Friday, July 31, 2009

The Menace of Tradition

There are an estimated 90 million people in the Philippines, and of that number, 80 to 85 percent are confessed Catholics. The rest are composed of different Protestant sects, Muslims, and other religions, including Buddhists, Hindus, animists, and a very small, almost non-existent atheist population. Despite these statistics, it is very rare to come across adult converts to Catholicism. Most who do convert do so for marital reasons or for the simple fact that they were not baptized at all in infancy; the learned convert, who knocks at the Church because 'they have found the Truth', are quite rare. On the other hand, many Catholics are lured into joining different sects, the most notable of which include the modern day Arians of the Iglesia ni Kristo and evangelical Protestants. In many rural areas, conversions still carry with them a social gravity that is now largely absent in urban areas.

The irony, though, is palpable; most rural Filipino Catholics are quite ignorant of theological wrangling and wouldn't give a hoot if the priest wore cheap polyester chalbs to Mass, or kept mistresses (or worse, boytoys) in a special room of the convento. For them, the Mass is the Mass, and the Church is the Church, despite the sometimes blatant hypocrisy of its religious leaders. Former president Estrada, for example, is revered as a hero to the masses, even if he was notorious for siring illegitimate children left and right. Rural areas also serve as ground zero for some of the most 'extreme' practices in the entire Catholic world, namely flagellation and crucifixion (especially Bulacan and Pampanga).

My religious background was greatly influenced by my environment; I have lived all my life in the city, and as such, I think I could safely say that my faith has largely been convenient. I've never had to trudge through hundred foot long naves on my knees, nor have I ever knelt on salt with arms crosswise to atone for my sins. I understood how the faith worked; and while I wish I were a better Catholic, I am thankful that such rituals have never been imposed on me. But at the same time, few rituals such as the practice of flagellation arouse in me such extreme revulsion-- and insatiable wonder. In rural Catholicism, especially in Luzon the largest island of the Philippines, flagellation is as natural as taking to the sea when it's hot. It is accepted as a normal part of life, and while not necessarily pretty, it serves its purpose-- a contractual sacrifice offered to Almighty God in order to secure blessings for one's kin-group. I have already written about the character of these devotees before; they are usually 'unchurched' macho men who would rather drink and whore than attend church. While not all are totally cut off from the 'churchly life'-- some assist in processions, for example-- to say that these men are good Catholics would be a brazen lie. Atonement for sins, in fact, is very rarely, if never, the motivation behind shedding blood.

In hindsight, this is probably one reason why flagellation as a devotional practice is still doing very well in the Philippines. Just a few decades after the practice was introduced in the country, the missionaries who brought it were already decrying it as barbaric. It seems to have peaked in the 1700s and shrank to nigh obliteration in the following years; the late 1800s, though, saw a revival in the practice, and by the mid 1950s, after having been fetishized by American colonizers and appropriating the practice in accordance with already deeply held beliefs, flagellation was transformed into the spectacle that it is today: a deeply disturbing, but at the same time, an incredibly fascinating ritual, where children as young as 5 or 7 are expected to observe or even help in the proceedings, thus ensuring the continuance of the practice in succeeding generations. If expiation of sins were the sole purpose, I'd imagine most of these men would have been dead by the time they finished their vows.

As for myself, I've long ago come to the conclusion that even an edict from the Vatican to suppress the practice would be powerless to stop devotional flagellation from continuing. The landscape of Catholic culture is broad, vast, and deep, and dare I say it, incredibly menacing. Men whip their backs raw and bloody and walk on their knees and lick the dust from the floor and make beasts of burden genuflect to a 'vengeful' saint all in the hopes of appeasing the Deity. Today, in our sanitized little bubbles and high-resolution screens, we can click and comment and argue about the 'Truth', as if the Truth were some magical ham locked away in some heavenly freezer. And while I certainly believe Catholicism to be true, we are still confronted by the 'extremities' of these strange and uncomfortable practices. Will your average internet culture crusader still see Catholicism as true, having been faced with its menace? I don't think so. The fault does not lay in the religion, though, but in our own attitudes to it; because for us moderns, the marks of the 'true religion' are not Unity, Sanctity, Catholicity, and Apostolicity, but Inclusiveness, Respectability, Diversity, and Marketablility. Catholicism is none of these things. It is bloody, it is gritty, it believes in sin, hell, and damnation. These things are as real as the blood on the flagellants' back, and you better be damn sure that even the worse Catholics would raise hell just to avoid being thrown in it for all eternity.

