Tuesday, July 07, 2009

On Reverence

Language is a fascinating subject, revealing the ways in which we think and the motivations behind them more often than we can count them. Although I grew up speaking Tagalog at home, I consider myself more fluent in English today, not because I hate my mother tongue, but because English was the language of instruction used in the schools I attended, and because, admittedly, Tagalog has not been as intellectualized in the same way that English has. One way in which Tagalog differs vastly from English is the use of 'respectful language'; for Filipinos, this means adding a 'po' and 'opo' after every statement addressed to an older person. For example, the simple question 'Kumain ka na?' -- Have you eaten?-- becomes 'Kumain na po kayo?' Interesting, too, is the word 'kayo' which is the plural form of 'ka', or 'you'; some older Tagalog-speakers would change it slightly to 'Kumain na po sila?' or 'Have they eaten?' out of filial piety, even when directly addressing someone.

Reverential language is common throughout all of Asia, although admittedly I am not familiar with all of them. Southeast Asia, being appended to China, naturally has a significant Chinese presence (they are dominant minorities in many countries that make up the ASEAN), and with the Chinese come Confucian values. Now, it is important to consider that in Ancient China, philosophy occupied roughly the same place that religion occupied in medieval Europe; and there is perhaps no greater classic of Chinese thought than the Analects. I won't go into details here, but it is safe to say that Chinese philosophy places a great emphasis on ethical conduct; the virtue of jen/ren (roughly translated, 'humanity'), for instance, is discussed many times in the Analects. Chinese ethics places supreme importance on interpersonal relationships, especially to one's parents, hence why it is common, even in the 'decadent' United States, for many second or third generation Chinese to be especially reverential to their parents.

In the Philippines, the Chinese too have always had a great presence, but the arrival of the Spaniards and the introduction of Christian thought is what really brought about an epochal change amongst the early Filipinos. This is not to say that the ancient Filipinos did not value the lessons they learned from their Chinese neighbors; on the contrary, it seems to have been strengthened by the adoption of Christianity. One of the most curious phrases in the Tagalog language, at least for me, is 'walang sinasanto.' A very literal translation of this would be 'He (who) saints no one'. The word 'sinasanto', for instance, is of immense interest for me; it seems to paint the act of reverence, especially reverence due to a saint, in a very specific, very broad way, with set rules but enough freedom for it to be called a rite. The word sinasanto comes from 'pagsasanto' which is to say, 'the act, the art, the craft of sainting'. I have written enough in the past regarding some of the practices which devotees perform in special devotion to their patrons, yet for convenience's sake I shall list some of them ere: walking on one's knees, making a vow of pilgrimage to a certain holy site, spreading devotion to the cult of the saint, unceasing novenas and prayers for a number of years, and others too numerous to mention.

Yet the presence of the word 'wala'-- nothing-- speaks volumes. Among certain Filipinos, the term 'walang sinasanto' has come to be equated with a certain degree of recklessness, if not outright lawlessness. The man who reverences no saint is not a man to be trusted, in the mind of the people, because it would imply that he, too, does not reverence his parents. To dishonor one's parents is considered an affront to God, Who charged mother and father with the upkeep of the clan. In the past, this phrase was also popular with Catholic apologists, who decried the spread of Protestantism at the turn of the 20th century; one must also remember that religion was looked upon in a wildly different light a hundred years ago, almost as if it were a tribal affiliation, and certainly not the fuzzy milquetoast hippy ethics club that some people think of today. To cease to honor the saints is a serious and very grave thing to do. In fact, I daresay it is THE symbolic act of renouncing the Christian faith; even today in the Philippines, sects and cults like the Iglesia ni Cristo and the Ang Dating Daan are especially militant against the idea of devotion to the saints, savaging it with barely concealed contempt. This morning, for exampl, I read of a fiesta turned sour in one of the provinces north of Manila because a Catholic tricycle driver had doused a minister of the INC with water on the Feast of St. John the Baptist. The minister reportedly came back to the poor man's house with a retinue of heavily armed members of the Iglesia, including one policeman, who supposedly arrested the man.

The man who cares not for the saints, cares not for his fellow man, and only cares after himself. His is a heart full of pride, and not love, who loves not humility but only his own convenience.To be called by someone as 'taong walang sinasanto', then, would be tantamount to being called a man of sin, a man of such lawlessness that he treats his parents and the saints of God (who were oftentimes more feared than God Himself in those pious days) with wanton disregard. Such a man cannot rightly be called a Christian, let alone human.

"Meng I Tzu asked about filial piety; Confucius said, "Never disobey." Later, when Fah Chi'h was driving him, Confucius told him, "Meng-sun asked me about filial piety, and I answered him, "Never disobey." Fah Chi'h said, "What does that mean?" Confucius answered, "When parents are alive, serve them according to propriety and sacrifice to them according to the rules of propriety." - Analects, 2:5

No comments: