Sunday, November 28, 2010

Holocausto de Corazones al Sagrado Corazon

This painting is found at the Museo Soumaya in Mexico. Clockwise, from top: the Immaculate Heart of Mary; the transverberated heart of Santa Teresa; the charitable heart of San Lorenzo; the ardent heart of San Cayetano; the inflamed heart of San Ignacio; and the most chaste heart of San Jose. At the center, the King of all hearts, the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. Image found online.

Friday, November 19, 2010


One would think that the final stretch of the year would tend to bring in a little more peace to one's life, but instead, I find myself stressed--at times, needlessly so-- by too many things. In the three years since I have restarted this blog, I find that I have written a lot about my opinions on things, but not too much about me. Granted, most of these thoughts really spring from my own history, but at this point, I think a little more transparency from me is in order.

First, an admission: yours truly finds it increasingly difficult to practice his faith. This is not due to any intellectual rancor on my part with the Church's positions, but rather, a sense of these teachings being muddled, obscured, perhaps even made irrelevant, by own experiences. When I turned twenty one in February, I promised myself that I would be a more responsible student, a kinder brother, and a better son. Nine months later, I find it hard to believe that I have made any progress in these areas. I remain just as hot-headed, boorish, arrogant, and distrustful as ever. I am pretty much ruled by my loins  nowadays, a disposition which I acquired in high school at the same time that I was learning how to chant the Salve Regina. When I finally confessed, after the longest time, last Friday, the normally smiling Jesuit told me that I obviously had a lot of issues in as grave a tone of voice he could muster. But the most agonizing thing, I think, is how numb I have become to these criticisms. Perhaps it comes with my age, but I find myself, lately, juggling a multitude of internal inconsistencies, trying to find a semblance of an equilibrium by which I could live my life and remain, at least in theory, a good Catholic.

I find, too, that my heart seems increasingly weighed down by an all-consuming, fiery bitterness. My greatest fault, say my parents, is that I say things too quickly without thinking about their effects on people. And I guess I have to concede that I am quite a hurtful person. There is much anger and malice festering in me that I just can't extricate from my system, as if it were almost a part of my physiology. My judgmental tendencies have grown stronger and more malicious with each passing year, and continue to do so, at a rapidly increasing pace (most significantly in the last few months). And finally, my perennial bane of lust has all but made a complete slave of me. I am subservient to the whims of my loins and have practically given up trying to rectify the situation.

Why am I saying these things?

I guess it has to do, primarily, with being honest. Anyone who has ever met me knows that  I have a tendency to put up a facade: it is the clean-cut, intelligent, articulate, and fully, psycho-socially integrated me that I want to project. In reality, this facade is very thin, only slightly masking the raging turmoil inside. And ninety nine percent of the time, it is the Devil who wins, and not God. If honesty is the best policy, as the old adage goes, the first step I could do is to really face these problems. Creating a facade deflects the light from shining in on the rottenness of my internal processes, rendering it impossible to be diagnosed and rectified.

But the greater obligation here is not to me, but to Our Lord. I cannot beg him for graces I do not need for symptoms that I just make up, just as I could not beg him to give me a better body or a better family. It would simply be ludicrous.  I guess one just has to realize, at one point in his life, what one is being saved from exactly. At 21, my heart is still clouded by so much confusion and noise; but how long before these things become the norm? How long before they define the rhythms of my heart and the determination of my will?

In 1997, I became a godfather. I was only eight, and my cousin, who had borne a son, was only 17. The news of course brought the entire clan together but also polarized it to a suffocating degree. On the one hand, the birth of the boy was welcomed with much delight, especially by my doting grandparents. But on the other, was the practical extirpation of my cousin from family life. Like a cursed vitendi, he was branded a black sheep, disinherited, and generally dismissed by my grandparents and other relatives for his irresponsibility. He would later on sire eight more children, from at least four different women. When my grandmother died in 2004, his sudden arrival at the wake again polarized the family. He was with a woman, one whom I hadn't seen before, and we all concluded that he had left No. 4 and had now moved on to No. 5. I never did get to know, with any certainty, if such indeed was the case; I was too embarrassed, too polite to talk to him ever since.

