Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Apologia for Fanaticism

"The kiss glows in his heart, but the old man adheres to his idea."
- Ivan to Alyosha, closing the parable of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov

The mammoth crowds have long since dispersed, and normalcy returned to the streets of Manila, but there can be no denying the sheer size and spectacle of the procession that snaked its way, inch by excruciating inch, along the city's mean streets on January 9th. This year's celebration of the Black Nazarene feast was the most riotous, the longest, and arguably the most well attended, in its entire history, with at least eight million choking the already arterial streets of Manila, and lasting a staggering twenty two hours from start to finish over a five kilometer distance.

Here is popular, populist Christianity at its finest:; the sheer number of people who attended this year's traslacion is only made more impressive by the fact that a terror threat was announced no less than by the Philippine president himself on the eve of the feast, which necessitated the placing of Metro Manila on heightened alert, and the deployment of nearly its entire police force-- around fifteen thousand strong-- to patrol Quiapo district, the cholesterol-choked beating heart of Old Manila. That the procession took place despite (in spite?) of the threat only serves as a testament to the unwavering, iron-clad faith of the Nazarene's devotees-- or, as some would have it, the deplorable, excessive, even idolatrous, fanaticism of the 'great Catholic uwashed.'

To the sanitized Christian observer, especially of the more Evangelical sort, it is easy to conclude that the Nazarene's devotees are sliding down the path of spiritual oblivion: such riotous, frenzied action to even just pull the ropes of the burnt statue's carriage, or better, to actually touch the charred face of the Christ, really does come across as akin to worshipping the Golden Calf. They are wild, desperate, and manic; they believe, perhaps wrongly or out of misplaced piety, that a single touch would wipe away a year's worth of soul-staining filth, transferring their guilt, responsibility, and accountability to the Man of Sorrows on the way to Calvary. At the same time, the venue also serves as a locus for their machismo to be ratified; by doing they manliest of devotions-- walking and kneeling barefoot, risking the possibility of being trampled under the weight of millions of wild-eyed and desperate souls-- they earn the mercy and beneficence of Heaven.

It can be said, then, that the devotion to the Black Nazarene has grown bigger, and definitely wilder, than the Church: it has entered the realm of popular culture and folklore, attracting crowds who otherwise might not give a damn about the institutional Church. Go to Quiapo in any Friday, and you will notice the many Muslim traders outside the church who sell calendars, statues, even CDs, related to the burnt Lord of Manila; and on the feast day itself, many of them would even act as marshals to secure the stupefyingly large crowd who come to the church in hope of a miracle, or even just to give thanks for all the benefits and blessings they have received in the course of their lives. The Nazarene is invoked by the pious and the superstitious, the orthodox and the heretic, and called upon by the shaman and the healer to hex, by the priest and the cofrades to bless.

I have stopped trying to rationalize this kind of faith long ago; in the words of the archbishop of Manila, Luis Antonio Tagle, it takes a certain kind of consciousness-- an affinity with problems of the poor and the suffering, whether socio-economic, psychological, or otherwise-- to truly understand how such muscular faith can be maintained over time. At the same time, it is also an effervescent faith, at least for some, as it does not really translate to metanoia. But perhaps this is the point of such devotion: for how can a whole lifetime of sin and alienation from institutional Christianity be overcome,without first playing to the immediate, spiritual needs of the people? "Feed men, and then ask of them virtue!", declares the Grand Inquisitor to a hostaged God-man in The Brothers Karamazov. This is cathartic faith-- purifying, cleansing, and populist-- which otherwise would have no place in official Christianity. It takes someone who has been mired in the muck of destitution, poverty, or sin to realize how badly in need he is of mercy. The Black Nazarene, as an icon, is one with whom many people of such a situation can relate: it is Christ, carrying the Cross, but at the same time serene, back straight with dignity, sorrowful face gazing heavenward, pleading with the Father. Our faith preaches a God who become man-- but not as a divine king, a conquering hero, or an infinitely wise and transcendent sage-- rather, as an ordinary man, the most ordinary and common of men, even: a carpenter.

Here is a god who is, in the words of that heinous song, 'just a slob like one of us.' The devotees of the Nazarene relate to Him easily because, more than their Creator and eventual Judge, He is also their fellow man. In light of such a profound truth, I would think that such prissy, sanitized concerns regarding 'idolatry' ought to shoved into the outer darkness, where it rightfully belongs: for who else but God Himself can rightfully be counted as the First Idolater? Isn't it also fanatical idolatry for God qua God, to actually become flesh and blood and suffer death? Here is the burning kiss of God to His people. There is no sense, no reason, no end to its contemplation, but the effects linger on, at once muscular and effervescent. And without it, perhaps there can be no freedom at all from that endless cycle of destitution.

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