Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Adios, Reina del Cielo!

May is the month of Mary, and in the Philippines May is always a month of fervent activity and prayer. In Antipolo, pilgrims from all across the land make their way on foot, to venerate the image of Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage. The pilgrimage is an ancient one, attended by both pleb and patrician; it was, and still is, customary to walk all the way to that hallowed shrine, and during Holy Week the number of pilgrims can swell up to nearly a million, with hundreds of thousands arriving on Good Friday alone. The Santacruzan is another popular tradition, which is a pageant commemorating the finding of the True Cross by St. Helena; she is often escorted by a young boy in a faux ermine cape and crown, Constantine. This is a tradition is still observed religiously in every part of the country, though variations in local practice do occur, some more... "Creative" than others (prompting the Archbishop of Manila, HE Cardinal Rosales, to state outright that transvestites were not to play the role of St. Helena under any condition).

That being said, I most associate May with a hymn, sung in farewell to the Blessed Virgin. Since the month has already come to a close, I thought I would post this video. The "despedida" is a hymn common to practically all of the former colonies of the Spanish Empire, which speaks volumes of the depths of Marian devotion extant therein. MY favorite despedida is the one in honor of Nuestra Senora de la Santissimo Rosario de la Naval, which is posted above-- once called the "gran senora" of the Philippines, no doubt for the extravagance of her jewels and the great role she is said to have played in securing the Philippines from the Dutch and the British-- and therefore, keeping her Catholic to this day. From the video:

The Despedida a la Virgen, said Nick Joaquin, was probably the greatest religious song of Old Manila, and was composed by a certain P. Hernandez centuries ago.

Recently arranged by the late Maestro Lucio D. San Pedro, it was sung in the old days by the Tiples de Santo Domingo in public only for 10 consecutive days in a year, that is during the Novenario and the Fiesta of La Naval de Manila in October. Their rendition of this haunting song is unmatched to this very day...

One unique feature when the Despedida is sung, when the tiples come to the part "dame tu bendición, Madre del Salvador!" the entire congregation kneels as the main celebrant incenses the Virgin.. It brings to mind the practice in the old days when the Santo Rosario is triumphantly brought out in procession on the streets of Intramuros, the people would kneel down in homage to La Gran Señora de Filipinas and stand up only until her cortege has passed by them.

In the old days too, when the coro de tiple reaches the last lines "madre amorosa prenda de amor..." the heavy curtains on the central niche of the main retablo in the old Santo Domingo would roll down to cover the Santo Rosario from view until the next day.. Until recently, this practice was continued in the new Santo Domingo..

For the Dominican missionaries however, it was more than just a religious song for the novena in October. It was the song of farewell that they sing to the Virgin before they leave for the missions, of which a number of them are never to return alive or would die as martyrs for the Faith.

"permiteme que vuelva tus plantas a besar.." - the Despedida was a prayer of entrusting, a prayer of hope, and a prayer of love, a fervent wish to be able to return again to her throne and to kiss her feet..

So guys, especially those devoted to the Santo Rosario, learn to this song by heart or at least try to understand its meaning. So that when we sing it to her this October, whether from memory or holding and reading our copies, we can sing it with our heart. The Despedida a la Virgen is the most meaningful and sweetest song of La Naval tradition..

We are indeed lucky that the move then to have it translated and sung in Tagalog did not pushed through lest we lose the poetry and the lyrical quality that goes with the song which is not achieve when a translation of a song is made.. You may get the tune right but the original thought suffers in the process..

As Providence would have it, we are still singing the same song to the Santo Rosario in the same way that San Francisco Fernández de Capillas and his companion martyrs, San Lorenzo Ruiz de Manila and his companion mayrtrs, San Vicente Liem de la Paz and his companion martyrs sang it in front of the very same image, yes, in front of the Santo Rosario, inside the Church of Santo Domingo, then in Intramuros!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Real Flesh Indeed

Recently I had the chance to visit the university town of Freiburg, in Badem-Wurrtemburg, Germany, where I visited its beautiful cathedral and walked for a bit in the same campus where Heidegger, Karl Rahner, and Husserl once brooded. It's a charming city, much nearer to Switzerland than I had anticipated (it's the next train stop after Basel), and the air was very fresh, and the weather, sunny. I was told beforehand that Freiburg was once-- and still is-- a bastion of Catholic conservatism. Indeed, at the Freiburg Hauptbanhof, what should I find, but a rather large poster promoting the devotion to the Divine Mercy? The cathedral portals were all also inscribed with the traditional Epiphany blessing (20+C+M+B+11), as were most of the shops in and around the main plaza.

