Sunday, January 25, 2009

La Muerte

In the town of Daet, Camarines Norte, the Good Friday procession is led by this image of La Muerte. I have, sadly, no further information at this point regarding the origin, age, or provenance of the image, or if its 'cultus'. Suffice to say, I am intrigued. I would venture a guess and say that this was probably a Mexican influence-- the style and iconic representation certainly reminds me of the celebration of the Dia de Los Muertos.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Finding of the Sto. Nino

When Miguel Lopez de Legazpi arrived in Cebu on 13 February 1565, he was greeted by fear and hostility by the natives-- a fact which his companion, the explorer turned Augustinian monk Fr. Andres de Urdaneta, duly noted. Urdaneta had been a companion to Magellan on his first voyage to find the fabled Spice Islands, but who had subsequently discovered the Philippines today. Being able to speak Malayan, which evidence would show has striking similarities to Cebuano, he was able to deduce the reason for the hostility that now greeted them, whereas Magellan, when he first arrived more than forty years before, had been met favorably.

From a Muslim trader, he learned that a pack of Portuguese traders had come to Cebu, announcing themselves as the Spaniards who had befriended their forefathers years past. However, the true intent of the Portuguese party was to sow the seeds of discord among the Cebuanos and the Spaniards; they killed many people and kidnapped more, selling them in the slave markets presumably. For Legzpi, the fact that some of the Cebuano chiefs had been baptized earlier enforced a sort of moral obligation on him to see to the well-being of their faith; he also knew that he had to disabuse them of their errors.

Easter Sunday, 21 March 1565, saw Legzpi sailing to Cebu to set the record straight. Three times did they assure the Cebuanos of their peaceful intent. On the third try, Legazpi, still met with a fierce hostility, reluctantly agreed to use his cannons. The Cebuanos fleed from the superior weapon, but not before burning their settlement to the ground in an effort to starve off the Spaniards. And so one morning found the Vizcayan Juan de Camus loitering on the beach, to see what little of the burnt village he could salvage."

"While sacking, then, the Cebuano houses their owners had abandoned and had been spared from the conflagration, a sailor of the flagship-- called Juan de Camus, but by others "de Bermeo" since he came from this place in Vizcaya-- and a companion named Pedro de Alorza from the same ship, were doing the usual soldiers' thing."

"Camus entered a native chief's hut and found two bundles tied up (doubtless to bring them with their clothes on fleeing to the mountain). He opened one of them and found only a boar's tooth and a large cup. Hoping to satisfy his wats, he went farther inside the house and found another case tied with Castilian cord and abaca string. Surprised by its weight, he broke the strings, and opening the case, there inside, he found arranged in a pine box (a wood not found in these islands), a statue of the Child Jesus."

"Totally surprised, as though beside himself, he went out joyfully because of his find, in bad Castilian, since he was a Vizcayan, "For the body of God, Son of Mary, you have found!" Everyone crowded inside the house and the General, on his knees, tears in his eyes, and with acts of special devotion, venerated it. These were joined by those men from the fleet. Everyone admitted that God was rewarding the General's constant devotion to the Holy Name and his burning zeal with which he was undertaking a temporal conquest that would result in the spiritual conquest of such a multitude of souls!"

In due time, the Spaniards held a most solemn procession in honor of the Child, before celebrating the Holy Mass. They transferred the image of the Senor to a provisional shrine, the first Catholic house of worship in the entire Philippine archipelago. However, the biggest surprise came when two Cebuano chiefs and a retinue of about thirty followers were seen observing the pomp and majesty of the liturgy.

To the Spaniards' shock, upon interrogation, the Cebuanos had claimed that they had venerated the Sto. Nino since time immemorial, even calling it 'their god'. They claimed He was a powerful rain god whom they honored with feasting and dancing. And when He failed to deliver on His promises, they would take the image out of its case, and place it on a decorated altar before singing prayers and religious hymns to it. When that failed, however, and the rains still would not come, they would take the Nino by the sea, and stripping it of its garments, they would submerge Him upside down in the water and hold Him there until the rains fell. They gave Legazpi and his men the assurance that this has never been known to fail.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

In Keeping With the Theme...

