Monday, June 23, 2008

Typhoon Fengshen

Of your charity please offer your prayers for the 229 dead and more than 700 missing in the aftermath of Typhoon Fengshen, locally, Frank. We did not have electricity for most of the day so I was only able to learn of the tragedy two hours ago. The 700 missing as a result of a ferry sinking into the sea is what worries me the most.

‘Frank’ leaves at least 229 dead, 700 missing

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Santa Filomena Almarines

This is a very interesting episode in Philippine history.

Filomena Almarines was supposed to have been a saintly woman who lived in the town of Binan, Laguna, in the early twentieth century. A vendor, Filomena was the daughter of a poor tenant farmer. Not much is known of hear early life except that she died in 1938, her father following suit some seven years later. Since most people were poor back then, many had to share the same graves when they died. This is still a very common phenomenon today; I've heard of families so poor who were all interred in the same nicho (niche); probably a bit of a shock to our middle class sensibilities, but ultimately a pragmatic move (it also saves the remaining members from paying the priest extra for his stipend). Anyway, as they were preparing to clear Filomena's niche, lo and behold, she was discovered to be incorrupt!

A local man, wizened and much respected by the townsfolk, discovered that there was water inside the niche. Perhaps he read this is a supernatural omen, but something drove him to wash his eyes with it; soon enough, the blind man began to see once more. In popular religious fashion, Filomena's mortal remains were exhibited in a glass coffin; some cautioned that the 'holy water', if holy indeed it were, could be a breeding ground for many, untold diseases; but still people flocked to Filomena. There were even reports that new quantities of water began to form inside the locked, glass coffin.

Eventually it was decided that the body was to be re-interred in the ground, but the parish priest refused, because the chosen site was formerly a grazing ground for beasts. Thus, the people sought the help of the Aglipayan priests (officially, the Iglesia Filipina Independiente) for the required blessings. Today it is said that the body of Filomena Almarines is still under the custody of the sons of Aglipay; there are rumors too that the body, when it was exhumed in the 1970s, had finally corrupted; but her eyes, it was said, remained clear as ever.

EDIT: I found the link to where I originally found this. Mr. Alex Castro has one of the most unique photos in his Flickr account, many of them of a religious background. I highly recommend going there to check out his stuff-- you won't be disappointed!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Mang Isko the Healer

We didn't really have access to the best hospitals growing up, so like any normal Filipino family, we sometimes resorted to 'peripherals'. As a child I remember going at least three to four times a year to the residence of Mang Isko, who was reputed to have been gifted with the power of healing in my father's province of Batangas. He lived on top of a hill, alone, with his small hut that could easily have been a quaint ermita to a traveling image of a saint, and his farm animals, which consisted of cows, chickens, goats, and a carabao.

But first, a background. As I have already said, the circumstances in which I grew up in were not exactly middle class. To save on bills, we would pay Mang Isko a visit. He was, you see, an 'albularyo', a traditional medicine man whose knowledge of herbs and other natural remedies were a cheaper alternative to hospitals. Well, at least I think he was an albularyo; he never claimed to be anything near it, but he played along with that honorific. Mang Isko looked like your stereotypical image of an Asian in the 1940s; think Fu Manchu, with more Japanese eyes, buck teeth, and the like. He even had paler skin than most Filipinos. Mang Isko was greatly respected by all those who knew him, not only because he could 'heal', but because, it was said, albularyos were privy to the secrets of the universe; rivals to priests, in their knowledge of incantations and prayers. It was also said that they chanted in Latin, thus giving credence to the notion that they were priests. There was even an old legend that held that the Jesuits, when they first came to the Philippines, compiled all the secrets and incantations of the albularyos into one black, leatherbound book, possession of which was said to give anyone power beyond his reckoning. To this day, there are still many who hold to this claim. Makes for a good Indiana Jones movie, if you ask me.

Anyway, the drive to Mang Isko's quaint house took about half an hour from my father's childhood home. From the highway one took a right turn to a hill fronted by an aging wooden billboard advertising an equally old and creaky hotel. The road wound up the hill, and to either side were small residences built by squatters. Finally the hill leveled somewhat, and the road led to Mang Isko's grotto of a house, which had a rather spacious veranda overlooking the small plot of land he farmed.

As a city kid, I hated going there. Especially at the age of 9 or 10, when I was just beginning to discover the wonders of the Internet; I felt Mang Isko's home was ancient at best and antediluvian, if not prehistoric, at worst. It was a small wood and stone affair, characteristic of homes built at the turn of the 20th century. The main house, which was of wood, stood on a base of stone, its foundation, and was reached by climbing a small stair. Inside, the house looked like a curio shop. It was literally stuffed with religious images, which contrasted, humorously and ironically enough, with the White Castle whisky calendars the old man had collected over the years (even healers have their needs too).

To one side was a wall, where an ancient, dark, wooden crucifix was affixed. It looked very expensive, with rayos of gold, and bolts of gold on the arms (there's a Spanish term for that which I have forgotten). The corpus had a wig of abaca, with finely worked potencias. The crucifix itself was framed by a gigantic wooden rosary; images of the Blessed Virgin, Saint Peter, and even a 'painting' of St. Michael ripped off a bottle of gin flanked the big cross (A popular brand of gin here is called Ginebra San Miguel). There was a small table which held a large number of candles before the images. There was a small, darkly lit room, with a single wooden bed with no mattress, where he performed his 'hilot' or traditional Philippine massage, his main method of 'healing'.

