Sunday, March 27, 2011

A One Trick Pony

I am writing this under an appreciable mental strain, brought about by a surplus of graduation-induced rejoicing; at the moment, it is 6.15 in the morning, and the sun has barely risen; outside, the cock crows have just started, and the birdsong is still light and cheerful. There is something very spiritual about the scene; the half-grey light slowly being overwhelmed by the sun's warm, golden rays, with naught but the witness of a few animals outside to hail the coming of the dawn. Inklings to the spiritual life tend, as of late, to manifest themselves to me in such silences; but there was a time, too, when I associated silence with the deathly cold of the tomb.

The environment I grew up in can best be described as apocalyptic. Though I was born and raised Catholic, the earliest memories I have of religion involved the conversion of the maternal side of my family into Born Again Protestantism. Weekly lunches would often be transformed into lengthy debates about Biblical things; I remember the word "Actually" being bandied about a lot, and henceforth, I would associate that word with a kind of blessed smugness-- as if he who used that word were already "in the know", as it were. There too was the image of an aunt, huddled and kneeling near her closet, eyes firmly shut in mystical contemplation of the hidden truths of God; she was fasting, she said. And lastly, there is the image of yet another aunt, falling down on the floor after being "slain in the Spirit" by a frenetic pastor, then afterwards bursting in tears, where in joy or as a result of a concussion, I do not know. By the time I was in first grade, almost all of my aunts on my mother's side had completed the transition to Protestantism; today, I often find it funny how their political convictions run the gamut from almost libertarian, to batshit crazy conspiracy theories; yet they still somehow insist that theirs is a "universal faith".

The first experience I could truly call "spiritual" happened just after my third birthday. One of the neighbors had given me a plastic bag full of "tex"-- trading cards, usually with images of anime characters or Marvel/DC superheroes, measuring some 3 by 2 inches. The game was simple: you placed a card on the thumb, and then you flick it to the ground. The one whose tex landed face up would win the other's cards. I received probably twenty five of them in total, all of them still crisp and not worn along the edges. Most of them had prints from the X-Men Animated Series (a wonderful cartoon, by the way) or Son Goku (of Dragonball Z fame) in Super Saiyajin Mode. After I had devoured my share of my cake, I took the tex to the living room, and proudly showed them off to family. But an aunt had seen the pagan images on the cards, and brought me to her room. She told me that these cards were tools of the Devil to draw me away from God.; that, if I were to truly love Him and serve Him, I would get rid of them at the soonest possible time. Moved, I promised to God and my aunt that I would not stray away from Him: and, under her watchful eye, I began to tear them up one by one. When I had finished the deed, I went back to the living room as if nothing had happened; I later proudly announced to the neighbor boy that I had gotten rid of his evil presents. I think that was the last time we had guests other than family come to one of my birthday parties.

While stories of extreme self-abnegation often figure in the classics of Christian spiritual literature, one characteristic which could be said of these stories is the presence of a delightful synergy between God and man. There was nothing forced or contrived in them, but on the contrary, were even born out of what one might call a supernaturally inspired spontaneity. In contrast, and in hindsight, I realize that much of the abnegation I experienced as a younger boy were often committed out of a hidden, but very real fear: it is the fear that one would not measure up to an idolized angelic standard. There was an almost masturbatory obsession and neurosis with how I was often expected to act. I was taught that having crushes on girls at a young age was sinful; that to dance the Macarena was sinful (I was in second grade!); that to even listen to love songs was sinful, because only God can be the object of love, and all other loves are depraved and polluting of oneself. Mortification thus became a way to assure oneself of his righteousness, the diametrical opposite of the word. I thus developed a "one trick pony" kind of spirituality, one that seemed to focus exclusively in reminding myself that I am nothing: that I was an incorrigible monster, and that all my actions would somehow ineluctably lead to failure if I failed to keep God in mind.