"Utang na Loob"

The cursory traveler will note that the common thread binding the peoples of Southeast Asia is the concept of smooth interpersonal relationships. Described as a way of maintaining harmony and conflict-avoidance, SIRs are central to the Southeast Asian understanding of community and kinship ties. In the Philippines, the concept of 'utang na loob' (debt of gratitude)is intrinsically connected to maintaining harmonious relationships. But utang na loob transcends the petty legal outlines of an ordinary debt; rather, his desire to maintain harmony will push the Filipino to view reciprocity to a favor granted him as a moral debt.

One thing I've noticed about the many flagellants and penitents who crowd the streets of Manila and its neighboring provinces during the Lenten season -- and more specifically, Holy Week -- is that they view their panata (i.e., religious vow) almost as a moral obligation. Failure to fulfill the panata almost always means bad luck and sparse blessings for the year ahead. Thus, the men and women who vow to 'serve' the Lord in some way or another are, in a way, paying a debt. But deeper than this goes the concept of utang na loob. One thing that always impressed me with the character of the penitents is that very few of them, if any, have a victim complex. They go about their rituals and penitence of their complete and utter accord, knowing full well the the dangers of the activities they are about to enter.

Contrary to popular opinion, the Philippine concept of penitence is not confined exclusively to crucifixion and flagellation (although these are probably the most prevalent, especially the latter). There is the tinunggong of Laguna, where boys as young as ten roll sideways on the barren ground on the way to church; another province has a peculiar tradition of macho men donning grass skirts and headdresses, thereby humiliating themselves by dressing up as women. But how does one explain the popularity of such an extreme practice as self-flagellation, let alone crucifixion? Is fanaticism, then, never far off from the practice of religion?

Here is where the concept of utang na loob comes into play, I think. Through their extreme, almost gruesome acts of penitence, the penitent is symbolically repaying his gratitude to the Crucified; by taking on the same sufferings as his Patron, he is reciprocating that which can never be truly reciprocated, namely, the salvific death of Christ. He thus sees his act of mortification as an act of thanksgiving, even an act of love, offered to God. In other words, the concept of mortification and penitence has been 'recast' in the Philippine context to include the dimension of thanksgiving.

But the analysis does not end here. If it is true that utang na loob is a necessary tool by which one maintains a smooth personal relationship with a kin-group, then it must be the case that extreme acts of mortification are also a way of maintaining one's favor in the eyes of God. Call it 'palakasan', which is a Tagalog concept that basically means 'a test of one's influence'. The penitent also symbolically opens up and extends his kin-group to the Divine, and thus, God and His favor are 'assimilated' into one's sphere (which is defined by the aforementioned kin-group). Thus we see how these acts of penitence can theoretically bring about blessings and graces to one who 'co-suffers' (as I once heard from a Jesuit) with the Lord, and by extension, his family.

To be honest, of the penitents who go to extreme lengths to secure God's favor, many, for the most part, are unchurched. It is not uncommon to hear of a devout 'Kristo' willing to be crucified for ten, fifteen years straight but who only goes to Mass once a year, or one who crawls on his belly to church while being beaten with sticks who keeps three to five mistresses simultaneously. Yes, they are bad Catholics, hence they make up for it, for that nagging blight on their conscience, by reciprocating the sacrifice of Christ in their own little way. It is naive thinking at best, and perhaps sloppy at worst; but spiritual progress is often slow and ponderous, and I would not be so quick to discard this ethic.

