Whenever days are not going the way I like them to be, I go to my hideaway where I order my usual: iced Americano. I enjoy how the combination of strong and cold chase away the extra heat in my body. Also, focusing on the writing on the wall takes my mind momentarily off my issues. I repeat the words slowly over and over imagining them feeding into my bloodstream until I sense that whatever’s bothering me is growing smaller and smaller, like Alice shrinking after a potent drop of Drink Me, at the same time that my awareness of the joy in just being grows bigger and bigger and everything else becomes trivial in comparison. Renewed, I go out the door feeling like I’m able to take on the world yet again.
I’m one of those Catholics who don’t anymore observe Lent in the traditional sense. Because, can’t I live my entire life as a ‘sorry’ and at the same time a ‘thank you’ as well such that Lent, Easter, and Christmas are everyday experiences? Does that make me a bad Catholic? Anyway. In other words, while my family has been observing the week traditionally, I’ve been busy with work (I don’t get why government finds it a duty to declare a holiday as early as Wednesday when it merely sends people scurrying off to the beaches to gallivant in scanty clothing and such, or to reunions in their home provinces which for the most part is a subtle contest of who is the relative with more material riches this year? In the meantime, matters otherwise urgently needed by citizens are left behind. Is that the spirit of Lent? Work is a better penance, especially when it means other people’s lives become better as a result of timely actions. Besides, what about the citizens of other religions? Government, it being for all Filipinos, should stop declaring holidays favoring or upholding religious rites of just one group or sect. There’s already a standard that takes care of the process. With organizations, Catholic employees can just take it out on their paid vacation leaves (especially good for those who refuse to go on vacation just so it will be converted to cash at year end!). This is what it also means by separation of church and state.). On the other hand, there was practically no people and vehicle on the roads! I went to the capital on Good Friday and what bliss! EDSA and the streets were deprived of the usual offending noise, congestion, and vehicular traffic! Even the L/MRT was shut down. The capital was quiet, still, and peaceful. Everyday should be Good Friday!
In Makati, I met with my assigned mentor (in my volunteering work) who came all the way from across the world. Why she had to come is a longish story, but what I can say at the moment is I missed the two meetings, global and regional, held abroad due to unexpected difficulties with bureaucracy here. After weeks of papers and calls going back and forth, the agency decided to send instead their staff, my mentor, to me. She came just to train me in person for the research work. I couldn’t thank them enough (and felt so disappointed with my own government or should I say it’s workers who allowed pettiness to cloud their actions). My mentor, when I finally met her, is really old, maybe late 60s. But, she was spritely, cheerful, and game. Soon afterward I forgot all about my sadness over the circumstances of her travel.
She wanted to go around and explore the area. First, lunch. We found out that the malls were closed. So much for the food courts we planned to eat in. Practically all the restaurants were. What, Good Friday fasting is now a law? What if I’m a non-Catholic, or if one, I chose not to fast and I’m far away from my own kitchen? But thank God for the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean restaurants and the fastfood chains that were open. We hungry folks will be fed. Otherwise, lunch was to be a thousand peso per meal affair back at the hotel. That won’t feel like a Lenten meal will it?
We ended my training early and went to the nearby church, Saints Peter and Paul on DM Rivera in Poblacion. I’ve attempted twice before to visit after learning from locals that it’s a pilgrimage church but I wasn’t able to both times. I didn’t imagine then, how would I, that I’d be actually visiting the church on a Good Friday with a non-Catholic foreigner and my mentor at that.
We were in time for the Mass. The place was jampacked but we took our place at the front. We had to stand though. I looked around. Statues were wrapped up in purple cloth. I wondered why. Only later did I realize, crazy me, my Carmelite sister-friends will get my throat for this, that it’s what’s done on such a day. Also, at the reading of the Gospel, I was about to make the customary sign of the Cross but saw in time that no one around me was doing it. Then I realized the Gospel was the Passion Play. I put down my hand. I felt my face burning. We were really near the altar and you know the all-seeing priests. I blame my lack of sleep from an all-night travel. Ha ha!
While they were doing the drama, I reflected on things. Like, how many centuries have Catholics here been reading and listening to the persecution and death of Christ yet how is it that norms in Philippine society then as now are more or less the same? Injustice. Disregard of others. Incongrous divide between rich and poor. Destructive power structures. Nothing much has changed. How is it that we have not become any wiser for others? This is the question that’s trying to catch up with us.