I readily admit that one of my worst vices is jealousy. I can easily harbor grudges against people whom I perceive to be better than me-- who excel more than I in academics, in piety, or indeed any and all other categories. There is that drive-- an almost aggressive desire for cold-blooded schadenfreude-- that has always lurked within me that waits to pounce at any opportunity it can latch itself onto. Most of the time it fails; but when it does succeed, when my ego has been succored sufficiently by the losses of my "enemies", I realize how much of a monster I can become. Like Cronus devouring his sons, my ambition and desire for recognition can get the better of me, leading me to choke and eventually vomit. But there is also a realization that this can only happen because I have made spiritual bulimia into an idol: a daunting, immutable, universal standard, wherein hatred of the self is deemed an exemplary virtue, and sin was almost looked upon as the natural state of man. Call it Jansenism or Puritanism if you want; I am not entirely sure if it can be called either. But I am now convinced that I once held sourness as the very odor of sanctity itself, and scornful rigorism, which masked itself as piety, ruled all my actions. To be sure, mortification is needed for the growth and maturity of one's spiritual life; but what must be remembered here, I think, is that one's spiritual life is not a thing divorced from his daily life; the former informs the latter, and the latter mirrors the former. To be bound and shackled to a sickening, depraved angelism-- to exalt the grotesqueness and corruption and boils and festering wounds of the body-- is to turn God into a titanic, cosmic asshole and sadist-- and such a thought can only bode badly for the future.

It may seem ironic coming from one who has always been fascinated with some of the (admittedly) darker aspects of faith; I have written so much about flagellation and other bloody forms of penitence in the past that it may already seem as if I thought of them as necessities. To be honest, not all who undergo such feats necessarily end up having deeper, spiritual roots. But I am always amazed at the remarkable freedom with which they choose to make their pledges. It is said that a panata-- the sacred vow between God and penitent-- must be honored for as long as the penitent has sworn to do so. Still, others (mostly their sons or next of kin) choose to continue the devotion in thanksgiving. Much like the Latin lex talionis, the Filipino word ganti can mean either to take vengeance, or to reward with a gift. The supernatural laws of obligation still remain inscrutable mysteries to me; but there is always that faint, discernible trace of freedom in them that makes the artificiality of this contrived angelism more evident, more incomprehensible.

This is something which I still need to deal with. For a very long time now, that gigantic chip has been burying itself so deeply into my shoulder that to excise it would cause a lot of pain. But such a warped view of the spiritual life is a malignant tumor which needs to be attended to before it metastasizes into something that can no longer be controlled, and I end up becoming a spiritual pervert-- for whom joyless sadomasochism is the very pinnacle of perfection.


Rita said...

Linking some of your recent posts together, I'd possibly argue that you've hit upon the reason why wholesale export of the Baroque to tropical climates is a mixed blessing. Deprived of lots of dry, clear air (fresh from the Alps), there are too many rich dark fabrics,too many dark and sensual corners, and too many figures to become clouded and covered with mildew (metaphorically and literally).

If the Catholic heart is not Gothic and soaring heavenward with single minded determination, then maybe there are terrors to be found lurking amongst the putti.

Archistrategos said...

I thought about that too, especially since it has been especially humid here lately. Then again, Christianity's origins lie very much in the hot, arid, parched lands of the Near East, certainly a far cry from the Alps! (Though admittedly, deserts get very cold at night)

I do wonder, though. Christianity places man at the center of a grand cosmic struggle, with warring, opposing forces at either end. Faith assures us though that the struggle will eventually resolve itself-- indeed, already has-- in the victory of God. But we cannot perceive the way (or more accurately, when) in which God will bring about this resolution, and for the moment, we are as if tossed about by a seemingly invincible evil.

In that sense, Christianity seems like it was built for the stage. Perhaps our roles demand the assumption of a strict mise en scene-- acting out the terrors of evil, while all the while waiting for the "true" Deus ex machina to save the day, with absolute finality.