A rather curious implement caught my eye whilst at the cathedral, pictured above. To the right of the sanctuary, in a little alcove near the northern portal, I saw an effigy of the Dead Christ, cast in stone, being mourned by His Mother and Saint John (or so I seem to remember-- I wasn't able to observe at length). Attached to the chest of the stone Christ was a latch, with a handle, which presumably opened up to a small hole. My step uncle Bernhard, who had been touring us that afternoon, and himself a lapsed Catholic, told us that, apparently, it was the practice long ago to repose the Blessed Sacrament inside the chest of the Dead Christ on Good Friday. However, before I continue, a disclaimer: I confess that my German is very poor and probably closer to non-existent, and Uncle Bernhard's English is also at the subsistence level. Be that as it may, I do remember him mentioning the word "sacrament" and gesturing, in pantomime, at the chest of the Dead Christ. This was for me, something totally new, and fascinating: for the symbolism of such an act seems to suggest, if very crudely, an identification of the Sacrament with the dead body of Christ.

As I have mentioned before in the past, I am no theologian, and I am content to leave all theological wrangling to theologians-- that is to say, the "real ones" who actually have a prayer life and are not just academic mercenaries. But permit me this small reflection, since it has been percolating in my head for quite some time now. In Catholic school I was always taught the basics about the Holy Eucharist-- that it is the Real Presence of Christ, that, in receiving Holy Communion, one received the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord in their fullness, undiminished and unmitigated by the deficiencies of the sacramental matter (that is to say, God condescends to transform bread and wine into His presence, no matter how unworthy they may seem). The great miracle of transubstantiation is also its greatest puzzle: that God would debase Himself to come under the guise of such insignificant material objects; and therefore, the Holy Eucharist was to be worthy of the highest adoration from the People of God.

I confess that, when I first heard of the word "transubstantiation", I was both utterly amazed, and a bit repulsed, by what it meant. In hindsight I realize now that this stemmed from an initial confoundment as to what the term "substance" really meant. My initial thought as a sixth grade student was that it pertained, first of all, to a stratum of chemical change: in the Mass, bread and wine become chemically composed of the divinity of Christ, and so sensate an understanding led me to think further of this chemical change as essentially a transmutation of the properties of the sacramental material into the very flesh of the God-Man. I reasoned that, since God was Almighty anyway, He had a way of "replenishing" His flesh whenever it was diminished in Holy Communion; and later, that no diminution can even take place, because God qua God simply cannot be diminished, on account of His being All-powerful. Any first year philosophy student can immediately tell you, though, that substance and flesh, or even the quality of "fleshliness", are not equivalent. But of course, in everyday parlance, the word substance loses a lot of its philosophical baggage; for substance is not so much a material, quantifiable (i.e., measurable, rationalizable) quality so much as a "definition" for lack of a better term. I always get a laugh when society papers in the Philippines uses the phrase woman or man "of substance" as a discreet euphemism for what is undoubtedly a portly society don or doyenne.

This, of course, seems to be lost on many Catholics: our popular pieties and theologies about the Holy Eucharist seem to be defined, primarily, by a very sensate understanding of it. The Miracle of Lanciano illustrates this perfectly: a priest whose faith in the Mystery of Faith is at an all-time low is flabbergasted, when, as he raises the Host after the Consecration, the bread he has previously held in his hands is suddenly changed into a bleeding piece of raw meat: Corpus et Sanguis Domini Nostri Jesu Christi, in the flesh. The flesh is myocardium, which is to say, of the heart, and the blood type AA-, which is to say, exceedingly rare, and kingly. For Protestants, this tradition of a very sensate, very tactile understanding of the Holy Eucharist seems to confirm their worst suspicions about Catholics, about how we are pagan God-eaters who would rather see their Savior stuck and bleeding on the Cross in every Mass.

The late scholar of comparative mythology, Joseph Campbell, once compared the occult to an underlying unity the persists, perdures, underneath the veil of time: that, beneath the seeming progression of history, there is an image of a sort of universal truth that exists in a mythological plane, wherein all the threads of time are seemingly held. Catholics, of course, traditionally believed that the Mass was not just a representation of Calvary: to be at Mass is literally to be at Calvary itself, at the foot of the Cross, weeping with the holy women of Jerusalem and all the angels in the celestial choirs. Thus, it would seem as if the logical conclusion of such an understanding of the Mass would naturally result in a conception of the Holy Eucharist as the very meat of the God-Man's flesh, and reception of it as the consumption of real meat indeed. Like an ancient Chieftain being readied for the ritual consumption of his tribe, I would venture to say that there might have been an understanding of the Crucifixion as some sort of elaborate "cooking ritual"-- to tenderize, as it were, the holy flesh.