If my own family had known of my thoughts and struggles, would they treat me the same way? There is a rigidity in Filipino (and, I guess, SE Asian in general) family dynamics that, when fractured, seems almost impossible to piece together again. And yet Catholicism demands the humbling of my ego in order to attain forgiveness. As of yet, I don't think I can tell my family, especially my parents, the sheer extent of the struggles I am having. I am simply too embarrassed, too ashamed to do so. At the same time, I can't stomach living a double life and trying to keep up the illusion of my projected facade all the time. God knows my parents would go ballistic on me the moment they see how much porn I actually have stashed away. And yet there's simply no other alternative.

Please say a prayer for me. I could use one of them right now.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Det Sjunde Inseglet - A Brief Review

I was able to watch last night, after the longest time, The Seventh Seal,  no doubt one of the seminal classics of Swedish or Scandinavian cinema in general. Filmed in 1957  by Ingmar Bergman, the film tells the story of Antonius Block, a knight from Medieval Sweden, who had just returned to his native country after a stint in the Crusades. Upon his return, he finds the land ravaged by plague; worse, he is accosted by Death himself, who has come to claim him personally. Block proposes a game of chess with Death; as long as Block is able to hold his own, he will be allowed to wander freely. And if Block wins, Death would have to leave him alone, completely. The game begins, and Block sets out on a mission to Elsinore to attend the local saint's feast.

Much has been said about the anachronistic, existential angst-slash-agnosticism of the movie. Block is clearly a melancholy, tormented person from the start, and Max Von Sydow does an excellent job portraying the inner desolation raging inside his heart. One of the first things Block does upon his return to Sweden is to seek out a church for confession. That scene, in my estimation, is probably the profoundest, most sublime, most excruciatingly poetic scenes I have ever seen, and sums up the film quite well. In it, a tortured Block confesses his horror at the seeming silence of God in the face of so much suffering and soul-crushing despair scattered about the earth. From the killing fields of Jerusalem to the plague-haunted towns of Sweden, Block's movement is from that of death to death; whatever warm embrace he might have expected from the blessed shores of his homeland is quickly transformed into a futile exercise of avoiding death one last time, only to see it so hideously, powerfully, present in his own backyard. Block confesses that he desires to know, for sure, whether there is a God, and if so,why He remains silent, indifferent, aloof to the woes and cares of His people. The priest, who in reality is Death, answers that there is probably no God--no devils, no angels, no saints-- in the end, only the sepulchral stillness and silence of Death at the end of everything. "Then life would be an inconceivable horror", says Block.

Along the way, Block sees a girl chained outside the church, apparently a witch, to be burned the next day for 'having carnal knowledge of the Evil One' . Eventually, he comes to a village and there meets a local acting troupe, led by a man named Jof, an actor and family man who claims to have seen visions of the Blessed Virgin, among others. Jof's troupe is in town for the local feast; but their performance is suddenly interrupted by the ominous appearance of a penitential procession, apparently done to appease the vengeance of God and withdraw His terrible chastisement upon the land. The procession is a grotesque, macabre, assemblage of sinners from all walks of life; they carry with them skulls and dress in rags and whip each other raw and bloody, a terrible sight to behold, one to make the sinner quake in his boots. The procession seems to bring up two important questions. First, why has God allowed such terrible sufferings to ravage the lands? And second, why does God remain deaf and blind to the supplications of His people? Why does He tarry on, passive and uninterested, at the sight of His beloved children inflicting pain and misery upon each other? Is God glutted, aroused, by such miserable sights?

I will not spoil the rest of the film; Bergman's work really has to be seen and felt firsthand, to take in all the melancholy gravitas and nuances of  his direction. Some observations: Bergman's film is almost catatonically silent, the kind of silence one associates with a brooding menace, or a specter of overbearing despair waiting to crawl out of some suffocating shadow to rest upon the souls of men. There is an uneasiness that comes with watching it that I have not felt in many movies. It must also be said that the film is beautifully shot: the cinematography is perhaps as close to perfect as I can think of, and the beauty and poetry of it contrast sublimely with the coldness and melancholia which otherwise infect the narrative of the film. It is well-known that Bergman was the son of a very strict Lutheran pastor, who would often lock him up in the closet for such minor offenses like wetting his bed. The young Bergman further confesses that he lost his faith at the age of eight, no doubt influenced by the trauma he suffered under his father. And indeed, much of his work wrestles with the idea of faith and its role in the human experience. What is probably most striking here is how The Seventh Seal construes God: He is not the benevolent, personal, and loving Creator of the Gospels, but almost blind and idiot, an impersonal, nigh-Lovecraftian terror Whose aloofness and distance from the created world presents itself as a living menace, and Whose monstrous appetite for power continuously roars and lusts for blind and total submission. I realize this may sound caricature-ish, and as the son of a pastor who frequently discussed matters of God and theology on the dinner table, I imagine Bergman might see his vision in a more nuanced light than I; certainly, it is quite a complex film and much of its genius really lies in its ambiguity.

