Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Learning and Unlearning

Some of the most profound and most humbling experiences I've had happened in a small, cramped classroom in one of Manila's notorious garbage towns some three and a half years ago. I was one out of many tutors who visited the wasteland that is Payatas every weekend, for eight months, in order to teach basic literacy and English language skills to underprivileged, second grade kids. I was halfway through my eighteenth year, and after reading a snippet of Amartya Sen in one of my Economics classes, I was unduly fired by the thought that I could make a difference in some kid's life,  however small a contribution it may be. So, instead of ROTC (which had become optional some years before, anyway), I decided to join the Literacy Training Service. In reality, the task was more difficult than I had anticipated: we had to teach what was basically an ESL curriculum to seven and eight year old children who could barely string enough letters to form a single word.

The school was a raggedy old structure, left half unpainted because the local education department had conveniently run out of funds. On Saturdays, the school doubled as a madrassah-- a Muslim religious school-- for some of the community who subscribed to the teachings of Islam. A narrow gutter, overflowing with foetid water, served as a mockery of a moat that guarded the building's entrance. The stench of the toilet wafted lazily in the air. It is a thing of supreme irony that Payatas is but a ten minute drive from our suburb, a fact which even the fiction of walls and gates could not erase. I was assigned two kids to mentor, Kobe and Jerry: but Jerry was a sickly child, and his parents would rather that he worked in the weekends to augment their already meager income. And so I was left with Kobe. From the start, I could tell he was already intimidated by me. He and I had come essentially from two different worlds: I, from a more or less comfortable background, and he from a life of hardship and severity. His father, he tells me, was without work, and what little money his mother made from washing clothes-- of rich kids like me, he says nonchalantly and without malice-- was barely enough to make ends meet. He was all of three and a half feet tall, with a tiny head with unruly, spiked hair, and he had brown eyes that sparkled with a keen light, despite the timidity they projected. The first time I met Kobe, he stood beside his desk the whole time, back straight, arms behind his back, as if he were face to face with a  drill sergeant. His voice barely rose above the level of a whisper, and the more I came closer to him, the more he seemed to shrink. He was huddled all alone to one corner, sipping orange juice off a tetra pak, pretending not to hear his name when I called him. Despite the initial coldness, though, I found the boy to be affable and well-mannered, if a bit soft spoken. There was an eagerness in him that seemed to want to burst out of his prison at all times, but which he had learned to keep in check.

I introduced myself to him, and he to me, and I explained that we were there to help him and his other classmates to read. As per the standard procedure, we were required to administer a Dolch test to the kids. I gave Kobe a list of 100 words, which he had to say out loud in the span of (I thought) a very generous forty minutes. These were simple, monosyllabic to disyllabic words, the kind that even a boy of five could pronounce; I figured Kobe would be done in a fraction of that time, and we would be off to a roaring start. The end of that period, however, proved how wrong I was. He got 25 words at most, and some of them with some coaching from me. I remember pointing out words like 'black', 'brown', 'fox', and  'box' to him, but he could only see the individual letters that made up these words in isolation. Here was a 'b' followed by an 'l' (--Or is that an 'i'? he interjects), an 'a', and so on and so forth. What ambitions I nursed in my heart quickly evaporated, replaced with the sickening realization that this was going to be a lot harder than I thought.

Suddenly, it seemed to occur to me that I was teaching a borrowed tongue to someone who would probably never achieve any sophistication with it beyond the dictates of his grade requirements. Under the sweltering sun of that hot, July morning, the noonday devil seemed to have latched itself onto my heart with a vice-like grip, piercing me with a frustration born out of hopelessness. But there was something about the boy-- it was in the way his eyes shone when he would encounter a new letter or a new word for the first time, and in the way he struggled, so beautifully and so delicately, with his lessons. "This is a dog," I would say to him, pointing at a crude drawing of a dog that I had drawn on his worksheet. "How do you spell dog?" A long pause, before he starts: "D-O-G! Dog!" At that I gave a small sigh of relief, thankful that we had gotten through that word at least. But Kobe was jubilant, suddenly jumping up and down at his small achievement. Then, in a move that still  beguiles me today, he offered me a sip of his orange juice. I declined, reasoning that he needed it more than I did.

