Monday, January 31, 2011

La Naval de Manila, circa 1920s

Video of the procession of the image of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary of the Navy, held in Intramuros, Manila shot during the 1920s. In the aftermath of the Second World War, virtually all of Spanish Manila would be destroyed, and the thoroughness and finality of its destruction would forever leave a scar in the memories of those who lived to see such a beautiful place, even unto its tragic end. The Dominican-run church of Santo Domingo, shown in the video, and repository to the venerated image of Our Lady (who was instrumental in keeping the Dutch away from these shores) and an ivory image of the Santo Entierro, would be among the first casualties of the war. It's said that the Dominicans purposefully chose to move out of Intramuros once they had started rebuilding the church, as the memory of their church's destruction was still too fresh a reality in their minds.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

On Remembering

[This is probably one of the most personal, if not the most personal, posts I will ever have on this blog. This was written in memory of our late housekeeper and family friend, Yaya Ines, who shepherded me and my siblings during our childhood. She died, at age 59, due to complications of her diabetes. Please say a brief prayer for the soul of this remarkable woman, who has  been instrumental in my and my family’s growth for as long as I can remember.]

The memories I have of my childhood are almost always visual ones: the light angling into the boughs of the macopa tree, filtering down to my face as I lay in my hammock in the afternoons; the long trek to the store at the end of the street, with its brown gate and elderly grandmother proprietor; the sight of stray dogs lazing around by the roads, awaiting the arrival of the ice cream man and has pushcart, and in the evenings, the elderly blind man who sold ice buko and the other man, also elderly, who sold balut by the dozen. Nowadays, when I  make the trip to the old neighborhood, I find that a lot has changed: there are new houses now, and old ones with new owners. The blind man no longer walks about by night selling ice buko, and even the stray dogs seem to have diminished in number. The sounds, too, have changed: whereas before a silence that could only be described as rural permeated the atmosphere, today, Lady Gaga, Kanye West, and the latest novelty songs compete for supremacy over an increasingly attenuated auditory space.

My constant companion during those innocent times was Yaya Ines, our housekeeper. She first came to Manila from the province in the 1970s—1972 to be precise—which almost coincided with the proclamation of Martial Law. She was a sprightly lass then who had come to the big city in search for a better chance at life. She worked as maid in a few other households before settling on ours, by way of her brother, who studied in the same university where my paternal grandmother taught, and who used to be a bedspacer at their home. I was the firstborn male of the new generation on either side of my family, much to the delight of both sides, and early on, it seems, I was already being groomed to be the breadwinner who would change the fortunes of the clan; we were not wealthy and possessed only a modest fortune (if, indeed, something to tiny and attenuated could even be considered such), a comfortable sum born out of the many years my maternal grandparents spent teaching in the public school system.  My parents both worked nine hour shifts, and since my aunts also had their day jobs, the folks hired us a yaya—maid, in simpler terms, but in the Philippines the term can easily mean guardian, mentor, and even a confidant

She had come to us when I was barely a year old, and, according to my mother, I looked more like a girl than a boy. Indeed, when she first came to us and gave me my first bath, Yaya was surprised to find a penis dangling between my legs. It did not help that my mother frequently made me wear yellow, a color which still carried, then, a connotation of effeminacy. Yaya Ines came to us in 1990; she was a stout woman, who by then had weighed close to two hundred pounds, but that was perhaps what endeared me to her. She would often wake me up at the crack of dawn, whence we would go out for a stroll, and buy taho from the ambulant vendors. Life was simpler then; mine was a happy, idyllic life, which started with early morning cartoons (my favorites were TMNT, Conan the Adventurer, The Incredible Hulk, Popeye, and Superhuman Samurai Cybersquad—Power Rangers were still a few years away), followed by another stroll to the City Hall in the early afternoon (we lived right behind it), then dinner at six. I would already be fast asleep by eight. Simple, like clockwork, and uncomplicated a possible.