In contrast to noble, doubt-ridden Block, actor Jof is an optimist, if rather naively so. He lives for his family, for his craft, and wants his son to be an acrobat just like him. Even in the face of terrifying mockery and ridicule (the scene at the inn with Jof is distressingly powerful; Nils Poppe, the actor who plays Jof, I think, did an incredible job), Jof could not but end up in high spirits. He claims to see visions of angels and of the Blessed Virgin, in spite of the unbelief of the people around him. In a way, Jof functions very much as the anti-Block: the former is carefree and naively ignorant of the specter of Death, while the latter is almost consumed by doubt and fear, and the possibility that all human life-- and especially the violence often done by man against his fellow man-- ultimately serves no purpose, no direction, not even to entertain the wicked caprices of God and the Devil. The inconceivable horror that Block mentions in the the confession scene is precisely this: that man is damned to be free, and he is powerless to overcome its terrifying vicissitudes, and, most poignantly, that he cannot help but be violent. There is no rationality, however capricious and self-serving it may be, that governs the universe, only Death.

But perhaps no one understands better these seemingly irrational movements of the Divine than the Divine Itself. When Christ hung upon the Cross and cried out, 'Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani', He did so to confess His own absolute terror and abandonment before God. For Bergman though, the sacrifice of Our Lord seems to have little to no effect; we are, as we were, estranged, expelled, and barred from any conceivable sense of meaning or direction in life. On the contrary, it seems to confirm his idea of God as a bloodthirsty tyrant, Who scourges, flays, and nails His Son to a wooden cross 'out of love.'

As I have said, The Seventh Seal is a difficult film to master. Like a medieval tapestry it runs a veritable gamut of different physiognomies, and this is evidenced primarily in the faces of its characters. Von Sydow's Block is impassive, stoic, and tinged with a quiet but deep despair; Poppe's Jof is hopeful, expressive, even foolish-looking at times. Towards the end of the film, as Block and his squire Jons encounter the witch a second time, the latter asks (and I paraphrase), 'Who watches out for that girl? God? The Devil?' As the witch is slowly consumed by the flames, she looks in wide-eyed horror at Block and Jons, two sitting ducks powerless to divine the meaning of the act unfolding before their eyes. But Block's own refusal to give in too easily to Death suggests that he has yet a spark of hope in his heart, although it seems to have been all but extinguished absolutely. "Faith is a burden", says Block in the confession scene, which demands of the believer an almost blind assent-- a conviction, no matter how foolish--even in the midst of an almost oppressive, overpowering silence. Block's time with Jof and Mia, and their son Mikael, shows him at his most tender-- a smiling, laughing knight,a far cry from the guilt-wracked man who returns to Sweden. Still, Block eventually allows Death to win the game, apparently resigned to the infinite silence of God.

Perhaps the point here is that faith, like love, is meant to hurt-- but this hurt is not just an emotional hurt, but one which wounds the soul at a deeper, more fundamental level. To make a stand, to stake oneself for a single conviction, is to face the absoluteness of the terror of not knowing, and often this may just be a matter of plugging one's ears and shouting loudly at the top of one's lungs in an attempt to drown out the withering tide of doubt. In a world without meaning or truth, it seems that the only thing that can save it is madness, that of love. Block ends the confession scene by giving a monologue on his hand-- a hand that 'pulses with blood', which he nevertheless uses to play chess with Death. He laughs, with apparent irony, that such a thing pulsing with life is stuck in such a macabre position. Having danced with Death itself, Block still comes off unsure about God. In all honesty, I feel as if Antonius Block's questions could very well be my own. Block's tenderness with Jof's family leads us to think, albeit momentarily, that he has forgotten much of his wrangling with his questions. But Block  ultimately refuses to budge, and the silence he feels all around him gets the better of him.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Family Matters

I got an email from my uncle recently. Seven long years after completely disappearing from the face of the earth, he suddenly pops up on Facebook, to the delight of my mother and the rest of my extended family. In 2003, whilst studying for a doctorate in San Francisco, my uncle was robbed point blank by a gang of thieves, taking with them all his documentation-- passports, green card, and all-- thus leaving him, legally, without any identity.

