Saturday, August 29, 2009

On The Fringes of The Bizarre

This video shows a penitential tradition popular in the province of Pampanga in the northern Philippines. The men lying prostrate on the floors are called magdarama; they undertake a multitude of harsh practices of mortification come Holy Week, not the least of which is flagellation. A variant of this practice involves donning a crimson or black robe with a hood covering the face; depending on the penitent, he may use foliage, barbed wire, or even wood for his crown of thorns. A practice which I believe has an equivalent in Mexico is the placing of the patibulum or cross beam made of thorny wood (or just really heavy logs) on the shoulders of the penitent, whose wrists are then chained so as to prevent him from resting. The variant above has the penitents lying face down whilst their accomplices beat them on the backs with plywood (or in this case, a leather belt); afterward, a heavy cross may be placed on the penitent's back for a certain amount of time; the penitent can then choose to walk with the cross strapped to his back, or make his way to a shrine or church on his knees. Off screen, I presume a local family is holding a pabasa, or the chanting of the Lord's passion in verse. It is one of the most enduring and most popular devotions come Holy Week, reaching a peak on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

I once heard a professor of mine remark, 'If you were to ask me, I don't really think there's such a thing as Catholicism. But there is a Church, and it's a very real, very powerful thing.' I didn't really understand what he meant when he said that, until I was face to face with the 'real' Catholicism-- that wonderfully mystical, irreducibly inconvenient thing-- that was practiced in the rural areas of the Philippines. When we had our pasiyam (special prayers for the deceased held nine days after death)for my grandmother after she died, and again on her 30th and 40th day commemorations, I remember this old lady, a friend of hers in life and well-known as an intensely religious woman(and not to mention, an incredible mahjong player)who would pause every now and then and instruct my aunts to cover their heads at certain parts in the prayer. She also maintained that the 'Bendita sea Tu pureza' must be prayed three times after that, and a bevy of other details too entangled in the haze of memory to recall right now.

I still don't understand the logic behind it, but I am through arguing with that unstoppable force of tradition now. I'm sure it is animated by the same conviction that requires that the rosary beads clasped by the deceased be severed first before she is finally laid to rest, at the risk of prolonging her purgatory till the end of days. And I am pretty sure it is the same logic that lies behind the belief that stopping one's prayers before the candle blows out is sure to bring bad luck for generations to come. But that is just the problem with faith today-- too many saints, and not enough santos to work their miracles.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

San Sebastian Church, Manila

I found these gems on Facebook. Here are the captions accompanying the photos.

Completed in 1891, San Sebastian Church is noted for its architectural features. An example of the revival of Gothic architecture in the Philippines, it is the only all-steel church or basilica in Asia. It has also been implausibly reputed to be the first prefabricated building in the world, and more plausibly claimed as the only prefabricated steel church in the world.

The prefabricated steel sections that would compose San Sebastian Church were manufactured in Binche, Belgium. According to the historian Ambeth Ocampo, the knockdown steel parts were ordered from the Societe Anonyme des Enterprises de Travaux Publiques in Brussels. In all, 52 tons of prefabricated steel sections were transported in eight separate shipments from Belgium to the Philippines, the first shipment arriving in 1888. Belgian engineers supervised the assembly of the church, the first column of which was erected on September 11, 1890. The walls were filled with mixed sand, gravel and cement. The stained glass windows were imported from the Henri Oidtmann Company, a German stained glass firm, while local artisans assisted in applying the finishing touches of the steel church.

It has long been reputed that Gustave Eiffel, the French engineer behind the Eiffel Tower and the steel structure within the Statue of Liberty, was involved in the design and construction of San Sebastian Church.

The connection between Eiffel and San Sebastian Church was reportedly confirmed by historian Ambeth Ocampo while doing research in Paris. Ocampo likewise published a report that in the 1970s, the famed architect I. M. Pei had visited Manila to confirm reports he had heard that Eiffel had designed an all-steel church in Asia. When Pei inspected San Sebastian Church, he reportedly pronounced that the metal fixtures and overall structure were indeed designed by Eiffel.

Nonetheless, it is said that the official catalogues of Eiffel make possible reference to the design and exportation of a church in Manila in 1875, or thirteen years before construction of San Sebastian Church actually began. If true, this would still not preclude the possibility that Eiffel had designed the metal structure of the church, with Genaro Palacios completing the actual design of the entire church.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Mew - Introducing Palace Prayers

Churchly People

It is Monday, and as usual, I found myself trooping to the chapel to attend the 11.30am Mass. I developed the habit during my high school days, and honed it in college, where initial boredom and alienation saw me cultivating my piety as I had not done before. It is Monday, and as usual, the chapel is filled with students still stuck midway between Sunday and the present.

I am typing this post in my thoughts; I am seated a good distance from the altar, neither too far nor too near. The pew immediately in front of me is occupied by an old English teacher; she is fiddling with her fan, and she has her prayer books in front of her. To my right, a few feet away from me, a boy in blue is brooding. He momentarily glances at me; I am almost certain he is checking me out. I am strangely flattered. Behind me is a family of four; they are all dressed in pique polos, even the four year old boy who looks like a teddy bear. In the sanctuary, an altar girl in jeans makes a double genuflection before the tabernacle. I've seen her before in the library; she always reads the newspapers in the afternoon, and I'm sure I've heard her humming 'O Sacred Heart' while doing so.

