Sunday, April 24, 2011

Notes on Holy Week

In a traditionally Catholic country like the Philippines, one simply can't help but be absorbed in the rhythms of the life of the Church. Every Holy Week, the normally ear-splitting boroughs and streets of Manila grind to an astonishing silence: the streets become empty, neighborhoods are deserted, and a noonday silence hangs like a pall over all life. Come Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, all shops are closed: no malls, no supermarkets, no trains, no cinemas, and no rowdy nightlife. The old ways reassert themselves once more, and everyone takes on a somber demeanor: laughing, shouting, smiling, and even bathing is discouraged. The Lord has entered into His Passion; the mysteries of our faith are being established.

To many, such actions seem perhaps a little overdone. Many Filipinos, especially in the rural areas, seem to think of Lent as a time for spectacle: and thus, in a number of provinces, penitents line the streets, faces covered, whipping their backs in atonement for their sins. The flagellation reaches a fever pitch on Good Friday, where it is believed that blood must be shed; many of these men cut their backs with pieces of cut glass, which they then whip with bamboo flails, walking on their knees in the dust and falling flat upon their faces at the appointed times. As someone who went to Catholic school all my life, I was always taught that such actions were to be frowned upon rather than encouraged; Lent, after all, was an occasion for spiritual perfection moreso than such horrendous displays of piety-- if piety it can even be called. To be transformed into the very image of Christ, then, was essentially a spiritual process, born about by the mortification of the will, the mind, and the heart-- and not by making oneself resemble the gruesome, bloodied corpus affixed to the crucifix. In this light, I often had to ask myself if the various Lenten observances we have always observed as a family, then, were merely elaborately designed theater productions, all "sound and fury, signifying nothing"?

For me, the high point of Holy Week was always Maundy Thursday. In the mornings we would usually drive to Batangas, where my dad grew up, in order to attend the pabasa ng pasyon. The pasyon, basically, is the narrative of the Passion of Our Lord as told in verse; it is chanted, usually by a group who have undertaken a vow (panata) to do so, and usually lasts ten to twelve hours; my father tells me, though, that the pabasa lasted a lot longer in his youth, since the tones used were more elaborate. This year we left home at 4.30 in the morning, and after a two hour drive, we were surprised to learn that the passion was already more than halfway through.I met some cousins from Toronto I never knew I had, who were visiting for the summer; then, after the obligatory prayers had been said, it was time for lunch. My aunt, however, had taken a vow which she had made and kept since her teenage years, not to eat anything but bread and water for the entire duration of Holy Week; and while the oppressive heat and humidity were taking their toll on her, no one rebuked her for it.

In the afternoon, we drove back to Manila to fetch the rest of the family for the customary visita iglesia. This tradition involved visiting seven churches to keep vigil with the Lord in repose, a response to the challenge He poses in the Gospel: Non potuistis vigilare una hora Mecum? We were only able to visit six churches, but I would like to focus on just two: the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene (Quiapo church), and the National Shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help (Baclaran church). There is hardly any Filipino who hasn't heard of either church: both have seemingly taken on mythic proportions, and have woven themselves firmly into the folklore of the people. Quiapo is the seat of the Black Nazarene, a miraculous, charred statue of Christ sent to the Philippines from Mexico in the 1600s, and is widely considered the premiere church in Asia. It is a mecca for mystics and sinners alike, orthodox and heretic, pagan and zealot. Baclaran, meanwhile, is home to the much revered icon of the Mother of Perpetual Help; it is likewise a refuge for the weak and the downtrodden, those people whom many would consider the dregs of society. A joke even goes that Baclaran is a haunt for prostitutes, who walk on bended knee to the icon of Our Lady in the hopes of snagging a good catch for the night.

I have already written about both churches in the past, but entering them for the first time that Maundy Thursday night was nothing short of a revelation for me. Quiapo and Baclaran, I think, are the only churches in the entire Philippines where a veiled hermana with arms spread crosswise can walk on her knees next to a transvestite in a little black dress, and not tear each other's hair apart.I say this not so much as to jest, but to state an honest observation. Entering the home of the Black Nazarene for the first time was an experience that I could honestly describe as nothing short of numinous, perhaps even cosmic. Seeing the much revered statue shrouded in violet cloth, while all around worshippers milled and thronged in devoutly cacophonous adoration, while in the background the melismatic tones of the pasyon were resounding, was like seeing the entirety of the Christ-event unfold before my very eyes. Here are the people of God, in all the searing nakedness of their sin, whom He has won with His blood. And in that moment, one understands, albeit as if in a flash of intuition, why He died, and why He had to die so horribly-- so as to blot out the equally horrendous accumulation of filth that we acquire through our sin. To be a priest in Quiapo is serious business: it is said that a bucket is a necessity in all of the confessionals, because the sins being confessed there have a very real, very nauseating effect. Likewise, Baclaran simply assaulted the senses with a barrage of sights and sensations seemingly so diametrically opposed, but which strangely complement each other so well. The sidewalks that led to the church were lined with dozens of homeless men-- even an entire family-- sleeping on the cold asphalt.  Behind us was a group of kids, who were probably not yet out of high school, cursing loudly as they made their way to the church. "Let's find a whore after we visit the church", said one, much to the consternation of the more devout pilgrims.

I suppose this is what most people who do Lent "right" point to when they say that our Lenten observances are more concerned with the externalization of what is  rightfully an internal process, or the erection of a stage or facade of piety. Then again, I am always suspicious of people who think of religion as a mere, albeit "magical" means to attaining respectability. In another post, I mentioned that a fundamental ingredient to conversion is the acceptance-- however unwillingly or painfully-- of the cosmos of religion. But this is not a cosmos devoid of creation, but one suffused with life, even a deafening and crushing surplus of it. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the universe of the religious man is one in which there is no differentiation of the spiritual and the material; hence, religion is a matter of "finding one's place" in the grand scheme of things. In Catholicism, awareness of one's sinfulness is the first step to redemption. There is something about the explicitly visceral nature of the flagellants' vow that conveys that awareness so much more effectively than any re-reading of the Catechism ever can, regardless of the motivations of the penitents. One can gripe about the seasonal or "put-on" nature of these people all he can, and point to the fact that there has been no fundamental change in the way one lives his life; but inconsistencies such as these have always been the norm for humanity, ever since Adam and Eve ate from the tree. It would be nothing short of delusional to think that the process of self-perfection can be reduced into a simple project, more akin to self-help than any metaphysical transformation in Christ.

Sometimes, it is necessary to be sinful in order to know just exactly what we are being saved from. I suppose this is a realization that has come too late, or one which I often conveniently forget in the place of a self-imposed, militantly rigoristic insistence on angelic perfection. Were all the history of the world an elaborately and meticulously designed stage by God, then perhaps we would be permitted to think that it is our place to "act" in such a way that would make the supreme and the only worthwhile Deus ex machina of Christ's Paschal Mystery shine out in all its dread majesty and splendor. The world is a stage; those who would seek to dismantle its artifices unwittingly also work to reduce the poetry and romance of His Passion into a simple matter of ethics and precepts. I can think of no sadder future for Christianity than one that delights in the cold, sterile light of merely respectable living.