The sermon centred on the meaning of death, for Jesus and individuals. I reflected on this too. The archbishop said death is painful and we fear it. That is exactly the challenge of the Gospel on us. The undignified death of Christ is for me a call to put to death injustice, disregard of others, the divide between rich and poor, power that enable this culture to continue; and, put in place the opposite of death- life, love. We are called to confront our fear of the pain of death. It’s the only way to cross to the other side which is life. Jesus sweated blood in anticipation of the pains in his death. Still he chose to walk toward it. Why, we ask? But don’t we know? It’s love.
Then the bishop said Good Friday was the birth of the Church. But funnily as it happens, forms of injustice, disregard of others, the divide between rich and poor, destructive power structures are also perpetuated by the institution. Church officials as well are not spared from the call to confront their fear of the pain in putting a stop to these.
We left toward the end of the sermon (sorry, all-seeing priests) as my mentor has a scheduled Skype conference. Back at her hotel, I said my thanks once again and she reassured me of her support and wished me safety. I felt truly loved in that moment. Then we said our farewell.
That was how Good Friday went for me this year. The church visit, visita iglesia in a sense, was unplanned but the Gospel message was spot on. It summed up my experiences of the day – what good is it to die on the cross when there’s no love behind it? what good is observing traditional practices (of Lent and Easter) when we don’t have love to go with it? Such won’t transform ourselves or anybody. It is love that will and being open in order to allow it to re-form and trans-form oneself. I understand now what our Mother Superior said when I asked her if doing xxx is good or bad. She told me, it “depends on your motivation, what’s in your heart as you do it”. I didn’t understand her statement then and was too proud to ask what does that mean? I saw the world as just black and white. Life is indeed full of surprises.
I was at a cafe, comfortably ensconced on my high chair having, well, coffee, and indulging in a slice of sinful dark chocolate cake. Earlier in the day, I had planned on hearing the 5 PM Mass after an early afternoon business meeting. I haven’t gone to Mass in weeks, or is it months? But, while at the cafe I decided not to go. I don’t know, maybe I was still in a mood. The holidays, December to February, are especially difficult. It’s when, despite putting up a resistance, I feel most vulnerable; when I make tampo with God- because I feel He’s let me down in that aspect of life (although deep down I know God being this silent invisible presence makes for a convenient reason to get “angry” at and the moment He actually speaks I’d probably die of fright). But, I felt a much stronger pull to go and at least visit while I was downtown. Fine. Duty is my weakness. I finished up the last bites of the cake and drained my coffee.
I got to catch the last statements of the homily. “We must believe that God has something good in store for us,” the priest was saying. Ha ha! Now that was something I needed to hear. Having settled in my place, I saw that there was something installed facing the altar and a large B&W image of a couple, man and woman, displayed near it.
I learned, toward the end of the Mass, that it was the relics of Saints Louis and Zelie Martin. Who were they? The names didn’t ring a bell. At home, I remembered to search online. And, my god, crazy me, I should’ve known! They’re the parents of St. Therese of Lisieux. My Carmelite BFFs would’ve whipped me for my ignorance! I quickly muttered an apology.
I spent the night reading up about the life of this blessed couple. I learned that they lived their life, an ordinary life, with faithfulness which was what made them extraordinary and eventually earned them sainthood. Louis, after his days as a soldier, had wanted to be a priest, and Zelie, lacking affection from her own family, a nun, but the vocation wasn’t in their stars. Instead, venturing into businesses of their own after failing to get accepted into religious life, Louie in watchmaking and Zelie in lacemaking, it was how they met one another. As a married couple, they lost three of their children, Zelie had breast cancer, and Louie a mental breakdown, but despite all that they hoped, lived, and loved fully. A life to draw strength from. I’m glad I let myself be pulled away from my coffee.
Friday the Thirteenth comes early this year. Does the day bid luck or doom, really? I say it depends on one’s past experiences of such days. For me it’s been normal, like any other Fri-yay although in my mind there’s this exchange between my ego- don’t go out! it’s the thirteenth! you might slight and hurt your ankle! to which my id goes, you kidding me? shall I rot then? I’ve mostly sided with practical.
Speaking of doom, I came by on CNN this bizarre practice of a pastor in South Africa who uses Doom to heal people of their ailments. Doom as in Tiger Brands’ Multi Insect Killer spray! It was discovered through social media, on Facebook, wherein the pastor posted photos of the session, and not because there had been complaints from those that were sprayed. Apparently, the people insisted they were healed after being treated with the bug spray. Why their skin did not break out is even more baffling. A bugged out twist to the placebo effect?
