Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Never Been Known To Fail

Growing up, I have to say that my mental image of the Church has always been defined by the 'landscape' in which I lived. It was, for me, experienced primarily through a series of images: women in veils, Sacred Heart scapulars, walking on one's knees, sampaguita-clad statues of the saints, golden retablos, and the graphic depiction of the sufferings of the Crucified. These for me served as a background of sorts, a tapestry on which I somehow based my idea of what the Church was. One of the most ubiquitous components of that tapestry is the novena to St. Jude.

I'm sure you've seen them everywhere. They are usually hidden in some back pew of a grand church, photocopied or printed individually. I've collected a lot of these 'pamphlets' over the years; when I was a student in the sixth grade, I recall plundering our parish for copies of the novena, intrigued by its audacious claim of 'it has never been known to fail'. In 2002, I had the chance to visit Mission San Juan Capistrano in California; St. Jude was there, too, only it was a pamphlet-slash-booklet, containing nine copies of the prayer within. When I started college, I began to collect more and more of these novenas. They range in size from A4 bifolds to 3in by 3in laminated squares small enough to fit in your wallet.

I've never prayed the novena, though. Despite always being intrigued by it, I guess I was never desperate enough to give it a try. But with the worsening economic crisis and other factors, there seems to be an influx in the saint's devotees. I think it's quite fitting (and bitingly ironic) that the shrine of St. Jude in Manila is proximate to Malacanang Palace, the seat of the national government.

Perhaps one reason why I'm so reluctant to give the St. Jude novena a try is because it always seemed like folk magic to me. I have blogged before about the somewhat neurotic religious environment in which I grew up, where evangelical Protestantism seemed to mesh with traditional Roman Catholic piety. While I learned to cross myself, say the Our Father and the Hail Mary, I was also being told about the end of the world, the rapture, and all of that. I took this all in, as any child is wont to do, never really distinguishing one from another. Thus, I would kiss the foot of a saint while believing, simultaneously, that one should not commit idolatry (that is, bow before a graven image, as most prottys define it).

For some reason, whenever I would feel myself in a lull in my spiritual life, I am always buoyed up by St. Jude novena, even if I have never prayed it before. Maybe it was the sheer audacity-- and consequently, hope-- that it promises, but I end up telling myself 'Your life isn't too bad, you know.' One time, I saw an old man, who could not have stood more than 4'10, and whose skin looked as if it had been parched and burned by years walking under the sun, walk his way toward the altar of the church, carrying several pieces of paper with the novena prayers printed on them. The church was practically empty, as it was only 7 in the morning (or perhaps they had already left since the first mass there was at 5.30), and with the exception of the man, most of the people there were preparing to leave. It was such a nice little scene to observe, so peaceful and so hopeful. You would never know that he was beset my so many problems.

I don't think anyone could really determine in an empirical way whether the St. Jude novena delivers on its promise. In the end, one really has to have faith. But that's just the problem with us nowadays: we don't really believe anymore. It's all a matter of convenience and pleasure. Perhaps, one day, God will make me desperate enough to try something so audacious and so comforting as the St. Jude novena. Lord, that I may see.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Sagada Mountain Province - All Souls' Day

Just an incredibly haunting photograph, found online, and whose source I am trying desperately to find. The people of the Sagada, instead of lighting candles to remember their dead on All Souls' Day, light small bonfires instead. First is the practical consideration-- one simply cannot expect wimpy candles to last long in the battering winds of the mountains. The more mystical side of this ritual centers on the belief that, the brighter the flame one lights, so too is the intensity of the deceased's suffering alleviated. It is especially interesting, too, since Sagada is not exactly a region where Catholicism is that entrenched-- the Anglican communion is stronger there, having been brought by American missionaries to the Philippines at the dawn of the twentieth century.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Radio Melodrama

I took a cab home today.

I don't usually commute and from school; I'm lucky enough to have my own car (an old Honda :/ )but for some reason, I thought it would be fun to go it like an ordinary college student. Jeepneys, on general, tend to make me feel queasy, mainly from the dust and heat (I am very prone to migraines) and cabs, well, let's just say taxis in Manila tend to make even the worst NYC cabbie look like a kitten. It was easy enough, but I did have to lug my big bag all the way, which had almost 30 lbs of stuff inside (it is 'hell week' already for students in the city).