Mang Isko himself was a pleasant old man, whose hospitality was legendary. The last time we were there, 1998, my dad complained of a bad back, and my grandfather came along as well, as his arthritis was bothering him. So in we go, inside the small, quaint house, drinking small bottles of Coke which I then called the last point of civilization in the genteel, all too quiet surroundings of the farm. The only sound one could hear was the mooing of the cows and the clucking of the chickens. It added a decidedly mystical air to the whole environment, I thought.

Only once did I even dare to look at the procedure, and I was greatly disappointed. I ran into the room, feigning ignorance to mask my prideful curiosity, and discovered the old man rubbing a golden liquid onto my father's back. To my mind then, it looked like piss. I watched Mang Isko rub the liquid with his small, deft hands, which, even in the darkness, seemed to wander as if guided by truth itself into the invisible nooks and shadowy crevices of my dad's back. My grandfather awaited his turn, meanwhile, on a nearby chair, his pant leg rolled up to just above his knees. For an old man, Mang Isko moved with a graceful dexterity that seemed almost superhuman. I remember thinking that he must have loved exercise when he was a kid. That was the most sensible explanation for me.

Bored, I filed out of the house. I ran across the field with my brother, cursing the dumb beasts, throwing little stones at them or else flinging mud everywhere. Finally, after half an hour of doing so, I went back to the veranda, and sat myself on a small wooden chair. Finally, incensed at the constant mooing of the cows, I hurled a large rock at one of them, and screamed at the top of my lungs: 'Shut up you stupid cow!' But there was something about the silence that followed that simply wasn't right. I looked over to my side and saw Mang Isko's little figure, mouth agape, brows crunched, clearly puzzled, if not offended. 'Do you really think I am stupid?', he said. 'I just told your father what any sensible person would do. He needs a new mattress.'

It seemed that, just as I screamed at the cow, Mang Isko was simultaneously telling me that he knew the answer to my father's problems. It was incredibly hideous timing. Hearing the commotion, my dad headed outside, clearly angered at the commotion I caused. 'You ungrateful, disrespectful child! How dare you talk to your elders that way! Puneta!' My grandfather, ever the silent type, just shook his head in disapproval, but his eyes told me that he was greatly disappointed in my behavior.

I never got to apologize to Mang Isko. It was nearing dark, and he had gone to fetch a couple of things from the nearest house some 2 kilometers away; we thanked his housekeeper-slash-fac-totum, and told her to convey our sincerest apologies to Mang Isko. That was in the summer of 1998, and ten years hence, I have yet to apologize for that faux pas. I had never felt so humiliated before; I could not bear to look at his housekeeper, let alone Mang Isko.

The drive down the hill was eerily silent; only the croaking crickets accompanied us on the way down. Even the cows had seized mooing, and the chickens had clucked their last. Above, the full moon shone brightly-- and somewhere to the right, to the side of the road, I saw a small fire. The moonlight revealed Mang Isko's small figure-- hands outstretched in the orans, knees kneeling on dirt, a rosary hanging from either hand. The old albularyo knelt before a small, dilapidated grotto with an image of the Santo Cristo, and somewhere, in the distance, I heard a small voice, chanting words that could only have been Latin.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Saint Guinefort

I found this little gem of an entry in Wikipedia. It is definitely one of the most unusual cults I have ever encountered.

"Saint Guinefort was a 13th century dog that received local veneration as a saint after miracles were reported at his grave.

His story is a variation on the well-travelled 'faithful hound' motif, perhaps better-known in Britain in the form of the dog Gelert. Guinefort the greyhound belonged to a knight who lived in a castle near Lyon. One day, the knight went hunting, leaving his infant son in the care of Guinefort. When he returned, he found the nursery in chaos - the cot was overturned, the child was nowhere to be seen and Guinefort greeted his master with bloody jaws. Believing Guinefort to have devoured his son, the knight slew the dog. He then heard a child crying; he turned over the cot and found his son lying there, safe and sound, along with the body of a viper. Guinefort had killed the snake and saved the child. On realising the mistake the family dropped the dog down a well, covered it with stones and planted trees around it, setting up a shrine for Guinefort. Guinefort became recognised by locals as a saint for the protection of infants. It was alleged by Catholic commentators, dismayed by the worship of a dog, that the locals sacrificed babies at the site.

The cult of this dog saint persisted for several centuries, until the 1930s, despite the repeated prohibitions of the Catholic Church."

Friday, June 06, 2008

Not Dead Yet!

So sorry for the lack of updates recently, I have been busy with several things. Also, I will be going to Hong Kong tomorrow and will be staying there for five days. The last time I was in Hong kong, in 1996, I cried in public, inside a bus, no less, so for the last decade or so I have always associated that place with crying. It should be a fun trip, although the school season has already started here in Manila (arrgh, no beach this year!). Also, keep an eye out for a somewhat historical (i.e., it is about history, not necessarily 'revolutionary' or anything)post in the coming days; the last post has made me think a lot about the character of Manila as a whole, and it is something, I think, which is worth exploring.