There is something about such victories, Pyrrhic though they may be to us, that so thoroughly disarms me. Perhaps, I reasoned, I have forgotten how to find the beautiful in the small and the broken, the dull and the peripheral. Here was a child who, by all accounts, was a laggard in his class: but the joy and exuberance he showed, at that moment, disclosed not so much a shy and timid underachiever, but a hero redolent in his splendor, the laurel-crowned man of victory in his moment of supreme honor. And Kobe prayed, too. After lunch, he went to the front of the classroom, marching in goose step with his palms clasped together, eyes closed in seemingly mystical contemplation of the superessential darkness of God, as Dionysius put it. And suddenly it seemed as if he were one of the ordained clergy: the words of the prayer came out of his mouth with a hieratic force and dignity, with a relish and appreciation for their power that could only be described as liturgical. Bashfully, and giddily, he would reprimand his classmates who were distracted during the prayer, shushing them and then thrusting his finger upward, as if pointing to the God he could not see, but whom he knew was ever watching out for them.

It seemed to occur to me, at that moment, that it is in such things-- the fleeting, the broken, the ephemeral, and the faded that the Divine has always manifested Itself to me. Images of the Child sleeping on His manger, or else being carried by His Mother, or turning away in fright at the sight of the angels bearing the instruments of the Passion as in the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help-- all of these point to a Christ just as human, just as fragile, and just as "finite" (however one may take it) as the rest of us. Each new word and its component letters and the many configurations, transpositions, or variations thereof, revealed to Kobe a world full of wonder and mystery, and perhaps even a little magic. Like an apprentice Kabbalist, his eyes glowed with barely concealed amazement as the inner logic and hidden secrets of the word was, literally, made flesh before his very eyes.And seeing that spark, for even the tiniest, most infinitesimal fraction of a second, was all it took to snap me out of that deplorable, restless angst. Although he may be far from gifted in his class, there shone in Kobe a wisdom that was wonderfully keen and bright, and imperceptibly delicate, so as to burn up all the negativity that had accrued in me in one swift gesture. Like broken glass, he radiated, refracted a light too variegated and subtle to behold, and I simply cannot thank this boy of six enough for it: it is like the sublimest rays of the golden sun manifesting themselves, for the first time, to someone who had awoken from a deep and seemingly endless slumber, resplendent in all its terrible beauty.

Three and a half years since I first met Kobe, I am still unaware of who was the real teacher and who was the pupil. I have learned many things since that time, but more importantly, I have also unlearned so many of them as well. It has been a year since I last visited Kobe's school, and by the grace of God, there have been many physical changes made, including the construction of two new buildings to accommodate the growing population of the Payatas shantytown. But I am still drawn to that little boy of six, who had done so much to change the way I thought. I pray to God that he is well; I will certainly remember him for a very long time.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Humiliation of Saints

"The Miracles of Saint Benedict at Fleury tell of a certain Adelard who persisted in mistreating peasants on monastic lands. Once he stole something from a woman, who then ran to the saint's church. There she threw back the altar cloths and began striking the altar, crying to the saint, "Benedict, you sluggard, you sloth, what are you doing? Why do you sleep? Why do you allow your servant to be treated so?"

Because the serfs of the monasteries were the servants of the saints to whose monasteries they belonged, they believed that the saints were obliged to protect them. Oppression was therefore the fault of the saints. The ritual by which they attempted to rectify the situation was an inversion of their usual relationship to the saint, just as the monks' ritual was an inversion of theirs... Likewise, the physical action against the saint was one most appropriate within a peasant culture and not a monastic one. Punishment in lay society comes not in the form of hair shirts, thorns, or prostration but in blows. Thus the peasants beat their saints, just as they would beat a reluctant beast of burden, to awaken him and force him to do his job."