On Sundays, my father would drive us to Greenbelt Chapel (aka, Santo Nino de la Paz) in Makati, which was a considerable distance from our place. It was surrounded by a lush park filled with trees and shrubs, where I would often play hide and seek with Yaya when I became too bored at Mass. Today the park is gone, replaced by a glittering, high-end mall, but the chapel remains standing, right at the center. Mass usually ended at 12pm sharp, unless Fr. Anton Pascual was the celebrant, who was wont to be prolix with his homilies and who, if I remember correctly, was a fan of liturgical dance. After Mass, we would walk a few hundred meters and have lunch at Max’s and feast on their ineffably good chicken. We would be home by three, and by then, I would usually have fallen asleep at Yaya’s shoulder. My younger brother would sit in front with my mom, while I pestered Yaya in the backseat with my strange antics and occasional tantrums.

When I started school in 1993, Yaya would always accompany me on the way there in the tricycle. Imagine a motorcycle with a roofed sidecar attached and you have the rudimentary figure of a trike. She would usually sit behind the trike driver in his motorcycle, while I did my homework inside the sidecar. Sometimes, she would sit beside me, helping me fix my things which I just sloppily threw in my bag. But wherever she sat, she would always make sure to keep an eye on me, glancing back every few seconds and saying my name as if to assure me that she was right there all along. The school I went to was, in a word, small: it was scarcely bigger than a daycare, with a total population of sixty two students. She would wait until my first class was over, before going back home to cook and clean. One time, as we were running late for school, our rented tricycle bumped into a blue SUV. Our trike driver, Mang Rene, went down to confront the driver of the SUV; we had the right of way, but the car appeared out of nowhere, and the tricycle had screeched to a halt, scratching the side of the SUV. A burly man stepped out of the SUV; he was the biggest, meanest looking man I had ever seen. And he had a gun, which he  pointed straight at Mang Rene (and this was just outside of the school, too). Yaya Ines told me to stay inside the trike no matter what happened, before she descended from the back seat to lend our driver a hand. Then, she took off her bakya (wooden clogs), and with one swift motion, hurled it at the face of our interlocutor. Angered, the man now trained the gun at her direction; but at this point, the neighbors had all gotten out, and came to our defense. The police soon arrived and thankfully, the asshole was carted off to the station.

I believe I came close—too close—to death that day, but it is only now that I realize how serious it was. Yaya was certainly ready to die; it was on her face, which by then looked as if it were on the verge of tears. I went to class as if nothing had happened, but Yaya made sure to linger an extra hour in the school premises to make sure there was no reprisal of the previous situation. She was panting and sweating, so my teachers gave her a glass of water to calm her down. At around ten, she left the school to go back home; later that afternoon when she came to fetch me, she brought a knife just to be safe. She had entrusted my brother to my aunts, but since he was asleep at least half the day, they had no trouble with him whatsoever.

That was almost two decades ago, and in that time, I had grown up a lot, both figuratively and literally. The soft, scrawny little boy would eventually grow to be not so scrawny and develop an outward façade that sought to radiate collectedness and toughness. Yaya would grow old, too; and in time I began to notice that she could no longer keep up with me when I ran around the mall, or that she began to be hard of hearing and cranky at times. In grade school, I began to grow more independent, perhaps in an early effort to establish an identity for myself. I would begin to deliberately outpace her when we went out as a family, so as not to appear too much like a mama’s boy. And when the car fetched me from school, I told her to wait inside and not bother to come and fetch me. I was big, brave, and did not want nor need to be coddled anymore.  When I entered high school, I became increasingly lonely. Deep down I felt that no one understood me, and even in the conservative Catholic atmosphere of my new school, I was referred to as the “God boy”, who seemed perennially lost in the clouds and who could only talk about God.