A person who keeps on receiving favors but does not reciprocate is the worst kind of person in traditional Philippine society. He does not recognize the gravity and the extent of his benefactor's favors, and thus, separates himself from his kin group. Consequently, because he is 'walang utang na loob' (absence of debt of gratitude), he cannot, should not, expect to be blessed forever. He is essentially taking on the characteristic of absolute and utter self-sufficiency-- the greatest act of pride that man can commit. There is a remarkable profundity and truth to this; for the man who does not need a kin-group is essentially saying that he does not desire to be with the whole company of the Church, whether her members still fighting the good fight, or those who now reside in eternal beatitude and glory.

The concept of utang na loob reveals the surprising level of just how incultrated the Faith has been cultivated in Philippine soil. It is virtually impossible now to think of Catholicism in these islands without the concept of penitence. But what is truly unique is how penitence itself has been redefined as an act of thanksgiving, and ultimately, an act of love. Tunay nga na nakaluluwag ng loob (It is truly enriching for the inner self).

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Lord of the Poor

Friday, Jaunuary 9th -- otherwise known as the Feast of the Black Nazarene here in the Philippines -- has come and gone, but the excitement and fear and fervor of that day are still fresh with me. This year, the authorities are reporting that as much as 3.2 million people joined the five kilometer long procession, which took nearly thirteen hours to conclude. As in years past, the sheer devotion and spectacle of that day took on an earth-shattering intensity, as the never-ending sea of devotees ran to the much venerated image, jumping at the carroza and wiping the limbs, face, and cross of the Lord in the hope of securing a better future for this year.

I guess it is the greatest blessing of God that I have never had to attend a procession like the Black Nazarene's; my own life, though not perfect, is ultimately far better than the millions of the poor and destitute in this country who struggle to eke out a living amidst all the corruption and scandal. I have written enough about the procession last year to paint a picture of the devotees: they are mostly male, ranging from pre-pubescent teens to grizzled adults, and mostly poor. But one of the greatest miracles of the Nazarene is its bridging of that yawning chasm that separates wealthy and destitute in the developing world-- there are, too, wealthy devotees, politicians, businessmen, even doctors praying for a miracle of their own. They come to that throbbing, engorged artery that is Quiapo, heart of Manila, dressed in scarlets and yellows, barefoot, dirty, grimy, but animated by a divine zeal bordering on fanaticism.

The stories of the devotees' private miracles, in contrast, are mundane, boring, perhaps even considered totally ordinary by the educated; they range from being able to send sons and daughters to school, landing a rank-and-file job, even having enough food to survive on for the previous year. But poverty is often the greatest motivating force behind man's reasoning, and these people believe, even in the deepest pits of their quivering guts, that it is through the Lord's mercy and beneficence that their life hinges on. It is a sobering, humbling thought, at once deeply inspiring and offensive to our burgeoning pride. The urbane, especially, find it ludicrous that a 400 year old burnt statue could dispense miracles, grace, and blessings from merely being wiped by a towel, almost as if it were a soda machine.

But these condescensions are only possible because we have never had to suffer the thought of our children dying in our arms because we could not provide them with a meal, because we have always taken our menial jobs for granted, because we have our own rooms and homes and do not sleep in ten-to-a-bed tenements and hovels , because we have all the comforts of the middle class and suburbia. But even a cursory look outside our comfort zones will show that the world is far from perfect, a vastly different world from the postcard-perfect homes of smiling housewives and SUV-driving teens-- the real and unattainable pipe dreams of the rest of the world. It is the educated, the urbane, the pleasant who are different.

Perhaps I am being jaded, but I am no longer surprised by the number of people joining the procession of the Black Nazarene; granted, three million people is a large number anywhere in the world, and it definitely attests to the continuing faith and devotion of the Filipino people to a the God of a transplanted religion, and really its ways and culture. But with the number of the poor rising every year, and especially because of the global recession which hovers like a cloud on the mythical, indestructible cities of the First World (and by osmosis, the developing world), I can see why and how Faith is becoming more and more important-- so important, that many are at a crossroads whether one should continue persevering in it, or discard it completely. In many ways, this country is still a Catholic country, but the situation is by no means perfect. For example, there are 3,000 priests at best in the Philippines serviving 70+ million souls. That the West thinks that the Third World will be the salvation of the Church is optimistic at best, but the reality is far from ideal (something which Arturo also touches on in this post).