I daresay that I am already venturing into unfamiliar territory here, but at this point I would also like to add that Ourd Lord's language in the Gospel of John doesn't help in the debate, either. Not for naught did He scandalize His Jewish audience when He said: "My flesh is meat indeed, My blood is drink indeed"-- for certainly the Jews would have immediately hearkened back to their strict dietary laws, and where I could only imagine that such a notion would have been so taboo and too insalubrious to contemplate, that even a mention of it warranted no attention. Again, I am no expert on the subject, but I do remember one priest saying at Mass once, that the Greek verb used for that section of the Johannine Gospel ("Unless you eat my flesh...") implied a blunt, chewing action-- not a merely spiritual consumption of the Word of God, but an actual rending and tearing of something physical-- something substantial, in other words.

While theophagia has been a feature of numberless mythologies in history, I am almost certain that Christianity was the first to have devoted so much time and energy in clarifying its teaching(s) on the Eucharist. We receive the fullness of God-- corpus, sanguis, animus, et divinitas-- under the appearance of bread and wine, and yet we also do not receive the infinity of His fullness (and therefore, not God per se, for God, being eternal and absolute, is simply inexhaustible)-- for God, after all, is eternal, all-powerful, and not diminishable: it is a corollary of His absolute simplicity that He is also irreducible. At the same time, we--our senses-- understand the bread and wine to be the symbol of His flesh, inasmuch as we recognize the presence of the divine under the purely sensate stratum. But to speak of the bread and wine post Consecration as still symbols would also be a mistake, as these are no longer bread and wine, despite what they taste, smell, or look like: the symbol has itself become its sense and reference. There is something almost asymptotic about the matter and form, wherein both tend towards the same point, but never really completely meet-- at least, in the infinite sense. The language of the Church, however, is adamant in equating what we receive in Holy Communion with Jesus Christ Himself, and it suffices for me to believe that; no point, after all, deciphering the mechanics of miracles.

I always like to thank that, as the priest raises the Host, and is it meets, eye to eye, as it were, with the image of the Crucified, a literal fusion of horizons occurs: the veil of time is rent, and the foundation of the world--its past, present, and future-- is revealed in the singular event of the killing of the God-Man by the hands of His own creation. Time is dissolved and subsumed in the age of mythology that Campbell describes. The bread becomes the image of the Crucified-- or rather, the fiction of bread and wine, as well as the walls and altars of the church-- are revealed to be "participants" in an age that has never ended-- but which, on the contrary, has always gone on, hidden, and untrammeled by profane reality. The bread has never been bread; and in the consecration, it is revealed to be what it has always been, what it is, and what it will always be: the Body of Christ, and the entirety of the Christ-event: from the Annunciation, to His Birth, right down to His Passion and Death-- and yes, the Resurrection, too. Mayhap one can even throw in the Ascension, for certainly, that event was a pledge of the glory that awaits man, and the Second Coming, where the triumph of goodness would reach its final, irrevocable completion-- and in our lives, this is understood as a total transformation into the image of Christ, Crucified and Risen-- and therefore Divine. If, perhaps, I am approaching ambiguity at this point, then I should smile, since, as everyone knows, confoundment is the beginning of wisdom (no doubt, one would be so confounded when faced with his Maker, or even the mysteries and wonders of his Maker).

As with any mystery pertaining to the holy, the Holy Eucharist is an especially perplexing one to ponder. But perhaps the proper attitude to the holy is not so much one of scrutiny, categorization, and codification. Rather, I am starting to believe that to "mingle" with the holy is to realize the utter falsehood of the sensate and the immediate: that the primary task of the servant of the gods is to sense what cannot be sensed, and to immerse themselves in it completely. It is to be subsumed in the world of gods and monsters, heroes and conquerors, where bread is bread, even though it has never really been bread, and there was never "bread" to begin with.