Yaya would stay on with us till 2009, and watch me and both of my siblings graduate. But as early as 2001, I could tell she was no longer the invincible protector that I thought she had been; she had become sickly and moody, even fatalistic; she slept earlier and woke up later, and when she cooked, she could no longer taste anything unless it was smothered in a fistful of salt. In 2007, she was diagnosed with diabetes; I remember turning a blind eye when I would notice a long line of ants milling about the toilet every time she used it. I would pretend I did not see her eating the fat off the pork chops we'd eat for dinner, or when she could barely understand a word I was saying, even if I already had my voice raised. Finally, on June 26, 2009, she left our household and returned to the province. In the weeks prior, she would often tell me “Gusto ko na magpahinga” [I want to rest already], and “Ano man mangyari sa’kin, nasa Diyos na iyon” [Whatever happens to me, it is already up to God]. When she left, she looked as if she were on the verge of tears; I gave her some extra money in addition to the farewell gift my father had given her [Php 20,000] and told her to come and visit one of these days.

She departed the world on January 21, coincidentally the feast of St. Agnes—Santa Ines in Spanish—the saint for which she was named. She would have been sixty in April. Diabetes had taken its toll on her, ravaging her body; her left leg had already been amputated in July, and it was only a matter of time before, I’m told, she started going blind. I am told she thought of me and my siblings fondly in her last days; her passing certainly came as a surprise to me, but deep down, a part of me knew that her life was coming to a close. When I look back on those carefree days of my childhood, I can’t help but run through all the memories of the adventures I had with her.  They are now irrevocably locked away in the dim but still luminous caverns of the past, shining unblemished, like stars radiant in the night sky, amidst the rancor and confusion of the present. And perhaps, I now realize, to an extent, why the reforms of Vatican II were welcomed so enthusiastically by the laity: it is because no one can comprehend even briefly the nature of eternity, and the hell that may be attached therewith, without despairing; we cannot bear the thought of our loved ones burning forever in the fires of hell, because they had been guilty of the crime of being born amongst the simple. Yaya Ines was not a regular churchgoer; she even had a slightly anticlerical streak to her. But she also told us, with eyes ablaze and heart convinced, that the Virgin once walked on the soil of their town; that the Holy Child had never ceased to be kind to her. And even when she was already sick, she would make the long commute to Quiapo every Sunday, dressed in the Nazarene’s scarlet, and there attend Mass at five thirty in the morning. And on Ash Wednesdays, she would always be the first to remind everyone that meat was absolutely forbidden, even if she seemed self-righteous at times (and God bless her for it).

And suddenly, I am that young, timid boy again. You realize that you are alone, that you are vulnerable, that you need warmth and protection in the face of the piercing cold all around you. You feel the infinite weight of your own finitude. But behind the gloom and the dark and the storms that rage all around, those memories of my childhood will always shine with a more piercing clarity than the cacophony dancing all around me. And for these, I can only say to our beloved yaya: Thank you. May you rest in God’s peace, and may the angels escort you into the heavenly courts. May God and all His saints embrace you and weave for you an everlasting crown of glory. May you be at peace, and may you find the rest that you have been looking for.


I end this post with a final and most blessed memory, untouched by the encroachment of disease or my burgeoning pride. It I 1995 again, and I am in first grade. Everyone still wanted to be a Backstreet Boy and the Power Rangers still commanded a legion of loyal viewers. The bell rings, and we are dismissed; we sing a farewell song to each other in class, and I fetch my brother, eager to return to the confines of our cozy home. The gate opens, and in comes Yaya Ines. She is smiling, and  she has sandwiches for us behind her back, smothered in pimento Cheez Whiz and some Coke in plastic bags for us to drink. We exit the school and board the tricycle: my brother and I in the sidecar, and she behind Mang Rene, healthy and jovial as ever. Finally, he starts the engine, and we are heading home. All is well; it could not be any other way.

Friday, January 21, 2011


I was a sophomore in high school when this commercial was released. I'm re-posting this out of nostalgia more than anything, since I'll be 22 in less than a month. That, and I haven't eaten lunch, and I'm off to buy a cheeseburger there. I actually think it's kinda well done. A bit irreverent, true, but it does drive the point rather nicely. A translation of the captions: 0:38, "This Christmas, start each of your days here" [Ngayong Pasko, dito simulan ang bawat umaga]; 0:41 "Then..." [Pagkatapos...] 0:42 "See you there." [Kita-kits]. The church in the commercial is the cathedral of San Sebastian in Lipa.