I've never gotten to know my Uncle as well as I would have liked, even if all my aunts, even today, liken me to a spitting image of him. Walking into his room in my grandmother's house, where he stays wherever he's home, I would often scan his bookshelves for reading material.  His bookshelves were really my first  exposure to high culture and science. When I was younger and still planned on becoming a scientist or a doctor, I would leaf through his hundreds of volumes of 'Scientific American', 'Nature', and 'National Geographic' for fun. They sat, arranged according to date, at the bottom of a huge mahogany shelf in his room; the upper tiers were reserved for volumes on the arts and the humanities. I still vividly recall sifting through some of the most beautiful books I had ever seen in that room; he was a voracious reader who made me look like an inconceivably pretentious amateur. He had books on Greek and Latin grammar, Egyptology, philosophy, and a good selection of theology books, among others. I would be lying if I said I didn't have some of those books with me at the moment. His love for books was matched only by  his love for music. He  had a whole shelf built onto a wall, some 10ft tall by 12ft wide, full of records which he had collected from the 70s and the 80s. My mom tells me that he would often visit a local radio station that played only classical music, to ask for recommendations as well as buy any old records that the station was willing to sell.

At the same time, my uncle was probably one of the saddest people I've met, a fact which I've only come to realize recently. My late maternal grandfather was a strict disciplinarian who lived and suffered through the war. He was also a man, unfortunately, who was prone to violent acts, and who had a verbally abusive streak. I've always suspected my uncle might be gay; it was obvious from the way he walked and the way he talked that there was something different about him. My grandfather saw this as well, and he would often beat my uncle for this. My mother recalled to me one time, tears in her eyes, how my grandfather would throw ice cold water at my uncle every morning before dawn to get him to wake up. The abuse did not end there; he would also beat him black and blue at times, in front of my aunts and my other uncle. This cycle went on for years, even well into my uncle's college days, until he finally had  enough, and moved in with a few friends.

It is always disheartening to hear of such anger and sadness in one's family. When I was younger, maybe 14 or 15 years old, I held my family sacred and blemish free. We might not be too wealthy but we made up for it by dint of moral superiority. But with age comes the destruction of naivete and the inevitable realization that one is stuck with drunkards, sycophants,  the hopeless, the dreamless, the wayward, the agnostic, the irresponsible, the fiscally irresponsible, the arrogant, the belligerent, and, at times, just plain assholes.  In the same way, the Church is also a  collection of misfits with histories just as long and as scandalous at times. Maybe the family is still sacred, but not by dint of being a spotless image of Heaven above, but because it contains, at once, the familiar and the otherworldly. I can choose to love these misfits, my fellow sinners, and perhaps that is what makes the difference.

Twenty three years after my grandfather's death, I am reminded of the fact that it was my uncle-- the same who had been the object of his cruel maltreatment-- who, in the end, had him buried. Grandpa was laid out in a plot of land in one of Metro Manila's most beautiful cemeteries, all paid for by my uncle. Today, I realize that I still have a lot of unresolved issues; I am lustful, I am proud, but most of all, I have a tendency to despair. I can only pray that I would have the same strength and moral fortitude to love, forgive, and maybe even forget, everything wrong that has been done to me, at the very end.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Santo Entierro

It was close to midnight when we arrived at our parish.The light rain had just ceased, and the sepulchral silence of Good Friday hung about the night like an invisible cloak. Above, the moon glowed eerily behind the clouds, casting a corpse-like pallor on the earth below. The church was dark inside, but there were still people praying the rosary or just sitting contemplatively inside. I caught a boy I went to school with give his girlfriend a slight nuzzle on the cheek, while outside, in the church's small garden, where plaster statues of Our Lady of La Salette and several other saints were illuminated by candlelight people milled about. A few penitents meditated upon their serene faces.