In the Philippines, Traslacion or the annual procession of devotees in honor of the Black Nazarene that’s in the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene or more popularly Quiapo Church, has just been staged for the year, on January 9 which is the Feast of the Black Nazarene. Ahead of the event, national government declared the date a holiday in Metro Manila.
A secular Catholic of today might say, my god, what’s all that for? To understand that level of devotion one has to have an understanding of the life of Catholic Filipinos masses which can be said is a reenactment of The Nazarene’s Passion, the role and influence of religion and symbolism in their lives, and their childlike grip on hope.
But when Jesus, carrying the cross, heard the throng of “women of Jerusalem” who came out especially to see this man who calls himself God, and seeing that he’s almost disfigured from his burden they broke into such “bewailing and lamenting,” well, he stopped and said- do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. The people must’ve been stunned by that unexpected straightforward rebuke.
My theory is that advanced liberal arts education, international travel, exposure to cultures and peoples, and overall, economic progress among Catholic Filipino masses will see a more tempered (or, shall I say authentic) approach to religion.
God came to earth “not in a raging whirlwind nor in a devouring fire,” in the words of Philip Yancey, author of “The Jesus I Never Knew,” but in humility, without power or wealth, in a world marked by strife and terror.
Jesus spent his infancy in Egypt as a refugee, Mr. Yancey points out, and the circumstances of his birth raised the specter of scandal. His life, then, was a profoundly human one, involving work and rest, friendships and betrayals, delight and sorrow. This has deep implications for how Christians should understand and approach life.
For one thing, the Incarnation dignifies the everyday. There has been a temptation throughout Christian history to denigrate the things of this world, from material comforts to the human body, viewing them as lowly and tainted. But this concept is at odds with what Jesus’ life taught, which is that while worldly things can be corrupted, they can also be elevated and sanctified.
For some of us, Christmas is a reminder that while moral rules can be issued on stone tablets, grace and redemption are finally and fully found in a story of love, when the divine became human. I didn’t enter Jesus’ world; he entered mine.
Humanizing Jesus, Peter Wehner, The New York Times
This huge one is at the St. Michael the Archangel Church in Irosin, Sorsogon. In the background is Mt. Bulusan. I lingered by it taking in it’s history. Bells jog my memory. It was the day before my wedding and I was staring at the image of St. Joseph on my wall. Mother had put it there weeks before. She told me it’d be good if I say a novena to him (the church where the wedding was to take place is named after the saint). I hadn’t. But that day I suddenly remembered. What should I pray for? I wasn’t sure so asked for the first thing that came to mind- a sign that it’s the right decision. Then I went about helping with last minute preparations, already forgetting what I’d earlier prayed for. I didn’t actually expect an answer. In the afternoon, in my bed chatting with my sister I suddenly heard the distant toll of bells. I almost jumped out of my skin. It seemed to come from the east side of the house but from far, far away. Strange as the only church with a bell in our area is toward the west side, 15-minute walk away. I asked my sister if she heard the sound. She didn’t. It then dawned on me- the possibility of it being the sign. It frightened me. I decided that the whole thing was just my imagination. Years later, when I was ready emotionally to look with humor at what happened to my marriage, the memory of the bells I had suppressed came back to me. The sound of the bells had been that of a call to mourning. It frightened me because what did it mean? I had wanted a happy and joyful answer fit for weddings. And, what was I supposed to do? Call off the wedding? On the eve? It would’ve been insane if I did. So I chose sanity. Family honor. Personal pride. I showed up for those, I realized years afterward. I also had a kind of falling out with the saint, because well I didn’t appreciate his sad news. I owe the saint a belated apology, I know. A lesson this has for me is, to not ask for signs if I’m not prepared to believe or act on it.
Traditionally, the inherently patriarchal Buddhist monastic system has nuns performing only the most meanial of domestic tasks, while the monks can lead prayers and occupy powerful positions. Nuns are perceived as inferior to monks and usually spend their time working in the kitchens and gardens of Buddhist monasteries…the Gyalwang Drukpa took things even further in 2008, when he introduced kung fu to the nunnery, after seeing nuns from Vietnam receiving combat training that was previously used by Viet Cong guerrillas.