If I may be so honest, I'd say one reason why many Catholics choose to stay in their Church despite all its failures is because it is not afraid to threaten fire and brimstone at sinners. In many provinces, it is still common for older priests to describe Protestants in the same way their predecessors of a hundred years ago did: as (literally!) hoofed, horned, and perfidious men, whose forked tongues affront the teachings of the saints and Christ (some priests in the Visayas, I believe, made the same claim about the SSPX). The Church may tolerate the sinfulness of their members while on earth, but there is still a Hell for the unjust and the impious in the end. I guess it all boils down to how we understand what is traditional and what is not; the prevailing attitude today, especially espoused by bloggers, is that going back to the way we did things in the good ol' 1950s would solve all the problems in the Church today. I really find this ludicrous. It smacks of an attitude of entitlement, more than anything, as if Church-government policy would solve all the woes of the world, and we can all sit back and relax. Hey, I'm in the truthiest of the 'truth-mongers'; what else could possibly go wrong? We have the Truth! Reality is a lot more sobering than what we would be led to believe; and while I am most definitely NOT saying that the cause for tradition is worthless, one must also remember that, in the end, the liturgy is not there to bring you automatic salvation. It can help make you holy, yes, but it does not, can not, will not, eliminate the need for you and I to apply its fruits.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that the normal Catholic ought, should, have more pressing concerns than guessing what the Pope will wear in his next televised Mass and worry more about his own salvation. For all the criticisms thrown at cultural Catholicism, it at least provided Catholics with enough sense of guilt to be conscious of themselves as sinners. In the end, salvation is not achieved by being a busybody, as if causing a ruckus in church were a sign of saintliness; rather, salvation is achieved only in total surrender to God. And that is something that takes a lot more than knowing when it is appropriate to wear a mantellata and bitching about its misuse. It is not even pretty. It is, in fact, menacing. To think we can ignore the wisdom of our 'ignorant' forefathers just because we have come to the intellectual conclusion that Catholicism is the Truth would be a very costly mistake.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Prayer Request

Dear all,

As you may have probably guessed from the very limited number of postings for this month, now drawing to a close, I have been very busy with school, and as such, have had little to no time to update this blog. That said, I ask you all to pray for me, that I may not succumb to procrastination and laziness, as I am usually wont. I can't say that it is a trait I am especially proud of, but we all have our weaknesses. For me, I guess, it is an often unbeatable sense of pride. No worries, though-- I haven't gotten D or an F yet, heck, but midterms is coming in about five weeks, and I just want to do my best. I have a lot of ideas bubbling in my head, but time constraints are keeping a lid on them at the moment. That's basically it. I thank you all in advance for your prayers, and may God bless all of you. :)

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Two Christs Arrayed in White

"Pius XI sent his Legate "a latere" to the American Continent, to represent him in the International Eucharistic Congress; fervent adoration of the Church before the shining monstrance of the Bread of the Spirit. A moving picture of the Eucharistic Host and the Pope-- the two Christs arrayed in white."

-Msgr. Pfister, from his book on Pope Pius XII

Sometimes a good picture is all that is needed to perk up one's day. My English teacher used to say that the fastest readers are those who instantly recognize a good photo when they see one, since, after all, a photo says a thousand words.

Monday, July 13, 2009

San Ignacio de Manila: A Tour

Have a look at THIS. Just for fun, I was reading up on the seven great churches of Intramuros, the Walled City that was practically the whole of Manila until the end of the Spanish conquest of the Philippines. One of the newest churches then, and one of the most lamented as well when Intramuros was reduced into a pile of rubble in WWII, was San Ignacio de Manila, the Jesuit's 'golden dream.' The church was built in 1889, thirty years after the Company returned to Philippine shores and established the Escuela Municipal de Manila (the present day Ateneo de Manila). San Ignacio was built in a neo-classical/baroque idiom, with some of the best artists in the Philippines filling its hallowed halls with art. Its artesonado ceiling-- taking cues from the Renaissance-- was the toast of the town, as there were none like it that the rest of Manila could boast.

Sadly, the war would claim San Ignacio. When the church was burned down, it is said that there had been no Mass celebrated there for three years, having been shut by the Japanese out of fear that served as the headquarters of the guerilla forces. San Ignacio was said to have burned for days, and when the war is over, none but the outer shells of San Ignacio remained. There are plants, however, to rebuild the structure, not as a church, but as an Ecclesiastical museum to house the roughly Php 140 billion ($3 billion) worth of artifacts amassed by the Intramuros Administration throughout the years.

It is nice to see the San Ignacio in its glory days, if only in pictures. As it stands, however, the destruction of Old Manila was an incredibly heartbreaking thing.

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