In the Feast of the Black Nazarene, is is said, there is neither rich nor poor, only the destitute. The housewife struggling to raise her rebellious children, the jeepney driver trying to kick his drug habit, the banker trying to break off his multiple extramarital affairs, and the policeman torn whether to to work within the framework of the law or take justice in his own hands are just some of the devotees of the Suffering Lord. In the procession, they bring to him their cares and worries, hatreds, problems, and sins, hoping they could at least earn their redemption by joining the unending, undulating sea of people who push, jostle, and shove in the hopes of attaining the same thing. But rather than scoff at the perceived hypocrisy of the sinners who make the Lord their patron, the depths of the mercy and love of God are, to me, revealed; for He too grew and lived in the same conditions, amidst the dregs of humanity and the most hardened of sinners. It is perhaps the greatest meditation on the limitless love of God, and it rightfully brings a chill down my spine just thinking about it. Sometimes, we need to remember that we are sinners in order to realize the obvious-- that God loves us, and that He died for us. It really is that simple. It is really that profound.

Evil exists in this world, whether we like it or not. We can try to avoid it by building walls of comfort and pleasantness all around us, but this only mutes, and does not eliminate, the fact that the world is awash in the filth and scum of our own doing. And as long as poverty, hunger, sin and death exist, man will always try to find a way to escape it. Perhaps the greatest sin of suburbia is that good and evil do not exist in its worldview; there is only comfort, complacency, and gratification (have you ever seen an episode of 'My Super Sweet Sixteen'?). We are the very lukewarm which Our Lord condemns in the strongest terms. Many people today condemn the failures of religion as ritual-wrapped-redemption; they sneer at it, telling the 'poor, ignorant' religionists to go on and live their lives as they please. But for most of us, survival is far more pertinent than worrying about closet space for the newest designer clothes.

Hours before the grand procession ended, the news showed a clip of a woman in her late 70s, dressed in the scarlet of the Nazarene's devotees and a gigantic white veil, hobbling toward the image in the mere hope of seeing it. Her face was scarred and pitted by years of disease, her small, gaunt frame clearly ravaged by the vicissitudes of age and countless concerns. But the woman smiled, and I saw in her smile the same gratitude of relief and thanksgiving that must have characterized the faces of the womanizers, drunkards, pimps, and criminals who seek forgiveness and redemption in the procession. And they will continue to troop to the suffering Christ, even as their souls are caked in sin, because of their immutable faith that, there is, in the end, a loving God Who understands them. I thank God for blessing me and my family with a prosperous life; I thank God, too, that He has made me see his goodness and love.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Adios, Reina del Cielo

This hymn is traditionally sung by pilgrims after a visit to an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in the Philippines as in the rest of the Spanish-colonized world. This particular version is sung in honor of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary-- or as she is more popularly known in these parts, Nuestra Senora de La Naval. The Tiples de Sto, Domingo, the resident boys' choir of Sto. Domingo church, the Dominican mother church in the Philippines, is responsible for this recording. Posted after the video are the lyrics, in Spanish, largely unchanged from the original.

Adiós, Reina del Cielo, Madre, Madre del Salvador
Adiós, adiós
Adiós, dulce prenda adorada
dulce prenda adorada
de mi sincero amor
adiós, Reina del Cielo, adiós, adiós
Madre del Salvador
De tu divino rostro la belleza al dejar.
Permiteme que vuelva tus plantas a besar;
He que da do O María, abrasado en tu amor
Que da te adiós Señora, adiós, adiós
Da me tu bendición, Madre del Salvador
Dame tu bendición, Madrel del Salvador
Madre amorosa prenda de amor
Adiós, adió