Brief Notes on a Fiesta

I attended the Fiesta of the Santo Nino in my father's province for the first time in years this past Sunday. Not a lot has changed, but then again, it may also be the case that I just did not pay enough attention to the rites in the past. Unfortunately we had missed the religious procession a week before; like many processions held in honor of the saints in the Philippines, the Santo Nino de Batangan, as the Nino of Batangas is officially called ("Batangan" meaning a place where timber was floated before being collected) was feasted with an elaborate, day-long, water-borne procession. This, of course, involved the use of a boat, which traced the "pilgrimage" of the image from the wharfs right to its present location today.

The Nino is black; some say he, like the Nazareno of Quiapo, was burned in a shipwreck; others claim the fire was caused by slave traders who raided the shores of Batangas then. I confess to being unfamiliar with the whole narrative, but suffice to say, the Nino came to Batangas by the sea. Others have said that it came to Batangas via Cebu, where Catholicism had its roots in the Philippines, and where the Nino has been venerated for more than four hundred years, since Magellan brought the image to its shores, and where it was subsequently worshipped as the highest and most powerful god of the Cebuano pantheon. When we got to the basilica to hear Mass, the image was placed just outside the adoration chapel, where a queue of people had lined up in order to venerate it. The Nino was clothed in a cape of beaten silver; when we arrived, it seemed as if it had just been placed outside, as the line numbered fewer than fifty then. Veneration in the Philippine context, of course, involves a plethora of actions that some might call 'touchy feely': the Nino was smothered by many a grubby hand, molested, even. Many brought handkerchiefs and towelettes to wipe the face and hands of the Child, in the hopes that some of its grasya and birtud would rub off on the cloths. These cloths are then rubbed on one's body, conferring its blessedness on the devotee.

The Mass was celebrated by H.E. Cardinal Rosales of Manila. As truly befits the occasion, the church was packed to the rafters; I estimated maybe ~800 people capable of fitting in the pews. But the side naves were fully packed, too, considering that it was already the third (?) Mass of the day (in many places in the Philippines, Masses usually begin at the crack of dawn, at 4.30 to 5am). The Mass itself was not very long, 80 minutes tops; liturgically, it was a run of the mill, insouciantly reverent pontifical Novus Ordo. Peculiar to me was the music; the Kyrie, Gloria, and Sanctus were all in Latin interspersed with Tagalog, but elegantly sung. Surprisingly there were ladies in the altar party, but all of these were dressed in white with skirts that extended past the knee, and all wore veils. Similarly, the usherettes all wore veils, and there was, in fact, a preponderance of old ladies wearing them. There was one old lady who knelt at the communion rail for the duration of the Mass, who prayed with her arms extended, like the cross.

Like any fiesta in the Philippines, the noise and pollution were overwhelming; as we were walking home to my grandfather's house, what would normally have been a ten minute walk more than doubled in length, due to the sheer number of vendors that crowded the street. Interestingly, a great number of these vendors were Muslims. They offered cheap knock-offs of Italian leather goods (I saw a bag marked "Poochie" [Pucci] and another marked "Frada"), pens that lit up, peanuts, pirated DVDs, karaoke machines, and mass produced estampitas (holy cards) and statues of the Child Jesus, the Holy Family, the Sacred Heart, and many others. Horror of horrors, I even saw a couple of laughing Christs on display.