"When you see the Lord, remember to kiss His wounds," my aunt whispered to my seven year old cousin. She gently put on a small lace veil on her head, the kind that covered just  the crown of the head, and went forward, in silence, to the bier ahead. There, the image of the Dead Christ lay in repose. Locked inside an elaborate wooden box with glass panels all four sides, it was a life-size depiction of the Lord, His eyes half-closed, and whatever trace of the violence done to His sacred body hidden under a pall of violet silk embroidered with gold. On the Lord's breast lay a silver book, and on top, an effigy of a Lamb, also in silver, a cross tucked under its bent legs. A silver crown of thorns lay in front of the book, and within the crown, were three silver nails each the size of a paring knife. I gazed at the Dead Christ for awhile, feeling the weight of a tradition hundreds of years old sink into me, albeit in such a parish as suburban as ours. We missed the procession of the bier earlier in the day; such events always necessitated a marching band and the entirety of the Catholic community's participation. My grandfather thought it was bad luck to miss it at worst, and an impolite omission at best. "Mama, Jesus is inside the coffin, I can't kiss Him." My aunt shushed the boy, and, with a gesture, urged him to do as  she did. She produced a white handkerchief from her pocket, a rather frilly, lacy thing, probably with her name stitched in a fancy cursive letters. She took the cloth, and dabbed one kind on her lips; it was a kiss. "Do this after me," she said to the boy. Gently, delicately, she wiped the handkerchief on the glass sides of the wooden bier, every now and then pausing to cross  herself with the cloth; she did this for three minutes, before telling my cousin to pull up his shirt. Then, she took the  handkerchief and rubbed it on his small, fat back, before ruffing his hair with it. "Francis, 'wag kang malikot!". She issued a stern warning to my little cousin to keep still; life any boy his age, I imagine he wanted to explore the darkened church in the hopes of finding some adventure, or an escape from the dreary silence.

My dad and I followed next, with my grandfather teaching Francis some last minute catechism. I think he was disappointed that the boy had started jumping around in church, and in front of the Dead Christ even, committing a grave faux pas which would have merited the belt in his days. My dad and I stood and silence in front of the image for awhile, but lacking the handkerchiefs to partake of the blessed contagion, we were content to simply kiss the glass sides of the bier. A strong wind blew inside the church, carrying with it the sweet smell of lagrimas, a fragrant flower in the Philippines often associated with funerals. I took note of the arrangement of the Dead Christ one last time, before noticing a purple band tied around His jaw. Such things were often used in the old days to keep the mouth of the deceased shut, although for what purpose, I still do not know (perhaps to keep the soul from being claimed by the Devil?). Our devotions done, we retired momentarily to the pew, to sit and meditate. Behind me, I could hear the lachrymose singing of at least two old ladies, singing, perhaps, a song of lament for the Lord.

It was decided that we would pray the Via Crucis, which I was to lead. I pulled out a copy of the prayerbook I had gotten from school. It was a neat little book which contained Latin and English prayers, and some reflections from the Opus Dei founder St. Josemaria Escriva. "We adore You, O Christ, and we bless You, because by Your holy cross You have redeemed the world." Forty minutes later, we ended our prayer; Francis was already asleep, my grandfather was irascible, and the church, by then, had already completely emptied. Only the night watchman remained, who sat in the back pew of the church, half-awake and half-asleep, but thankfully not snoring.

Inside the church, the candlelight still burned brightly before the bier of the Lord. We came forward again, as a family, to give Him our farewells. My aunt shook Francis from his sleep in order to impress upon him a final act of piety. We knelt for awhile, and for a moment, it looked as if she were banging her forehead on the base of the bier, as if the bier and its Contents were some sort of scapegoat, and that it was not too late to rush the absolution of her sins post factum the Crucifixion. Under the light of two, tacky incandescent bulbs inside the bier, I observed, for the first time, the hand of the Crucified, which the pall had not covered. The hand was locked as if in the early stages of rigor mortis, with a rather gruesome circular indentation at the center, where the nail was hammered into place, and later pulled out. The level of detail was, to say the least, almost fetishistic, and perhaps, most disturbingly, one could even discern a small, raised, ring of bloodied flesh that emanated from the center of the wound, simulating the disturbance of the divine flesh when the nails were pulled out. I pondered over this detail for a moment, lost in contemplation.