- Patrick J. Geary, Living with the Dead in the Middle Ages

Stories of saints who bless and punish are familiar enough to us, but tales of "erring" saints who are on the receiving end of punishment are rarer. When the Spaniards returned to the Philippines in 1565, following a 44 year interlude, they found, in Cebu, a most curious phenomenon. The natives had turned the image of the Holy Child-- a gift from Ferdinand Magellan to the chieftains of the island-- into a powerful  rain god, now chief and greatest of the native pantheon. The devotion was such that it had come to supplant the old gods, like the Child in Egypt who toppled the idols of the Egyptians upon their faces. The natives supposedly worshipped the new god with dance to petition for rain; but when that did not work, they carried him in procession to the sea, whereupon he would be stripped and submerged, head first, in the water. There he would remain until such time that  rain would fall on the parched earth. The native Cebuanos claim that this ritual, like the St. Jude novena, "has never been known to fail."

When the revolution against Spain broke out in the  twilight days of the 19th century, many an anti-clerical Filipino would lead the attack against frailocracy by supposedly chopping off the aquiline noses of the images of the saints. The lords have failed to protect the poor and downtrodden of the land, instead allying themselves with the oppressors; and now they receive their symbolic comeuppance, through the loss of their noses.  In the Philippines, devotion to the saints often took the form of the utang na loob, or an internal debt of gratitude. Devotees vow to take on a special action (e.g., making a pilgrimage to an important shrine, joining a procession, attending Mass on special days in honor of the saint, crawling on one's hands and knees, etc.) to gain the favor of the saint, who would secure blessings and prosperity on the devotee and his kin-group. So long as the cycle remains balanced, the devotee continues to undertake his panata (his special vow), the obligation of which he may choose to hand down to his children or any other member of his family. The underlying, unspoken condition here is that the saint must naturally keep his end of the deal; if not, the devotee can theoretically choose to dissolve his bond of kinship with his divine patron, though such moves seem much rarer in real life.

The humiliation of saints, however, is not exclusively confined to the private sphere. Geary cites how the concept of humiliation would be apotheosized into a pseudo-rite in itself, performed in the context of the liturgy.  He cites the example of the custom at Cluny, which the monks  undertook whenever offense had come to the monastery.

"At Cluny... the officiating clergy open, on the floor before the altar, a piece of coarse cloth such as would be used for a hair shirt. On it they place the crucifix,  the Gospel books, and the relics of the saints. All the religious then prostrate themselves on the floor and sing Psalm 73 sotto voce. Next, two bells are rung and the celebrant genuflects before the "newly consecrated body and blood of the Lord and before the aforementioned relics.

At Tours... the ministers place on the ground before the subdean's seat a silver crucifix and all of the reliquaries of the saints and put thorns on top of and all around the tomb of Saint Martin. In the center of the nave they place a wooden crucifix likewise covered with thorns, and they block with thorns all but one of the church doors."

The point of this humiliation of the saints, as expressed in the symbolic debasement of his relics, was to show their impotence and failure in living up to their reputation as the undisputed lords of the realm. In theory, of course, the monasteries were the closest thing to heaven on earth: it was the priests who served the divine cult, who secured the abundant beneficences of the Celestial Realm for the community. Being the custodians of the sacrificial cult, they served the community by praying for its health, deliverance, and prosperity, and also by cursing all those who would seek to subject it. The patron saint, being the master of the monasteries, was held  to be the "supreme ruler" of the land. The monasteries were obstinate reminders of a world beyond worlds, of a power beyond powers; and in that respect, they were held to be practically sacrosanct. Of course, all of this is mere theory, and monasteries were frequently looted and plundered by more than one self-aggrandizing, impious wretch, whose arms would often prove to strike more decisively than the prayers of the religious. Such attacks on the sacred, however, were also seen as a reversal of the natural order: the proud have risen against the meek, and earthly rulers have assumed the power of the spiritual lords.