We finally got home at 11.30; we had stopped by, briefly, at a covered court where a band was practicing (they were kids who were probably not much older than seven). They played a couple of odd ditties, novelty songs, and I think, one religious song, although I did not recognize it. There was a huge spread on the table in my grandfather's house, as per custom in fiestas here. The menu was idiosyncratic: there was Mexican, Chinese, American, and Filipino finger food all mashed together in one syncretic whole. Meanwhile, our family's image of the Nino, with its ivory face and purple robe, was put on a pedestal in the living room. Beside it were flowers, although if these were real or plastic, I was not able to observe.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Photo of the Day

 Still in connection with the recently concluded Feast of the Black Nazarene. The picture shows a typical scene during the procession: ambulant vendors sell silk screened shirts, hankies, and towelettes bearing the image of the Black Christ by the thousands, as multitudes o men dress up in the habit of the Nazarene, at once professing pious belief in its miraculous power while at the same time resorting to less conventional or orthodox means (i.e., the amulet [anting-anting] on his neck). In the background, the beachhead of a procession of a replica of the Nazarene has just entered into view. I think this photo says all that I've been trying to say better than I ever could. Image found online.

Nazareno 2011

There is an intolerable stench that wafts over the streets of Manila every year on January 9th. It is a highly oppressive smell, composed, it seems, at once partly of the smell of piss and unwashed bodies basking under the glare of tropical heat, mingling with vomit, decay, and seemingly all the grime and grit of the seed underbelly of the mean streets, to form a potent cocktail of truly alarming proportions. It is the kind of smell which seems to simmer in the air, quickened by an inner, smoldering fire, which then seeps into every pore of one’s body. The noise, too, is deafening, a veritable cacophony of shouting and cursing and police sirens and jingles from the ice cream caravan rising in concert with the pealing of church bells and the fervent singing of many hymns.

Such a confusion of various phenomena could only mean that the procession of the Black Nazarene, more properly known as the Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno de Quiapo, is once again underway. I have written about this procession before, many times in fact over the past few years.  It is a wooden statue of Christ almost as old as the Philippines itself, sent to these islands from Mexico in the Year of Our Lord 1606. As the name suggests, this image of Our Lord is black; legends tell of how the ship carrying the Nazarene caught fire, burning all of its precious cargo but the holy image. Since that time, the image has been revered as miraculous; and over the course of four centuries, it would survive earthquakes, fires, wars, and bombings, most recently in the Second World War. Legends say that when Manila was razed to the ground, and the parish of San Juan Bautista—Quiapo church, where the Nazarene sits enthroned—was all but destroyed, it was the image of the Suffering  Christ on the high altar and the tabernacle alone which survived. The devotion to the Nazarene is intense—highly intense. This year, an estimated seven to seven and a half million trooped to the ancient district of Quiapo to pay homage to the revered image. Such a number is nearly impossible to imagine: it is nearly twice the population of New Zealand, but jammed, shoulder to shoulder, back to back, in a mere stretch of road running all but five kilometers. Three million joined the procession while the rest either packed the streets to hail the Lord in his passing or heard Mass at the church, and as per tradition, the devotees were mostly male, who shoved, pushed, climbed, and clambered upon each other all in the hope of touching, even for a split second, the face of Christ.

They walk barefoot, following unshod the barefoot Christ, braving the filth of the streets of Manila, with all the dogshit, piss, refuse, trash and broken bottles that may line the way. The devotees come, either alone or with their families; the procession calls for extreme humility, and so many of the devotees come to Quiapo, that mystical navel, it seems, of all the Philippines, on their feet. Many of them walk for miles and miles, rising before the dawn and spending the whole day in the procession. This devotion to the Nazarene is as intense as it is humbling: upon reaching the church, majority of the devotees drop to their knees and crawl all the way to high altar, starting from the main plaza fronting the church, into the very heart of the temple itself. Their heads are bowed low and from behind, their feet are dark as soot, in imitation of the dark skin of the Lord to whom they devote themselves. When the Nazarene was exposed for public veneration the day before, the line of devotees stretched for hundreds of feet at a time; and indeed, it is not uncommon for such lines to run a kilometer or two in length. Baking under the oppressive heat of the sun, the devotees eventually venerate the image of Christ, bathed as they are in sweat, in contrast to the fragrant image of the Lord, which is bathed in rose water or wine depending on the occasion. Thirsty lips connect with the feet of the statue even as the next devotee, already toothless and half-senile, slobbers over it, and they do this by the tens of thousands for almost a full twenty four hours. But on the day of the procession itself, this devotion reaches its fullest splendor—or, according to some, its highest irrationality. For the procession of the Nazarene is a highly charged, highly violent (in the sense that it keeps a very frenetic pace, despite the slowness of the parade) event; it requires the steeling of one’s guts and a firm, unbreakable commitment, much like the same that Christ showed on the road to Golgotha.