It was the return home, however, that was quite... entertaining. I live around 30 to 40 minutes away from school, depending on the traffic, and many cabs usually take me in without much trouble. I flagged down this badly bruised Toyota, which screeched to halt around five feet from me. I got inside, and luckily, the taxi driver was a pleasant man, quite talkative, really. I told him my destination, and judging from the way he spoke, he seemed pretty familiar with where I lived.

Five minutes in, mister taxi driver asks me in a somewhat sheepish tone if he could switch the radio station so he could catch his favorite radio drama. It wasn't a problem, I told him; so he switches from FM to AM, and lo, I start hearing the most over the top, overwrought, hyper-melodramatic dialogue ever.

The first involved an evil grandmother (who sounded like she had smoked her peace pipe for too long) berating and harshly treating her granddaughter, who was literally crying her heart out. It was difficult to make out what she was saying, but here I've tried to transcribe it to the best of my memory:

'Pero... (sob) Mahal.. (sniff) Mahal ko siya!!! (cries heart out) Hu hu hu! Ma...(sob)sama.. kang.. tao!! (sob)' (sniffsobsobsniff auugh guhuhu raaah, unintelligible noises)

[English: But...(x)I love...(x) I love him!!!(x) Hu hu hu! You...(x) are..(x)An evil woman!(xxx)]

For 15 minutes, there was not one sentence that was not punctuated by a sob, a sigh, a sniff, or an invective against the evil grandmother. I personally did not know whether to laugh or cry, but I found myself gritting my teeth in some instances, especially when the grandmother spoke, that shrill, cackling, vulture-ish voice inciting my inner sap to join in the drama. The driver must have seen me making faces through the rear view mirror (not a very good sight), and offered to explain the whole plot line-- plot ribbons and knots, more likely-- and it went by so fast I had to ask him repeatedly about it.

'Ah kasi, 'yung lola, ayaw siyang ipakasal kay (didn't catch name), kasi, mahirap. Gusto ng matanda, si ganito na lang daw, dahil may utang pa siya dito. So 'yung babae na lang daw pambayad utang niya. Pero itong si apo, ayaw, kaya nag-iiiyak sa lola, pero rinig mo naman na malupit siya, diba. Si lola, malupit sa lahat, pati sa sarili niyang anak. Lalong lalo na sa mga mahirap. Proud ba siya! Hahaha!'

[It's like this, the grandmother, she doesn't want her to be married to that guy (didn't catch name), because he's poor. The old lady wants her to marry so and so instead, because he's rich, and she still owes him. But the girl, she doesn't it (the fact that grandma is intruding into her personal life), that's why she's crying her heart out before her grandma, but as you've heard, she's downright mean. The grandmother, she's cruel to everyone, even on her own children. And she's even proud of it! Hahaha!]

I listened to him narrate the rest of the story, from its unfolding to the present. As I said, there was not a full minute that passed without hearing a sob, a sigh, or a sniff from the radio. Sometimes I ask myself, What's the point of all this obsession over suffering? Haven't we, as a people, suffered enough? You'd think a housemaid would be the last person on earth to listen to her radio counterpart scream and sob from her latest beating; but no, she listens to it, even giggles at it. I don't understand it, really. Maybe it's because of our 'bahala na' (lit. 'It's in God's hands) attitude, or the fact that we tend to be most serious when we are laughing. He definitely seemed to be enjoying himself.The driver eventually stopped talking, allowing me to hear the rest of the glorious melodrama.

I guess, with all the poverty in the world today, it's sometimes good to take a pause and laugh it all off. After all, your life can't be that bad; just be happy you don't have an evil bitch of a grandmother giving you off to be married in order to pay a debt, or an evil stepfather who likes the beat the s4it out of poor people. Yes, it's grossly exaggerated stuff, and I can't help but think that this is also the reason why it is so true.

'Ayan na si Bernardo! Ha, sige, lagot ka ngayon!'[There, it's Bernardo! Ha, wait till her hears of what you did!'], he says to no one in particular. Maybe it was cathartic, or it was just that entertaining. The radio drama eventually ended, but not before advertising cheap brandy, an online classified ads website, and a bad jingle for an even worse cola. Finally, the familiar, booming voice of the announcer announces the name of the cast members, reminding us all that it was (thankfully) just make believe. The show closed with a bad techno remix of Ennio Morricone's theme from 'The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.'