Blessed are they who believe but have not seen - John 20:29

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Quick Update

So I am in Luxembourg at the moment, on a totally unplanned leg of a long-delayed summer vacation. My aunt, who had been living in Germany for some years now, decided to surprise us with a trip here; and who were we to refuse? It is an enchanted place, mountainous, romantic, and yes, full of nuns who go out in public wearing veils. In many ways, I guess it represents the 'primordial' icon I've always had of Europe-- that of an almost rural tranquility colliding head on with the comforts of the modern world. As I type, I'm enjoying a pint of Ben & Jerry's Chocolate Fudge Brownie (price is the same as in Manila, unfortunately) and listening to some German grandmothers argue about their next trek. And since this is a Youth Hostel, one can never be rid of the presence of half-drunk backpackers, who number less than they did in Zurich, at least.

A very strange realization hit me on the way to Luxembourg from Germany. I don't know why or how, but during the almost six hour train ride from Stuttgart to Luxembourg (with a few added delays, including a missed train), I came to the conclusion that life had become... too convenient. Perhaps "convenience" isn't even the right word, so much as "too friendly" or "too accessible." This is not to say, of course, that I am one to decry the various developments, technological or otherwise (but with special regard to the former), that have sprung up in the last few decades. Certainly, no one wants to come back to a time when traveling was limited to the very rich, or when intercontinental transportation cost more than an arm and a leg and took forever to accomplish; only that there has come to be a very "Cartesian" mentality that we now apply to everything. For better or worse, the world has lost much of its menace; one no longer fears to travel at night, in fear of the elemental terrors that lurk behind every shadow; and we are no longer so obliged to honor the coming of the day by worshipping at the crack of dawn (an innovation for which I am at once annoyed, and also extremely grateful).

I am not saying this to sound like some overzealous travel "purist"; nor am I saying it to purposefully come off as a grouchy, unsatisfiable lout. I think, though, that I have come onto a crossroads of sorts, marked by that staggering moment of realization that the world-- my world-- has inevitably changed. Again, I am not sure how or even why, but all I know is that with it comes an admission of the finality of these changes. It is almost as if I am finding myself saying, "This is you; deal with it." If I am being ambiguous at this point, then perhaps I am moving closer to what I want to say, which, to be honest, still appears to my imagination in fragments, and not as an easily manipulable whole. I will admit, though, that in the last couple of weeks, perhaps stretching even back to March, I've been struggling a lot with a certain personal issue that could fundamentally alter many things I've always come to hold dear. But now isn't really the time (yet) to talk about that. Perhaps in the future.

Anyway, this post was not really meant to be of special importance. It is really beautiful outside, even at this time, (which is why it took me almost three hours to type this!), and the people are all tall, blond, and gorgeous (a fact which my mom keeps reminding my sister-- "When you get married, get married to a German, so you'll have tall and beautiful and possibly blond kids and improve our race"-- I dunno what to think anymore). So I shall sign off, and hie away to socialize and maybe even flirt a little.

Monday, May 02, 2011

La Muerte!

Don't worry, I haven't forgotten that it's already Easter. Rejoice! He is truly risen and has conquered death. But the following images were just too intriguing for me to let them pass unnoticed. Traditionally, the processions of Good Friday in the Philippines are heralded by a statue of Saint Peter. The reasoning for this is simple: since Saint Peter is the keeper of the Keys of Heaven, it follows that he, too, is in charge of unlocking the pearly gates in order for the celestial procession to "pass through" earth. With Saint Peter is his infamous cock, standing on a pillar, who heralds the ominous coming of the day when "God died." In some regions, though, it is Death that leads the procession. Nowhere does this practice seem to be more prevalent than in the Bicol region, one of the most Catholic provinces in the country.

Unlike Santa Muerte in Mexico, the image of Death isn't really known by any specific name. Some call him La Muerte, San La Muerte, or even simply as Kamatayan, the Filipino word for death. Kamatayan is male, unlike his female Mexican counterpart. He is dressed almost like a bishop, with a black mitre, a cope, and he even holds his scythe much like a bishop holds his crozier. Since Kamatayan is no saint, his carriage is very minimally decorated (at least ideally); in some cases, he is simply borne on the back of a flatbed truck or a similar vehicle. Kamatayan processes as part of the Good Friday rites to demonstrate the seeming invincibility of Christ's defeat, of the futility of His mission. Like a specter which haunts the damned and the guilty, he is a reminder of man's sinfulness and articulates, quite well, the terror of that day when Christ died. Most of the pictures I've selected are from the Bicol region, specifically from the province of Camarines Norte. By far the most spectacular one I've seen, though, is the one from Carcar in Cebu: its skill and hands and feet were all carved from ivory, and the statue is dressed much like a king, complete with a golden crown. You can read more about the Carcar Kamatayan here: Langyaw.com