In the Philippines, it has been said that devotion to God and the saints is seen through a very personalistic lens; the word that most closely approximates this personalism is the panata, or a private vow, which a devotee takes in order to secure blessings and prosperity for himself and for his kin-group. The panata can be any form of devotion, which may or may come after the granting of the blessing; it can be a private vow of making a pilgrimage to a shrine and walking on one’s knees to the high altar, or spreading the devotion to the saint by whom it was secured; it can be the wearing of a particular habit in the saint’s honor, or as in the case of the devotion to the Nazarene, attending the procession in his honor. But like the road to Golgotha, the procession is grueling and nearly impossible to comprehend. This year, the procession took an incredible seventeen hours to finish; it started at seven thirty in the morning and lasted all the way to half past midnight, but in every hour the crowds at Quiapo remained thick as ever. From being battered by heat in the morning to being soaked by the rain in the afternoon, right down to being blasted by the chill January air, the devotees stubbornly remained, determined to see the Lord back in his altar.

The procession is always an impressive sight; but at the same time, it also raises a lot of questions. In the few years that I’ve taken an active interest in the procession, I’ve noticed that it has become more and more anti-clerical. I mean this not in the sense that the devotees of the Nazarene actively participate in the stifling of the voice and influence of the clergy, but in the sense that it is now seen as something that is beyond the influence of the clerics. Many hold that even touching the statue is sufficient in wiping out one’s sins completely, which contradicts the need for sacramental confession. Thus, the Black Nazarene is venerated by thugs and murderers side by side with the desperate and the unlettered, all hoping for some proverbial ‘quick fix.’ That a great number of devotees walk on their knees to venerate the Black Christ, and that it is bathed, dressed, kissed, wiped, and genuflected to, also strikes the catechized as bordering too close to idolatry, and this criticism is often not unwarranted. Many of us middle class, catechized Catholics find such ideas abhorrent, if not downright heretical; but then again, all heresy, to paraphrase Brother William from The Name of the Rose, is but the banner of a reality. For the followers of the Black Nazarene, this is the reality of incomprehensible and inescapable poverty.

The heretic never really cares for the heresy; all he cares for is the hope and the promise that it delivers. In Manila, poverty can be of such intolerable level that one often finds families living under bridges or living in hovels that look (and are often appointed) more like dog houses. This is a kind of poverty that is totally alien to me: it is the kind of poverty that crushes one to barely discernible pulp, that dehumanizes one to previously unplumbed depths. I cannot help but imagine, though, that this kind of poverty approximates the reality of the Incarnation of Christ: from the highest heavens He wills to live amongst the squalor and wretchedness of human existence, with all its misery and sadness and imperfections. It is to us, mired as we are in the existence of sin, that Christ came; and we mobbed Him, followed Him, and pleaded with Him for a chance at a better life. In a sense, there really is nothing new in the procession of the Black Nazarene that has not happened already in the Gospels; like then as now, there are the doubters, who scoff at His miracles as mere parlor tricks, and there are those who remain blind to the love of God. They reason: all the money, time, and attention paid to this old and decrepit statue could better serve man if they were directed at his betterment. In a sense, this is true, and of that there can be no doubt: but, at the same time, I believe this line of reasoning fails to address the problem of dehumanization.