At around 11.20, an old lady with a cane enters the chapel. She makes her way to the pew nearest to the altar, and mumbles some prayers along the way. She has done this everyday for the last three years, possibly longer. A cellphone rings loudly for two or three seconds before the owner shuts it off. Her ringtone is 'West End Girls' by The Pet Shop Boys. I can't help but chuckle to myself, as it is one of my favorite songs from the '80s. I cannot get it out of my head now. Outside, the clouds darken; more people file in, students, teachers, the prayerful, students who will be taking three hour exams later in the evening, a nun in a habit, a nun without a habit, an African seminarian, and some waiting for their respective boyfriends or girlfriends. In front of me, a couple takes a seat to the right of the eccentric English teacher. I've seen the boy doing aerobics early in the morning, and as usual, he is always smiling. The girl is blushing; there is a rose in her bag.

Another grandmother enters the chapel. She takes her seat in the pew two rows from where the English teacher and the happy couple are seated. I recognize her; she is without her husband, whom, I noticed, would often 'talk' to the image of St. Ignatius by the door and make a quick visit to the Blessed Sacrament before the Mass started. It's possible that I was not able to notice if and when she made her own visit. Still more people, majority of them taking their seats in the back. I've always noticed this to be a peculiar habit; I don't know why, but when Filipinos go to church, they always take the seats from the middle to the back first. Perhaps it has something to do with a sense of humility or 'reverent distance' from the tabernacle; my grandmother used to suggest that it was so because that way, the priest would not be able to hear the old wives gossip and their men whine about being made to sit still. I am more positive, and generally suspect that the former is true. The side entrance swings opens, and in comes a boy from one of my classes. I have to be honest, I didn't really think him the prayerful type when I first saw him. He proceeds to the back, taking the back most pew from the altar.

Finally, the priest himself arrives. He is American, and is dressed in a yellow polo and light khakis and a ballcap, which he immediately doffs upon entering the chapel. His umbrella is wet, and he is met by a man in orange at the chapel's entrance, who then helps to conduct him to the altar. A few minutes pass, and the Holy Sacrifice begins. He eventually gives his homily, but to say that I did not hear a thing would be putting it lightly. At exactly 11.58am on my watch, the Mass ended.

The polo family knelt for awhile before each one finally bowed before the altar and left. To my right, the boy who had checking me out genuflected at the very moment the priest left the sanctuary; he opened the door for an old man, smiled, and left. Some chose to pray a little while before leaving to take their tests and give their reports. Just as quickly as the chapel filled with people before the Mass, so too did they disperse. I wonder what all these other people think of me? Perhaps they notice that I am always early for Mass, or that I hardly receive Holy Communion. Or perhaps some of them might think of me as 'that boy' who always keeps looking around during Mass-- I certainly would like to know, but at the same time, I don't really think it bothers me much. It is certainly delightful to see that many of the 'regulars' at Mass are the same people who regularly attended in 2006, 2007, and 2008. Old faces disappeared to be replaced by new ones, but always, I take comfort in the fact that, no matter how unpleasant or sinful I can be sometimes, I can at least pretend to be good at Mass and not end up being hypocritical.

Prayers said, I prepared to exit the chapel. I genuflected, and immediately the boy from one of my classes. He was mulling over a list, and as quickly as I had spotted him, he stood up, and went inside a confessional (more like a reconciliation room). Thank God I am wrong most of the time.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Homily of Fr. Catalino Arevalo, SJ at Cory Aquino's Funeral

'Tis truly an end of an era. My parents kept commenting how the events of the last few days have been so reminiscent of scenes that transpired twenty six years ago, to the point that one seems to have been thrown back in time. After a funeral procession that lasted at least eight hours, Mrs. Aquino was finally laid to rest beside her husband Ninoy. Whereas his death opened up long bottled feelings of injustice and oppression, hers closed a turbulent chapter in Philippine history, and it did so with a tremendous outpouring of love.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

RIP Mrs. Cory Aquino

My generation never knew Martial Law, never had to endure the fear and oppression that our parents had to under the Marcos regime. A revolution changed everything-- but it was not a revolution of guns and blood, but a revolution of prayer and moral outrage. Nuns and priests marched hand in hand against columns of tanks and offered rosary beads to soldiers. And it was a revolution that was started by a simple housewife dressed in yellow. Corazon Aquino was a symbol of democracy in the Philippines. It was the very image of David toppling Goliath. I doubt if we will see such a leader in the country in the coming years. Some people come once in a lifetime who just change everything. Farewell, Mrs. Aquino. Thank you for fighting, for giving us hope. May you rest in peace.

A few weeks before she died, Mrs. Aquino wrote a prayer, which was published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. I post it now here in full.

Almighty God, most merciful Father
You alone know the time
You alone know the hour
You alone know the moment
When I shall breathe my last.

So, remind me each day,
most loving Father
To be the best that I can be.
To be humble, to be kind,
To be patient, to be true.
To embrace what is good,
To reject what is evil,
To adore only You.

When the final moment does come
Let not my loved ones grieve for long.
Let them comfort each other
And let them know
how much happiness
They brought into my life.
Let them pray for me,
As I will continue to pray for them,
Hoping that they will always pray
for each other.

Let them know that they made possible
Whatever good I offered to our world.
And let them realize that our separation
Is just for a short while
As we prepare for our reunion in eternity.

Our Father in heaven,
You alone are my hope.
You alone are my salvation.
Thank you for your unconditional love, Amen.