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Altar of Cebu Cathedral, circa 1930s

The altar of the Cathedral of Cebu, as it appeared in the 1930s. Interestingly enough, this altar would be demolished in 1934, when Cebu was elevated to an archdiocese in the 1930s. Supposedly, Bishop Gabriel Reyes was responsible for the brand-spanking new, but vastly pared down, American style altar (that is to say, wedding cake Gothic) that replaced this one. The new altar was made of carrara marble, and if I remember correctly, had three stained glass windows above it. Currently, however, the Cebu cathedral is once again under renovation, and the present altar (long since changed from the Gothic one)will be replaced by a new, more classically-designed altar (reredos, actually-- in the Philippines they're interchangeable). The new reredos will come from Pampanga, a province known for producing classical and baroque inspired altarpieces.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Psychic Surgery

Here is something I have meaning to post for a few days now but have always forgotten to do so, mostly due to stress. One of my guilty pleasures is reading travelogues of people from all over the world, and this one, written by a Briton who has been in the Philippines for five months now, is especially interesting. Here is the link; but I have also pasted his whole account here for the benefit of the readers. Check out his other posts as well.

Psychic Surgery and Healing With A Double-Edged Sword
by Edward Adrian Vallance

I screamed with pain as the healer swung his double-edged, razor-sharp sword full force into my belly. It was agonizing but somehow felt more like being hit by a metal rod than a sword.

"Stop, stop," I cried, "I don't want any more!" But I had begun now, and other people held me back. I received two more blows to the stomach and three on my leg, all equally excruciating and producing cries at a similar volume. Afterwards I looked at the areas of flesh he had struck and sure enough there were three long thin red marks where the blade had hit me but somehow not penetrated my skin. Two weeks later, as I write this, huge black bruises still cover the area.

The room in which we found ourselves and the people we were with looked, outwardly, highly Americanised. The healer was no shaven-headed Tibetan monk in long red shawl, no wild-haired, pencil-thin Indian Yogi - he was a fat, simple-faced, warm-hearted Filipino in jeans, a T-Shirt and a baseball cap. We were in no Himalayan temple or Buddhist shrine, but on the twenty first floor of the Herrera Tower in downtown Makati, surrounded by the vast shopping malls and reflective glass windows of Manila's flashiest area and answer to Singapore. Yet this bizarre ritual took place amid all this seeming hyper-modernity. The other "patients" were highly-educated working people yet they must have believed in the efficacity of the ritual otherwise why would they have been there? Relaxed and trusting, they did not scream while being hit. My own agony upon having the blade unleashed upon me was apparently due to my skepticism; fearing the worst, I had unwittingly tensed all my muscles in useless preparation for the blow.

"Where are you from?" I asked the healer when the ordeal was over.

"The island of Leyte, Sir," he replied.

"And what did you do before you became a healer?"

"I was just a farmer, Sir."

"How did you realise you had this gift?"

"One day God just told me, Sir. I left home and lived in the wild for a year, fasting during the day and never once washing. Then I came back and started to help people." He seemed straightforward, down to earth, and without a cunning bone in his body.

The owner of the clinic in which the ritual had taken place quoted a couple of verses from the Bible which mentioned metal rods and double-edged swords representing the Word of God which could protect people from death.

"Perhaps it felt more like a rod than a sword when he hit you?" he asked, looking from face to face. He went on to show us some photos of the ritual on his computer where a bright shining light inexplicably appeared near the sword, or where the sword became transparent. We checked our own photos and, sure enough, in one of them the sword was transparent. In another one Lizz had captured the sword just as it hit my leg; it was definitely the blade, not the flat, that was striking me and, what is more, the blade appeared to be partly buried in my flesh.

"Anyway," the owner went on, "this should build up your protective aura enormously and prevent you from getting hurt." He went on to site a list of examples of policemen and soldiers who had taken the same treatment then survived without a scratch after being shot at point blank. Another young man at the clinic told us that after having the treatment one day he had had an sudden urge to change buses then had watched as the bus he had left blew up in a terrorist attack.

"The clothes you are in now, you can't wear them for a year," the owner said, "unless you are going into a particularly dangerous situation, then they will protect you. For the next three days you cannot shower, eat pork or have sex. For the rest of your life you cannot shower, eat pork or have sex on Tuesdays or Fridays. Whenever you eat meat, you must never skewer it with your fork. And, most importantly, you must say these prayers every day at 6am and 6pm." He handed out several pages of Tagalog and Latin prayers that would take at least twenty minutes to recite.

"We have to say them all twice every day?" I asked with a sinking heart, knowing full well that I would not be able to keep it up.

"Indeed, otherwise you will lose your protection."

We had decided to undergo the treatment by alternative healers because for us it summed up a number of aspects of the Filipino culture, above all the deep, almost fanatical spirituality which scratched below the surface of the Americanised exterior. The sword healer was apparently a one-off, just a man who had been given a gift by God not to be found in anyone else. Our next experience was to be of one of the most controversial healing practices to be found anywhere in the world: that of psychic surgery. This practice, revered for its successes by the spiritualists and denounced by conventional doctors as giving false hope to people who would be much better off putting their faith in Western medecine, is extremely popular in the Philippines.

I had seen a documentary on TV in the West in which psychic surgery had been proven to be a hoax. When I mentioned this to the owner of the clinic where I had received the sword treatment, he replied that in the whole world there were only about forty genuine psychic surgeons but plenty of people out to make money by faking it.

We were in a tricycle taxi bumping along a small winding street in a poverty stricken part of the Pasay area. The power-dressed, briefcase-clutching businesspeople of Makati were gone, replaced by street vendors, karaoke bars and crowds of children playing in the street. The cries of "hey Joe!" and "Where you going, man?" that had greeted us everywhere in the provinces but had disappeared upon our arrival in Manila were once again all around us. Fifteen minutes after leaving Makati we were already in a different world, one that reminded us of any number of small provincial towns in Palawan, Panay, Negros, Mindanao, Romblon or Mindoro.

The tricycle drew up outside a small church whose wide doors opened onto a street that was buzzing with life. It made me reminiscent of the provinces. Here people knew everyone around them, laughed and joked with one another, watched the newcomers with excited curiosity; in Makati, as in any big, developed place, the huge numbers of people concentrated in one area silenced each other and shut themselves off from anyone they did not already know.

We entered the Church, a modern little affair whose walls were hung end to end with tapestries depicting different saints, and were greeted by a group of spiritual healers who worked there giving free treatment to the poor of the neighbourhood.

"What we do first is a sort of spiritual x-ray on you to find out what you need doing," a woman told us, "then we operate. The healer will collect all the toxins and bad energy in your body together and materialise it into one piece of blood or flesh or something then draw it out of your body."

Lizz went first. It began by an injection from one of the tapestries. A tassel was somehow attached to her arm and prayers said over it by several mumbling voices. Next came the spiritual x-ray; a man stood over her, hands just above her head, muttering prayers for several minutes. He then plucked a hair, put it in a spoon and boiled it over a candle.

At a desk at the front of the church a woman began scribbling down her diagnosis. Behind her stood another, stroking the tassel of another tapestry and making motions with her hands as if to sprinkle the power of the tapestry onto the head and breasts of the one making the diagnosis. When it was finished the woman finished her writing and slumped back in her chair for a moment, seemingly unconscious, before reawakening with a distinctly disorientated look in her eyes. I had the impression that she might be sick at any moment.

Lizz lay down on a table and after a quick massage the surgery began. Several hands were placed on Lizz's stomach and the surgeon himself began shaking and went into trance before he began his work. Then I saw his hands begin to move and blood bubbled up all around. A couple of other people had their hands on her stomach and the skeptic in me felt sure this was to block my line of vision so that I could not see whatever trick it was that they were pulling off. I came in closer, bent down right next to the action and sure enough, as far as I could see, the surgeon's finger was actually inside Lizz's stomach, blood coming up all around it. This went on for a couple of minutes until eventually some evil-looking black material was pulled out along with something that reminded me of the tail of a radioactive worm that had featured in one episode of the X-Files. The operation was finished, blood wiped off her stomach and no scars left to show for it all.