We can work and reconfigure the system all we like, but until the time that this reaching out can be on a ‘tangible’ level, there will always be problems. We can thus see why Christ was seen as a heretic by the religious authorities of His day: that He, a Jew, one of the chosen people of God, should mingle and reach out to the unclean and the impure, is simply an aberration unheard of. The righteous are safe in the confines of heaven, and they take pleasure at the fact that they have been numbered among the elect. And so the outsiders remain proud and arrogant, and they begin to conceive their pleasure in warring against the saints and the Kingdom of God. What Our Lord did was to extend His hand to the dregs of society, tolerating, as it were, their uncouth ways; in the procession of the Black Nazarene, He is once again the ‘heretic’, providing a glimmer of hope to a populace who believes with the sweat of his brow and the quaking of his guts, because he has no other choice but to do so. It is in this sense that I say that this procession is anti-clerical: because it offers immediate, ‘worldly’ hope distinct from the supernatural hope that the clerical Church offers. It gives the simple the bread they need, in order that they may believe more fully.

The Church, because it is also a human institution while at the same time divine, will always have to face the problems of human existence. If She is the Mystical Body of Christ, then She must prepare to undergo the Passion as well: and no greater proof of this are our own times, which have seen a massive curtailing of Her institutional presence all over the world. The flock is straying, and even in predominantly Catholic Philippines, where religion still carries a very strong emotional connection, many are abandoning the faith in droves. I have seen this in my friends and even some relatives who have become deaf, it seems, to the voice of the Church, because it has become too wide and too ‘big’ to pay attention to the cries of the simple. I guess I am lucky, in that I have never had to face these confusions; Church teaching has always been clear cut to me, and defendable, at least on an intellectual level. But as I have told myself repeatedly, I am thankful that I do not have the unfortunate distinction of having been born into a position in which I simply cannot choose whether to follow the Church or not. I suspect many of the devotees of the Black Nazarene would not desire to join such a massive crowd and risk death year after year if they had the option; but as it stands, it is their Calvary to accompany Him in His passion, even if just in simulacrum.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

I am not entirely sure if I have posted these pictures before; I probably have, but I like them so much that I thought I would post them again. The picture above was taken almost two years ago, in a rather deracinated cemetery in the middle of a populous, commercial district in Manila called Paco Park. The name 'Paco' was a diminutive form for 'Pancratius', the saint after whom the cemetery was named. The small chapel at the middle of the cemetery is flanked, on both sides, by graves; the arrangement of the cemetery was circular, so that the walls also held the niches, and perhaps owing to this fact (and also because Manila was a very earthquake prone city), the walls were built very thick, like a fortress.

I took the photo in a  quiet little spot behind the chapel. It was the hour of mercy, three in the afternoon, when I came to find it, lost amidst blessed stillness and the  faint din of insufferable traffic outside. According to a caretaker we saw, that spot was a burial ground  for aborted babies and also those who died through miscarriage, and those who died without the grace of baptism. As such, he said, it was probably the saddest part in the entire cemetery. For some reason, I was reminded of the pantaruxada, or la santa compana in Castellano, a ghostly company in rural Galician myth which were said to wonder around the cities in procession at night, dressed in immaculate white, and tolling the death knell: all who see this procession are said to be irrevocably marked for death. I do not know why I was thinking of the pantaruxada at that moment; perhaps, because the unbaptized really have nowhere to go, and that maybe Limbo was a terror more terrestrial than supernatural; otherworldly, yes, but not of a different planet. I do not know.

Ironically, my own parents were married in the cemetery chapel in 1988. In fact, the very reason we went there was to celebrate their twenty first anniversary. I don't really know if either of my parents has a decidedly morbid sense of humor (they always chide me for wanting to buy a coffin bed with the words 'Here lies Arch' carved on it) but I'm pretty sure that they must still be wondering what impelled them to get married there in the first place. As for myself, I am still quite haunted by that abandoned section of the cemetery. The caretaker claims that, at night, he sometimes hears faint cries coming from the old, abandoned sections of Paco Park. He lights a candle to dispel the darkness, and says a brief prayer for the repose of the restless. And yes, those are apparently real skulls on the wall.