Tuesday, January 31, 2012


I've begun to attend Mass at seven in the morning recently. The chapel is made up mostly of transients-- white collar types and retirees and the occasional expatriates. Earlier this morning I noticed a lady dressed in a white blouse, a long black skirt, and who clasped a glittering rosary in stunning black. This lady was obviously rapt in prayer; she remained kneeling for what seemed like a good forty five minutes, spending the sorrowful mysteries and the novena to St. Anthony of Padua intently. Near her, an expatriate-- an elderly Englishman-- sat with his head bowed perpetually towards the altar. He didn't finish the rosary and left three mysteries in.

I always enjoy seeing people in prayer. For me, it has, and is, always where they are most naked, perhaps even more naked than nakedness itself. A man's prayer is the innermost recesses of his soul made bare and splayed before the throne of God. But unlike Adam and Eve's nakedness, prayer 'reveals', exposes a glimpse of our true selves: free from the binding of any mask of false propriety or unmitigated pride before God. Nothing stands in between God and creature; even shame is wiped away by humility. To pray, fundamentally, is to acknowledge that one is not alone: that one is subject to the gaze of an Other, and in a very religious sense, its beneficence.

I felt a tap on my shoulder and heard a gentleman's voice ask me, "Anong mystery na ba tayo?" Which mystery are we on already? I shrugged, a bit embarrassed. I obviously wasn't paying enough attention to my prayers. It was the third sorrowful mystery-- the crowning of Our Lord with thorns.

Perhaps it was God's way of telling me that I need to bare myself a little more. Nothing is ever quite annoying, really, as false modesty.

Church vs State in 17th Century Manila

I've written about this incident before in the past, but it remains one of the most intriguing and colorful in the entire history of the Philippines under Spanish rule, certainly one of the most scandalous as far as Church-state relations go. Sometimes there is a tendency among many Catholics especially of the traditionalist bent to idealize even confessional states as immaculately of the same mind as the Church; this conflict between Sebastian Hurtado de Corcuera, then governor general of the Philippines, and its archbishop, Fernando Guerrero, however, immediately puts that myth to rest. The archbishop who repelled armed soldiers with the Blessed Sacrament-- you just don't see that every day!

Governor vs bishop in 1636

By Ambeth Ocampo
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 00:13:00 10/22/2010

DO WE sometimes mistake the conflict between individuals for something bigger? In 1636, the governor-general, Sebastian Hurtado de Corcuera, ordered the archbishop of Manila, Hernando de Guerrero, arrested and banished to Mariveles. While there were unresolved issues of jurisdiction and privilege that led to this state of affairs, was this really a conflict between Church and State or simply personal enmity between Don Sebastian and Padre Hernando? The fascinating part of the story is how the bishop stayed his arrest without an army, and without arms or ammunition. He kept the arresting officers at bay with a piece of unleavened bread. When the governors troops stormed the archbishop?s palace in Intramuros they found Guerrero in full regalia holding a monstrance with the Blessed Sacrament.

The exciting events of May 1636 began with the bishop declaring an interdict on Manila all churches were closed and all sacraments were denied the faithful. The governor requested, in writing, that the interdict be lifted so life in the distinguished and ever loyal city would return to normal. Guerrero sought the advice of the superiors of the different religious orders and all but the Jesuits agreed on keeping the interdict. When the governor ordered the Cathedral surrounded by soldiers, a host was sent for and carried to the bishop in a lunette from the Franciscan convent. This was then placed in the hands of the bishop who was described as "bathed in tears. Messengers called on the governor, warning him of more ecclesiastical censures if he proceeded with the banishment of the bishop. While the bishop's letter was being read, the governor ordered soldiers to extinguish the candles being used by the messengers. This was done with the wave of a hat.

Unable to execute the arrest order because the bishop was holding the Blessed Sacrament and was surrounded by representatives of all the religious orders (except the Jesuits), a constable was ordered by the governor to ask the religious to return to their convents and to arrest the bishop as soon as he released the Blessed Sacrament. Naturally, the priests and religious around the bishop refused to leave; some assisted the bishop, ?relieving him at times by easing him of the weight of the lunette, by placing their hands on those of the tired old man, whose eyes were turned into two fountains of tears when he reflected on the acts of desecration that they were practicing on the Supreme Lord.