Then, my aunt moved to the foot of the bier, and saw that the glass had been unlocked, making it possible to kiss the feet of the Lord. Slowly, she bent her back forward, and pressed her lips on the wounds at the center of the feet, mimicking the same level of gory detail of the hand. This time she dipped the tip of the handkerchief into the wound, in imitation of soaking up real blood, and pressed it to her lips, before signing her forehead, lips, and breast. "By the sign of this holy cross, deliver us from our enemies, You, who are our God." And again, she smothered Francis with the cloth, who, by then, had already grown tired and sleepy. Finally, we left the church. I said goodbye  to the boy from school, who had apparently noticed me on my way out and called me out. He gave me a wink, for what, I don't know. I turned to look back once more at the empty church, while the Dead Christ rested serenely inside His bier.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Taal Basilica

I visited the majestic basilica of Taal, in my father's province of Batangas, six months ago. The town is old, rustic, and crammed full of history. Traditionally, Taal was known as the home of the aristocracy of Batangas; it was home to mestizos and Spaniards, the cream of the crop in the highly stratified Philippine society of the 19th century. Many old houses survived the ravages of the War and are still extant in the town, although signs of decay have taken root as well. Case in point: the plaza that fronted the basilica now has a rather ugly and ill-maintained basketball court. Still, the basilica remains noble and stoic, like a grand old dame crusted with age and yet still wielding an awful majesty. Not for naught was it once held as the biggest church in all of Asia.

We arrived in Taal fifteen minutes before five in the afternoon. Apparently, the anticipated Mass was due to start in a bit; we saw altar boys in burgundy cassocks and lace surplices hurrying back and forth to the sacristy, carrying with them the ciriales-- two silver torches and a venerable old processional crucifix. The crowd was very thin-- the basilica can probably hold a thousand people at least on any given day, but there were only fifty at most present at the Mass. I was later told that anticipated Masses were abhorrent to the generally conservative outlook of the Taalenos, who still preferred to worship at first light of dawn.

That done, we then proceeded to a smaller church, also in Taal, the Shrine of Nuestra Senora de Caysasay. Local legend holds that a fisherman once fished the image of Our Lady-- which was all of a foot tall-- from the sea and decided to bring it back to town to honor it. The Lady, however, was said to have disappeared; the locals still say that the Virgin of Caysasay likes to take walks in the town of Taal at night, mirroring many popular legends of miraculous images in the Philippines. By the time we had reached the shrine, though, it was already sunset, and I was not able to take enough pictures.

Rather curiously, the shrine of Our Lady is connected to the Basilica itself by a secret stair that descended from the grounds of the Basilica at the top, and wound itself along a hidden road, till at last it reached the little shrine below. Historically, this may be attributable to the fact that Taal was once divided between the town proper-- the area above, where the old money families lived-- and the so-called 'labac', the 'lowlands', where the common folk lived. Older Batanguenos still say that the old folk of Taal guarded their privileged status with a vengeance; they suffered none of the Chinese working class to enter the premises of the town proper, and any who did so almost always met certain death, by way of the balisong (Filipino fan knife).

It is said that the Virgin of Caysasay was once brought to the basilica; whereupon it escaped, and disappeared for some time. Years passed before two sisters discovered the image of the Virgin in a tree; and henceforth, it was decided that the Virgin would stay in the Labac. The locals eventually built a small shrine in honor of the equally small-statured Virgin. The old money families of Taal have long since fallen from their untouchable positions, and their fortunes gradually eclipsed by the industrious Chinese-Filipinos. But I am told that the Chinoys would still rather worship at the little shrine beneath the majestic basilica.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Some Brief Thoughts

The remarkable thing about the Catholic imagination is, I think, its ability to rehabilitate and reconfigure symbols, ideas, and objects according to its own vision of the world. We see this quite clearly in the most popular expressions of Catholic doctrine; we revere the symbol of a crucified man on a cross, in addition to images of Him being scourged and almost flayed to the bone, as well as images of His infancy (and if you're familiar with Hispanic Catholicism, you may have come across the Santo Nino del Pasion-- the Child Jesus contemplating the very cross on which He is to die). The gruesome character of these images is right to disturb us; the fact that they are revered, blessed, and displayed in our homes might even smack of a bizarre neurosis to some people. Yet Catholicism not only esteems these depictions of its central tenets, but also holds them to be holy.