The patron saint of the land, newly rendered impotent, is thus seen to have failed his people, most especially his immediate and most powerful vassals, the monks. Thus, he is brought low from his pride (superbia); he is made to do penance and prostrate himself before the Lord, the one, true, Master of the Universe. It is doubtful if orthodox Catholicism has enough space to accommodate such a crude reading of the act of humiliation, and perhaps one even redolent of superstition. Under the rationality of orthodox Catholicism, the saints, being in heaven, cannot do any wrong; hence, any failure would be seen as having been brought about by an extrinsic factor, e.g., such as sin, but it is always in retaliation for something that has its origin in the thoroughly human. But it would seem, from the anecdote above, that popular understanding fully held the saints accountable for their inaction against those who would take advantage of the community.  And, as such, they too were deserving of punishment. By taking on utter humiliation, the saint and his monks make an appeal to the unfathomable mercy of God, who humbles the proud and exalts the lowly. They testify to the malicious inversion that has happened with the (or any) attack against the Church, awaiting His swift and terrible justice against the oppressors of the weak and the downtrodden.

It is curious, but not really surprising, that the humiliation of the saints would die out in the years leading to, and immediately following, the Council of Trent. The Council, which developed a more efficient, more legalistic framework for Catholicism, I think, can rightly be called the first instance when the Church became "self-conscious" as Roman Catholicism-- Western European in mind, culture, and structure. Its move from what was essentially a sacrificial, ritual cult-- which dealt primarily with the invincible powers of Heaven-- into a bureaucratic, technocratic, clericalist system shifted the  object of veneration from the saints to the priests themselves. Hierarchy, as in a military structure that flowed from the Pope down to the foot soldiers (ordinary priests), came to exclusively define the relationship between man and divine. Any naive beating of a saint's tomb, now, becomes a grossly political act that is seen as subversive of clerical power.

What is truly fascinating about these examples, I think, is how these stories show how strikingly "real" the communion of saints was for these Christians. Belief in it did not rest on mere acknowledgment, but rather, it was an inseparable feature of their daily lives. But if these stories tell us anything, it is that to live in a universe saturated with the presence of the sacred does not always mean these powers are ready to fight our battles for us. Disturbingly, it seems as if the saints were often viewed with a certain regard for the "mischief" they may sow, or the "arbitrariness" of their help. In that respect, we can see how they were probably more feared than Christ Himself. At the same time, they were indispensable to the life of the community, as the benefits they bring more than outweighs any arbitrariness that could be blamed on them. Again, it must be said that while I do not think of orthodoxy as merely an ecclesiastical fiction, one has to wonder if majority of Catholics-- the unschooled, unchurched bunch-- ever fully imbibed the Church's rationale on the matter.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Warrior Gods of the New Jerusalem

In the still, sepulchral silence of the night of 20th May 1967, a motley crew of ragtag, disillusioned men would march to the seat of government in Manila, in an attempt to overthrow the Marcos government. These men were of a curious sort: crimson-cloaked they were, and they carried with them huge knives; no armor had they on except strips of paper, cut to look like fiddleback Roman chasubles, whereon were inscribed various symbols of pseudo-Catholic arcana: anting-anting, as they care called in the vernacular here. At their helm was a crusty old man by the name of Valentin de los Santos-- or Tatang Valentin, as he was known and revered by his followers.  Valentin by then was already eighty six years of age. Some say he was a rogue Catholic priest who left his calling after a private revelation from God; he had also been a mechanic in the past, and even ran for president in the previous elections. He led a group of peasants sufficiently galvanized by their common poverty, and strengthened with a hope  that could only be described as apocalyptic.

The call had gone out in the morning. Valentin de los Santos, blighted by what he saw as the continued oppression of the poor under the Marcos government, had decided to ask the strongman to step down from office, and promptly surrender to him and his group-- the aptly named Lapiang Malaya [Movement for Freedom]-- complete control of the government, including its armed forces. Marcos, of course, refused; and by that same evening, Tatang Valentin had marshaled his troops, who donned their magical uniforms which they claimed would protect them from the bullets of the enemy. It would prove to be the costliest mistake they would make. At thirty minutes past midnight, the constabulary opened fire, their bullets shredding through the paper vests of the brethren, to put it tautologically, like paper. Scores of the elderly brethren, bolos still in hand, fell in heaps as the bullets razed through their numbers, cutting them down life chaff. Finally, the massacre ended, and Valentin de los Santos surrendered to the constabulary, but not without significant losses to the Lapiang Malaya. He was found to be insane, and locked up with another violent schizophrenic.That would be the last the world would see of Tatang Valentin, as his cellmate would later maul him to death, bringing to an end the life of the man who saw himself as a new Christ.