I did wear bloomers in college, for PE. We were the last batch subject to that dress code. Made to distort the female’s figure from waist down it served as a kind of chastity belt which kept us from being ogled at when we’re out on campus stretching, bending, and the like. We didn’t like it, it made us feel like we were our grandmothers, but that was the rule. A rule that we could live with.
Now the burkini. The controversy points to an aspect of tourism that’s often ignored yet has great impact on localities and among locals and that is, tourists’ respect of local rules.
The burkini issue is not, in my view, about a country dictating what women ought to wear on the beach. I see it rather as a reasonable rule comparable to what certain institutions such as churches espouse e.g. no cleavage baring dress inside Catholic churches, or leaving one’s shoes outside when entering a mosque. Or, the uniforms mandated for employees in certain organizations. Similar rules are also observed in private households as for example in Japan and Cambodia where shoes are left at the door. Observance of such rules is to me like minding one’s manners- it makes for a smooth and pleasant journey for everyone.
Muslim women likewise are restricted by their religion to certain dress codes. What to do when these tourists would like to go for a dip at a local beach?
Questions arising out of the burkini controversy include, were the tourists advised by local authorities of alternatives e.g. dedicated beaches where Muslim women could wear burkinis? If not, did local authorities think Muslim women do not go to the beach? This was apparently the thinking in the absence of preconceived areas for this group of tourists. Then again designating separate areas for certain groups could backfire and decried as segregation. In any case, discussing alternatives with the local Muslim community would help prepare countries to manage peculiarities of this culture and religion. Local authorities need to understand that one Muslim terrorist does not make all Muslims that.
From the start as dancers, we train from the outward gaze of our teacher. Always checking ourselves, adjusting our bodies to conform to the ideal picture, we grow up as dancers never having to liberate ourselves from this outer gaze.
I wanted to ask myself if I could train myself away from this ‘checking’ mechanism, to expose myself to myself, and see if I danced out of compulsion or out of something really deep in me.
So began my solitary work, of taking class alone everyday… I wanted to gain a new “technique”, my own process of doing things, my own technology.
The most important insight I gained from the study of the babaylan is what I call “the naming of bones.” Later I was to find out that some contemporary dancers in other countries took the same route. To quote from one of them who researched on an Eskimo shaman:
“Though no shaman can explain to himself how and why, he can, by the power his brain derives from the supernatural, as it were by thought alone, divest his body of its flesh and blood, so that nothing remains but his bones. And he must then name all parts of his body, mention every single bone by name.”
…In everyday physical practice, this idea of “naming one’s bones” realigns the spine, the muscles of the body, makes one discover various connections in the body, makes one flow in movement.
It is a more generous, hospitable and yielding notion of space, one that is giving and relational, as opposed to the value I was taught as a ballet dancer, which was always to “conquer” space and to defy gravity.
It is a “letting go” in which with process, one finds one’s centre.
Myra C. Beltran, The Dance Artist as Babaylan in Centennial Crossings: Readings on Babaylan Feminism in the Philippines
In a training with young LGBTQCIs, the scarcity of historical records on the babaylan was cited as an example of the silencing of Filipino LGBTs. I listened intently. It was the first time I heard about the babaylan.
The babaylan (rough translation: Oracle) was predominantly a woman priest, healer, and visionary in prehistoric Philippines. They were the doctors, weather forecasters, leaders in community rituals, and consultants to the datus in important matters as for example whether or not they should wage war. At the time, there were three figures of authority in the barangay (village): the datu or chieftain, the panday (blacksmith) or technical expert, and the babaylan. There were men babaylan but were required to dress in women’s clothing. Hence even before, there were already transgenders in the Philippines. As babaylans, they were also required to lie with other men.
But in colonial Philippines, the babaylan was equated with witchcraft. From being experts they were demoted as witches and sidekicks of the devil. The Spaniards saw that the babaylans were a threat to their power over the barangays hence took necessary steps to undermine them. Among these, they had the babaylans dress in yellow which was then the color of insult and paraded them around the town square. Tools that the babaylans used in their rituals were peed on in public.
Considering that the Spaniards wrote the first Philippine history books, they took out the babaylans from the pages. There is almost no written records of their existence. They have been made invisible in Philippine history. Along with that little is known of contributions made by LGBTs in Philippine society.
When the talk on the babaylan ended, I was like wow. I didn’t know that about my country’s history. I should know more about it. The researcher in me was piqued.