Perhaps it is a product of purely modern times that we have come to bifurcate the holy from the sacred, not always consciously, but at least in practice. While we may have an understanding of holiness as a kind of moral value par excellence, we fail to see its menace; the holy then, becomes more akin to a celestial ball of fluff than something to be revered, let alone worshipped. At the same time, Catholic doctrine can hardly be said to be 'nice'; Hell remains a metaphysical certainty despite the introduction of pastoral concerns into the present discourse, for example, and no amount of doctrinal wrangling can ever devalue it to the level of mere opinion. Perhaps this is one reason why I am fascinated with Folk Catholicism; it is in its imagination that the colors of the Catholic religious imagination remain most vivid, terrifying, and poetic. The image above is from the Good Friday procession of Procida, a small island to the south of Naples in Italy. It is particularly striking in its depiction of the sacred and the profane in the same tableaux. At the fore of the wagon sits the figure of Death riding a horse, seemingly riding through the desolate waste of a temple. Behind death are the figures of demons, ready to tempt and seduce man into perdition. And behind, the silent, muted, figure of the Dead Christ, ministered to by His angels and surrounded by a golden aureole.

I am honestly confused by the iconography here, but at the same time intrigued. In another float, shown below, we see the Pieta, and on the foreground of the image, a crucified skeleton. I imagine such a juxtaposition of the sacred and the monstrous would send many a finger wagging in disappointment, or else raring to pull the trigger of the flare gun of heresy. I myself am disturbed by it. Then again, I am reminded of the many stories I had heard from my parents and grandparents about Good Friday, and the various superstitions associated therewith. Come twelve noon up to three o'clock, all noise was discouraged under pain of sin. Jumping, smiling, laughing, and speaking were expressly forbidden; God was dead, and all creation ought to weep for His passing. Any sudden or quick movement was seen as an affront to the earth, which housed the body of the Lord; it was reasoned that jumping up and down, for example, caused the earth to press down upon the holy body of the Lord (apparently, He had been swallowed up by the earth), disturbing Him from His rest. These taboos also prescribed on Good Friday a double-faced reputation: on one hand, it is the holiest day in the universe, but at the same time, the most malevolent. Witches, sorcerers, demons and heretics were said to prowl about the world looking to sift the elect as wheat and throw them into everlasting fire. It was also thought to be a most propitious day to cast curses, since, with God dead, there would be no one to punish those who would commit such deeds.

This is probably one reason why the image of the Dead Christ-- the Senor del Santo Sepulcro-- was traditionally thought of as one of the most powerful "avatars" of Our Lord; it represents, simultaneously, the concreteness of man's salvation, the debt to sin having been paid in full by His perfect sacrifice, and at the same time, the powerlessness of man to parlay with the Divine. The destruction of Christ's human body reminds us of our own mortality, but also of the necessity of this destruction, leaving man, effectively, in a double bind: he abhors, and yet needs, perhaps more urgently, the wonderful virtue effected by the sacrifice, and as represented by that particular archetype.

And we have, too, the Anima Sola, the lonely soul of purgatory usually depicted as a beautiful woman, wrists bound by chains, her eyes gazing heavenward, looking for a respite from the burning flame which consumes her body. While we are certainly familiar with the idea of praying for the souls in purgatory, asking their intercession and protection seems alien. Perhaps, to the outside observer looking at this particular facet of Catholic devotion, it might almost look as if one were praying to a soul condemned to burn for all eternity in hellfire. Or worse, a devotee making a plea to some foul succubus to spare himself from damnation. Not just heretical, but also malevolent.

I have remarked before that our present age tends to see God and the celestial Hosts as a collective, cosmic Justice League-- a noble, bland, and thoroughly non-threatening assembly ready to fight our battles for us at the drop of a hat. While I certainly subscribe to the Church's teachings on the matter, one has to wonder if such a desensitized, de-fanged Catholicism would work well enough to save us. The genius of the pre-Vatican II Catholic imagination was how it incorporated all of human existence-- even the tragic and the terrifying-- to paint something coherent. The idea of Hell is admittedly quite terrifying, especially for me, sinner that I am. But, I would rather it be included in the Church's metaphysical horizon than letting me figure out, on my own, what Catholicism is; it is not so much a matter of distrusting my own God-given talents to figure things out, but a matter of realizing how woefully insignificant I am in the grand scheme of things. If we balk at the idea of our own insignificance, it would seem, at least to me, that we have forgotten how to be properly self-centered.