The massacre of the Lapiang Malaya has been described as one of the worst political disasters in the history of the Philippines. But what is curious about it is the nature of the Lapiang Malaya: for it was, in fact, primarily a religious cult. Central to their belief system was the worship of the anting-anting, or the fetish. Traditionally, it was believed that the anting-anting was a talisman that gave its bearer certain powers that range from invisibility to invincibility, supreme knowledge and even unbeatable sexual prowess. But the anting-anting also grows 'weak', and therefore must be 'fed', in order to make its 'virtud' (i.e., its efficacy) stronger. Perhaps it would not even be too crazy to think that Tatang Valentin must have likened himself to a god, if he had not proclaimed it so outright. Valentin, however, was not the first prophet to rise out of the sands of these islands. The history of the Philippines is littered with various wandering vagabonds, self-styled 'sons of God' who claim they have been sent by heaven to bring peace to the nation, and more importantly, bring about a complete spiritual transformation, where there were neither rich nor poor, and where everyone lived in total equality without the need for government.

The last factor is especially interesting, I think. The more I read into history, the more I am convinced that 'freedom' has been understood differently by the different strata that comprise Philippine society. This is especially significant, considering the failed nature of the Philippine Revolution in 1898. My idea here is that there simply was not a meeting of minds that occurred amongst the various figureheads of the Revolution; at its core, it was, I think, an essentially middle to upper class revolution. You have the illustrados, the economic and social elite of the nineteenth century, who championed 'autonomia' (i.e., they championed self-rule but did  not want to break away from the Spanish Empire; Rizal was one of them); the nationalists, who championed 'independencia' (complete independence from a foreign power); and finally, you have the common folk who simply wanted 'kalayaan' (freedom as commonly understood). Kalayaan, however, was not a tenable political concept; what it proposed was an egalitarian, utopian society, free from any sort of authority but love. In this respect, it may be said that the common folk (or at least those who heeded the call of historical consciousness) desired, simply, the New Jerusalem. And as it turned out, the only real way to do this was to literally go outside the political sphere of the colonists.

To facilitate this, many self-proclaimed Christs arose, and around them sprung up bands of apostles, disciples, holy women, and witnesses. These Christs pointed to the mountains, to the forests, to the dustbowls and to the caves; "There shall we build the New Jerusalem!", they cried, and they hied off to go ever deeper into the tight embrace of primordial nature. Men sold their properties and went barefoot, following their Christs(s), into the mountains and hills and caves, where the iron fist of Crown and Friar could not penetrate so easily. I remember reading an account of an old woman in the Visayas, known as 'La Santa de Leyte' (the Saint of Leyte) who predicted that a huge earthquake would swallow up the entire country, save for a 'sacred spot' to which she and her followers, which numbered 4,000 at its peak, migrated. There too was the Cofradia de San Jose, started by one Apolinario de la Cruz, who at one time desired to become a priest of the Dominican Order. But the Orders were closed to the indios then, which prompted him to start a religious order solely for native Filipinos. When the Spanish got wind of this, they tried to suppress it under the suspicion of heresy, whereupon 'Hermano Pule' (as de la Cruz was addressed by his comrades) fled to the mountains with his brotherhood. On 1 November 1841, the Cofradia was stamped out by Colonel Joaquin Huet, who supposedly did not spare even the old, the women, and the children from his violence. Hermano Pule would later on be executed by firing squad, and his head cut off and displayed on a pike.

There was also the Guardia de Honor of Pangasinan, which originally started out orthodox but went native, so to speak. The ‘Guard of Honor’ was so-called, because all of its members took an oath to say the rosary at certain times of the day, structured in such a way that it was always recited, on every hour of every day, by the different members of the Guard. But no sooner had this devotion been introduced than did its chief members claim to be gods themselves. They built their New Jerusalem in the forests of Pangasinan (literally ‘the salt lands’), and its singular honor was that, like the earthly Jerusalem, it, too, held the ‘grave of a god’ to borrow a phrase from Nick Joaquin, who wrote about the Guard. And there are still many more who would arise to claim they were gods, too many to list or even remember. They also brought with them a heady mixture of fear and hope: fear, at least to those who propped up the status quo, and hope to those in need of hope.