And, what do you know, just recently while at a bookstore and browsing the shelves for new titles, I came across Centennial Crossings: Readings on Babaylan Feminism in the Philippines. There was only one copy and looked as if it had passed many curious readers’ hands. I had an emotional moment considering that this copy may have been waiting for me. I immediately bought it.
The babaylan consciousness is alive or kept alive, it appears. In July 2005, during the Centennial of the Feminist Movement in the Philippines (1905-2005), St. Scholastica’s College sponsored The Babaylan Symposium. Many of the papers presented in the Symposium are adapted as articles in the book.
When I was based in the Metro, I attended several conferences and a few classes on women/feminism at St. Scholastica and Miriam Colleges (this is among the things I missed in the Metro. HEIs in Baguio City don’t have such programs or engagements with the public). Among the exclusive Catholic schools of higher learning, St. Scho, run by Benedictine Sisters is a pioneering force and sponsor in feminist studies and movement. One of the more well known among the administrators, Sr. Mary John Mananzan, is, I’m surprised to know, a self-confessed modern babaylan. She shares her journey in the book. An excerpt,
My involvement with the struggle of our people started to reshape my ideas of theology and spirituality. I remember that after several years of sociopolitical involvement, some of us Sisters and priests who were in this struggle, suffered a spiritual crisis. In working closely with the people, a lot of our absolute principles became relativized. We began to see many of our concepts and practices both in the Church and in the convent as irrelevant, but we still did not know what should take their place, or if something should take their place at all. So thirty of us went on a five-day retreat to clarify to ourselves our new understanding of Christianity and our new understanding of being religious.
At the end of five days, we realized that there was one thing common in our experiences: we all experienced an inner liberation-psychological and spiritual. We found a new understanding of our being Christians based on our conviction of Christ’s option for the poor. We got a new understanding of faith which is no longer the security of being saved…but we understood faith now as a total openness to the radically new that God would demand of us every day. So faith is a risk, not a security.
Finally, I got involved in feminist theology because the moment we started to reflect on why women are oppressed (and we are 85% Catholic in the Philippines) we realized that one great social conditioning is religion. Women are told: you are taken from the rib of Adam so you are a derived being…So have you significance in yourselves as women? No! Your significance is in relationship to a man. And thirdly, you are supposed to be guilty of the sin of Adam. So guilt becomes ingrained in woman.
Personally, my discovery of Asian spirituality was like a completion of my being. I was like a fish that found it’s stream… I actually first got in contact with Zen when I was a student in Rome… Later on I got acquainted with Syddha Yoga which gave me another aspect of contemplation-a certain kind of lightness of being…I learned to “dance with the playful consciousness of God!”
This is another of the “contradictions” I had learned to live with. People ask me how as a Roman Catholic Sister, I could do Zen or Syddha Yoga meditation. My answer is, “Suppose I am walking on the street and come across a diamond, should I ask myself, “Is this a Catholic diamond?” and if it is not, should I throw it away?” Too bad for me if I do. I think that God put all these gems in all religions, and I, as a child of God, claim them for myself and feel free to integrate into my spirituality which I find helpful. Syncretism? So what? Isn’t real life syncretic?
In fact, I feel an equation happening at the edges of my mind. I was laughing saying this to a friend on the phone. I was back to form and had just described the pain in my head I’ve battled with for a week .
Like there was lightning inside my head. Like it was a maze of live wire, I said. I haven’t experienced anything like it.
Look up Tesla, he said.
T-e-s-l-a. He supposedly felt the same thing when he made his inventions. Lightning-like flashes inside his head.
I laughed out loud. You gotta be kidding me!
I’m serious, he said. Maybe you’re now a genius.
I laughed some more. That’s when I told him about the equation. Just for laughs. And then our talk segued to aliens.
I kind of believe in aliens now, he said.
I laughed. I didn’t know what to make of it.
But we remembered together a professor at UP Diliman who was among those who founded the national chapter of Raelian Movement, believers in E.T. and stuff. At first, my colleagues and I laughed at what the professor was telling us, the UFO revelations he had, but because he was kind of scientific about it all we took him more seriously although to me, then and now, the idea is preposterous. But I’m fascinated with their suppositions.
Weird stuff. But after so much pain I’m glad even for weird stuff.
What difference does Easter make in the life of the Christian? The message of Easter is… nothing is impossible with God. Moreover, that life triumphs over death. Love triumphs over hatred. Hope triumphs over despair. And that suffering is not the last word.