Next it was my turn. Being a smoker, the operation was concentrated more on my lungs than stomach. I lay on the table, received the massage and closed my eyes like I was told. Suddenly there was a burning unlike any sensation I had known before coming from right inside my chest and I could feel the surgeon's fingers inside me. They moved gradually down to my stomach and despite the intensity of the burning that followed them I felt no urge to cry out. It took only a few seconds this time before I felt the fingers squelch out of my belly accompanied by the feeling of something being sucked out from inside me. The surgeon told me to open my eyes; he was holding a tiny, tangled mess of flesh and blood which he quickly placed to one side in a metal bowl.

Could the sword healer somehow have swapped the razor sharp blade we both felt for a blunter weapon just before the ritual? Unlikely but possible. Could it, or what I saw happen to Lizz, have been optical illusions? Most probably they could. Was there some potion they could have rubbed on my skin that made me feel the burning and somehow made it seem like the movement of the surgeon's fingers were inside me while in reality they were on my skin? Possibly. But none of these rational, scientific explanations answer the question of why the healers, who work helping poor people at no profit to themselves, would want to deceive their patients.

"How did you find out about your powers?" I asked the surgeon.

"Everyone has them, but God only tells a very few how to use them," he replied. "It's a gift, not something you can learn."

I, a devout skeptic, left the church confused and unsure what to believe - my own senses or my logical Western mind.

It should be noted that the 'church' here in question is, in all probability, not a Catholic Church, despite what its outward resemblances to one. In many rural areas, especially where deep catechesis has never really penetrated, Catholicism is lived out in the 'samahans'-- brotherhoods or fellowships centered around a particular individual who often claims to have a divine mandate to perform a specific mission for the betterment of the community. These leaders can be male or female; the more radical among them may claim to be an 'incarnation' of Our Lord Himself (if he be a man), or the Blessed Virgin (if the leader be a woman). As is evidenced by the photos in Mr. Vallance's post, the Catholicism of these groups often remain on a very superficial level. However, this does not usually stop even devout Catholics from availing of the 'miracles' peddled by these men and women, especially when desperation sets in.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Rizal's Poltergesit

(I heard this story from a Jesuit professor of mine. I will resume blogging 'regularly' sometime toward the end of Lent; right now, though, school requirements are killing me. I take solace in quirky, curious little anecdotes like this one.)

One of the more curious apocryphal anecdotes about the life of Dr. Jose Rizal, the Philippines' national hero, held that he was tormented by a poltergeist for three days and three nights. The story goes that, upon his exile to the quaint island of Dapitan in Mindanao, Rizal immediately set about to work as an ophthalmologist. There, he shacked up with his Hong Kong raised Irish paramour, the lovely Josephine Bracken. Now, Rizal, like a lot of his fellow illustrados in the Philippine Revolution against Spain, was a Mason. This meant that he could not contract an ecclesiastical marriage with his beloved; but during his entire stay in Dapitan, he considered Josephine as his lawfully wedded wife.

One night, the two awoke to strange noises in the house. Pots and pans were banging, strange whistling sounds howling through the dead of night. Josephine was alarmed, and even Rizal himself was left wondering as to the source of the previous night's strange events. This went on for two more nights, the attacks getting noisier with each passing night. On the fourth day, Rizal resolved to contact the local priest, a Jesuit, indeed, one of his former teachers at the Ateneo. The priest addressed the first question to Josephine: 'Are you an espiritista?'The woman answered in the negative, stating that she had been raised a strict Catholic and had been one all her life; to believe in such things would be superstition. The priest blessed the house, and told Josephine to say some special prayers. This she did, and on the fourth night, they were left in peace.

Somehow, Josephine got wind of the news that her stepfather had died in Hong Kong. This she reported to Rizal; whereupon he, amazed, immediately wrote the local parish priest, thanking him profusely, and ending his letter with the statement: 'Truly there is no greater proof of the immortality of the soul.'

This may seem like a trivial episode in the life of Rizal, but if it were true, then it would have planted the seeds of Rizal's rejection of Masonry at the end of his life. This remains a particularly thorny issue today, with nationalistic and anti-clerical historians claiming that he never recanted. The Jesuits of his alma mater, on the other hand, are certain that he rejected Masonry, and that he had confessed three times and received Holy Communion most devoutly on the eve of his execution. I believe that he rejected Masonry, if only because he never seemed to doubt the existence and providence of a personal God, even in his time as a Mason. Fr. Javier de Pedro argues very eloquently for the retraction of Rizal in his excellent book 'Rizal Through the Glass Darkly'; do check it out if you can.