I had occasion to discuss some of these accounts with a friend, a history major, some time in the past. Like myself, he also had a keen interest in religion, although I would not really describe him as the church-going sort. What is striking about these accounts is how they demonstrate how dangerous the memory of the Christ is—not just the historical Jesus, but the divine Christ especially. If the goal of all history is to ‘collapse’ itself onto God, then the memory of Our Lord—what He said, what He did, whom He condemned and did not—seems as if it tends naturally to the concept of liberation. Historical exigences which usually 'demanded' the arrival of a Messiah figure were always situations of extreme unrest, as if a supernatural impulse impelled everyone to get it over with as soon as possible. In this case, the ever tightening grip of the Friars, and their growing tendency to equate Catolicismo with Spanish Imperial Power and vice versa, seemed to have prompted the incipience of a call to abandon these spiritual lords. Of course, such a conclusion was unsatisfactory to me, and I reasoned that the idea of the Christ cannot be compartmentalized into a simple corrective of history, as mere ethics.

The various Christs who sprung up all across the Philippine archipelago, half dazed and half mystified, were all possessed of the idea of an impending, imminent ‘renewal’, a rekindled ardor of the spirit, which would lead to the total and radical transformation of the people. In that sense, I suppose that the danger here lies in ‘being left behind’,  for lack of a better phrase, and in failing to heed the prophetic signs of the new, impending social order. These Christs were sent from heaven to inaugurate a new history, a new social order, that of peace and total communism that went beyond purely materialistic considerations. Kalayaan, then, would be akin to a return to the ‘primal dawn’ of Genesis, where bliss reigned and the divine presence was actively perceived in everything. It is fitting, then, that these New Jerusalems would be built in sand or beach or crag or mountain or cave or hill, far away from the bloated (at least, from their point of view), stupored Church and Society (and in Spanish Colonial Philippines, it would be safe to assume that the Church represented Society itself).

It is said that Christianity was born in apocalypse, and rightly so, does it also find its fulfillment in apocalypse. Perhaps what I’m trying to say here is simply that there are various ‘textures’ into Catholicism, infinite weights of truth, even, that terms like ‘orthodoxy’ or even ‘folk Catholicism’ can never capture. The Church is wide, straddling the limits of several continents, and as it is vertically inclined, so too does it also have a lateral orientation. I am not saying that orthodoxy is meaningless (and here I must put my foot down on the matter), only that “the Catholic thing” does not lend itself to one simple stream of interpretations. Perhaps it may even come across as threatening; but that just means all is well, and that Christianity is simply being Christianity: the mind-boggling collision between the profane and the sacred.

Friday, February 04, 2011

I Laughed!

Found this on Facebook:

Plugging the Gulf oil leak with the works of Ayn Rand.

The purpose of the group: "A modest proposal for finally putting to good use the writings of the intellectual patroness of wannabe dickheads, professional amateurs, miseducated autodidacts, soi-disant contrarians, aging arrested adolescents, and subliterate cognoscenti."

I remember finding a copy of 'The Fountainhead' lying about the house once, when I was sixteen; I tried reading it, but in all honesty could not finish it. That woman is as abstruse as she is obnoxious. In hindsight, I should have given myself a pat on the back for not finishing that book; God knows I'm too much of a pompous d--khead as it is, and I certainly do not need Ms. Rand's further encouragement of it!

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Under the Shadow of God

The Sto. Niño [de Tondo] image was reported missing on the morning of July 14, 1972, by the assistant parish priest, Fr. Lorenzo Egos, who suggested that the thieves hid in the church when the doors were bolted at 8 p.m. the night before. He suspected someone who had been attending Mass days before and described this character to the police.

Manila’s Finest engaged their informants and three days later a suspect was arrested. Reynio Rivera, 24 years old and jobless, named three companions in the theft. Parts of the image were recovered in separate houses on Balagtas Street, Tondo: the wooden body dumped in a canal near Rivera’s house, the left arm, a silver scepter, a golden cross, and a bronze crown.

