form part of the Eastern Bloc (excluding Albania, but including the real-life maverick state of Yugoslavia, socialist but anti-Soviet). All of theses states were simply to become member-states of the USSR. Austria and most of Germany, although ‘quarantained’ are shown within the Soviet sphere.

* The United States of South America (USSA): including all South American states, with the three Guianas as a single constituent state and the Falkland Islands part of the USSA.

* The Union of African Republics (UAR): All of Africa as a federation of republics.

* The Arabian Federated Republics (AFR): covering Saudi and all other states now occupying the Arabian Peninsula, plus present-day Iraq and Syria.

* The Federated Republics of India (FRI): Present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Birma (Myanmar).

* The United Republics of China (URC): A federation including all parts of present-day China, Korea, the erstwhile French colony of Indochina (now Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia), Thailand and Malaya.

* The United States of Scandinavia (USS): Norway, Sweden, Denmark.

* The United States of Europe (USE): the Benelux countries, the German Rhineland, France, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal and Italy.

* And finally the British Commonwealth of Nations (BCN), including Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Madagascar and most of Indonesia.

Smaller entities include Eire (the whole of Ireland), Greece (including Albania), Turkey (excluding European Turkey), Hebrewland (the Holy Land plus Jordan) and Japan. The three axis states (Germany, Italy and Japan) were to be ‘quarantained’ until they could be readmitted in the family of nations.

True story: in the 1940s, there were groups in the Philippines which lobbied intensively for the country to be annexed to the United States. This was post American independence, mind you. There were also groups which supported its 'repatriation' to Mother Spain; it is a little known fact that many Falangists made the Philippines their home base, in fact, there were even demonstrations in support of the Falange during that time. The multi-millionaire Andres Soriano (then worth almost a whopping $100 million), who relocated from Spain to the Philippines, was one of the most well-known Falangists in the country.

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Family Thing

I never met my maternal grandfather. Peregrino--Perry, as his friends called him-- was a foreman working for Ford in the 1950s to the 1960s, as well as an occasional shop teacher. In my mother's house there used to hang an old picture of Peregrino in my grandmother's room, and I remember looking at a stern, authoritative figure, with perfectly coiffed 'Jose Rizal' hair, eyes that looked at imperceptible sights in the far off distance, and a thin, hazy suggestion of a smile. When I was younger and I misbehaved, my mother would tell me stories of Lolo Perry-- strict, stern, and disciplinarian-- and how my behavior would simply make his blood curdle. They were quite the stories!

This much I know about Peregrino: he was born in the province of Catanduanes in the 1920s, whereupon he was orphaned at an early age, and had to be raised by distant relatives. Coming from a poor family, he had to start work at an early age; by the time he was in his teens, he had seen the grit and grime of the real world, and vowed to make a better life for himself. Now in those days, these decisions were literally life-altering; and thus it came to be that Peregrino left his home in Catanduanes to begin his sojourn in Manila. That was the last he ever saw of his brothers and adoptive parents.

He met my grandmother in college--she, studying mathematics, he, a vocational course in engineering. The whirlwind romance eventually blossomed into a marriage; Peregrino would move his family to the (more or less) suburb of Santa Ana in Manila, where they lived in a compound leased by their Spanish landlords. They would spent the better part of a decade and a half in that compound, until, tired of the congestion afforded them by Manila, they eventually relocated into the then newly developed Teachers' Village in Quezon City. They had a small bungalow built, with enough land to raise some farm animals. It was the first house in that street, and even today, my mother's house carries the patina of age and history on its walls. This was around 1965.

Now, my grandfather wasn't able to go to a 'proper' university; but this did not stop him from constantly reinventing himself. Since his immediate bosses were Americans, he gradually developed his English skills; in fact, he forbade any and all materials not in English to be read, listened to, or watched in their house. At the dinner table, Peregrino, with characteristic solemnity, would admonish his children to 'Masticate your meat' and to 'rectify your bad manners'. Disobedience, or failure to comply with his orders, meant immediate punishment. When he would argue with my grandmother, it was always in high-phalutin' English.

Like many Filipino fathers, my maternal grandfather was not exactly very pastoral. His word was law, and in his house, he was king. He was also somewhat of an amateur athlete, with an easily bruised ego; one time, challenged by a younger colleague at the factory, the then already 55 year old Peregrino ran a mile in an effort to beat his younger opponent; he lost, but his simmering temper certainly shut up the competition! Conversations with Peregrino more or less followed an interview format; 'How was your day?', was followed by 'Have you eaten?', and then by 'Have you done your chores?', an optional (but liberally used) 'Why is the standard of your work very poor?' and then finally by a reminder to 'Thank the Lord you're still alive'. That was it.

Peregrino, like all men, had his faults; his was an irascible, stubborn, almost Iberian temper. He kept mostly to himself; as mentioned, he had an easily bruised ego, and he was always very demanding. But for all his flaws, Peregrino was really a simple man. He was a man of genteel manners, who never failed to welcome visitors with his company. Often, Mormon missionaries would come to visit their house, and he would invite them in for polite conversation. When the topic of polygamy was brought up, however, he simply could not restrain himself and would chase them off the gate with his bolo. He found joy in fixing broken appliances; he would always wake up at four in the morning to inspect the grounds. No dead light bulb, no broken link of a chain, no clogged toilet, no stray piece of garbage escaped his eyes. Even today, at my mother's house, all the appliances are the same ones that my Lolo Peregrino had built, albeit with some tweaks, alterations, and many repairs done over the course of the last three decades.

He died of cardiovascular failure in 1987, at the age of 66 (67?). Ironically, he was on his way to the Philippine Heart Center, which was only a few blocks from their home. As it happened, an ashen-faced Peregrino suddenly slumped to the ground; by God's grace, a tricycle driver (picture a motorcycle with an attached sidecar) nearby witnessed the event, and carried him on his back to the Heart Center. He would not last for much long; a few more days at the hospital, and he would succumb to the sleep of death. He died on 17 January, exactly a week before his birthday.

Almost a year ago, as I was having lunch with the family, the topic suddenly shifted to my late maternal grandfather. Appalled at the way my sister was chewing her food, my mother admonished her to 'masticate your meat'. I sat there, listening to her stories, when a sudden chill crawled up our spines. The date was 17 January.

Saturday, September 06, 2008