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.

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