On Aug. 2, 1972 the weather improved, the floods subsided and the Sto. Niño de Tondo (or most of its parts) was recovered, presented to President and Mrs. Marcos in Malacañang and brought in procession back to Tondo church.

A thanksgiving Mass was held in Malacañang, with President Marcos reading the Epistle in English and Tagalog, while 2,000 impatient devotees waited outside to escort their patron back to Tondo church. It was described as an an emotional moment. Many were moved to tears even as they were distracted by the beauty of Mrs. Marcos, who was described as a Norma Blancaflor look-a-like.
Source: Flooding and the Sto. Niño de Tondo

The story quoted above recounts the curious tale of the theft of the much revered image of the Santo Nino de Tondo, one of the most venerable icons of the Child in all the Philippines. According to legend, the theft of the sacred image brought about severe rains in the capital, which battered Manila for  a biblical forty days and forty nights. The rains, claim the devotees of the Lord of Tondo, were said to have been the punishment of God for the sacrilege; the devotees of the Nino were adamant, too, that none but the return of the image could appease the divine wrath. The rains were so severe that even the Mayor of Manila, Ramon Bagatsing, called for the return of the much venerated image, and as was quoted above, the Marcoses themselves also joined in the fierce clamor. I have heard the story repeated numerous times, from wide-eyed, pious grandmothers and both veteran and novice devotees of the Child, to have gained the impression that they truly believed it was the Santo Nino who was directly responsible for those floods.

This belief in the seemingly wanton caprice of the numinous is something which seemed to have universally characterized the faith of many Catholics I know who were born before the 1980s. Even today, such belief in the 'arbitrariness' of the divine persists in many rituals and traditions in rural Philippines: I can only think, for example, of San Isidro Labrador, patron saint of farmers and who is feasted with magnificent pomp every year in Lucban, Quezon, where my paternal grandmother was born. According to pious belief, it was necessary to offer the best produce of the land to San Isidro; if this is not done, the saint would be more than capable of unleashing floods to destroy the crops, or on the extreme polar opposite, bring severe, implacable drought. Indeed, many of the legends associated with various icons of the Christ Child carry a hint of the menacing: the Nino of Cebu, for instance, does not like being shipped to different cities, and would always return to Its basilica in Cebu. In the 16th century, the Spanish Augustinians had to chop off the legs of the image because It wandered away too often. And here, of course, we have the tale of the Child who was more than willing to submerge one of the most densely populated areas (if it is not already the most densely populated) under severe rain for the theft of his statue.

Despite this, devotion to the Santo Nino de Tondo remains immeasurably popular in the country, even in his 'kingdom' of Tondo; and on the Feast of Holy Child, held every third of January in the Philippines, it is safe to say that  up to a million worshippers would crowd the hourly Masses and devotions held in the venerable basilica. Perhaps, at this point, I should endeavor to say that, maybe, there is an inner fatalist in all of us. The fatalist cries, "To hell with it! It's in God's hands", or as we say in Tagalog, "Bahala na!" The fatalist is he who essentially lives under the shadow of God, ever under the threat of His immanence and what he might construe to be the caprice of the Deity. Perhaps it is not an overtly Catholic attitude to take, but then again, what is? If I remember my philosophy of religion classes, it was Gerardus van der Leeuw who said that our primary experience of the numinous is sheer, unbridled Power. And because such Power is inconceivable to himself, man's natural recourse is to prostrate himself before this plenipotent Other. I don't think orthodox Catholicism makes enough space to accommodate this so-called latent fear of the Holy, but it is most certainly evident in Folk Catholicism: in the penitential processions, its various feasts and rites and devotions, even in its capricious saints.

Perhaps the trick lies in the realization that the numinous can be capricious and at the same time remain benevolent. Of course, the real question left for us to answer now, is whether we can still return to such a paradigm sans a self-conscious, and ultimately ideologically-driven, isolation. The way I see it, our modern conceptions of God are wholly inadequate to survive the onslaught of meaninglessness that comes with life today; we have no more room for death, terror, and danger. Perhaps, it would be good to remember that God can still strike us dead.