Growing impatient, the governor went to the archbishops palace in the middle of the night and, seated by the door, ordered all the priests around the bishop to be physically removed, by force if necessary. When the soldiers refused to comply, they were beaten with fists and the flat of their swords. Thus some of the priests and religious, taking pity on them, allowed themselves to be seized and carried outside. Those who resisted were pushed and hit by soldiers who begged their pardon, saying they were under orders. As the religious were torn away from the bishop, the monstrance fell and the lunette broke. There was a gasp and silence. Lightning did not strike. The monstrance was returned to the bishop, with a strap attached to keep it in place.

To come to the bishop?s aid, the religious organized and attempted to go to the palace in a procession supposedly to take hold of the Blessed Sacrament, but they were not allowed to pass. Soldiers were stationed on all streets leading to the palace, and the religious were forced to return to their convents. Back in the palace the governor ordered a soldier, Juan de Santa Ana, to push the hand of the bishop. He refused and ?answered boldly that he would kill himself before he would commit such an act of sacrilege. Then drawing his sword, and placing the point (on) his breast, he fell upon it. By the permission of Divine Providence, the sword doubled up in such a manner that when the soldier fell upon it, he was not wounded at all. That incident caused great surprise to all the bystanders; but the governor was so little moved by it that he ordered the soldier to be arrested.

At 1 a.m., the thirsty bishop asked for water. The governor refused him food and drink. Armed soldiers were stationed around the bishop and the vigil continued. A Franciscan, on the pretext of tightening the strap that kept the monstrance in place, applied wet cloth on the bishop?s parched lips. This was the only nourishment he got for a day and a half. At dawn of May 10, 1636, the exhausted bishop released the Blessed Sacrament, took off his pontifical robes and was arrested by an adjutant and 50 armed soldiers. This was a bit of an overkill considering that the bishop was a tired old man of 60 years. He was led on foot toward the Pasig where a boat was waiting to take him to Mariveles. Before boarding the ?champan? the bishop, following the Gospel, shook the dust from his shoes, picked up five little stones and threw these at the ?ingrate walls of Manila.? One of these pebbles hit Don Pedro de Corcuera (sargento-mayor) on the leg. Later, it is said, in a battle in Jolo he was hit by a cannon ball on the same spot and died. This is but one of many other engaging episodes in the unwritten history of the Philippines in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Undressing the Santo Nino

The other great feast of January here in the Philippines is that of the Santo Nino de Cebu, which is held on the third Sunday of the month. According to legend, Fernao de Magalhaes-- otherwise known as Ferdinand Magellan-- gave to the newly-baptized queen of Cebu (who had received the name 'Juana') a small statue of the Child Jesus, who had been mesmerized by Magellan's tiny companion. The image was probably carved in Flanders, but sailed with Magellan's motley crew of Spaniards, Portuguese, and Italians-- and yes, even one boy from the Moluccas, Enrique. Magellan would later be killed, and the conquistadores went back to Spain, but the Nino endured, and was worshipped as a powerful rain god by the Cebuanos.

Forty four years later, in 1565, Miguel Lopez de Legaspi would return to Cebu, and there he would chance again upon Magellan's little Child, who by then had become the chief god of the Cebuanos. The natives could no longer remember a time when the Child wasn't theirs and insisted that it had been in Cebu for uncounted generations. The Nino would help bridge the conquerors and the conquered, and to this day, the Child still attracts the veneration of countless millions. The cult of the Santo Nino is probably the most diffused in the Philippines, with different 'avatars' (including at least three in Manila alone) sprouting up in practically every island in the Philippines.

Above is shown the ritual of the 'Hubo', when, after the great Sinulog feast has concluded, the image of the Santo Nino de Cebu would be ceremonially undressed and bathed. Up until recently (the 1960s), this ritual was witnessed only by a handful of people, the Nino's attendants coming mostly from the upper classes of Cebu.  The statue would then receive a change of clothes, simpler this time than the elaborate garb it wore on the occasion of its feast. The priest and the congregation chant 'Christe, exaudi nos' as each item of clothing, starting with the Child's crown, is taken off, to the beating of drums. It is a ritual that recalls to mind the simplicity and humility of the Child Jesus, who hid himself as a pagan god in order that the Cebuanos, and subsequently the entire Philippine Islands, would be converted to the Faith.

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.