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Looking Back

Saint Benedict the savior

San Benito is one of the best-selling medals in the stalls around Quiapo. Unlike anting-anting deployed for specific uses this one is like an all-purpose antibiotic that shields the bearer from all harm — visible and invisible. These can be buried in the foundations of newly built structures or even placed in checked-in luggage to avoid loss or theft. My story is different, I spent about six years in a Benedictine monastery because of these medals.

In retrospect I had no connection to San Beda College, the Abbey of Our Lady of Montserrat, nor the monks. I was a Jesuit boy, educated in Ateneo de Manila from prep to college, by then roughly two-thirds of my life. We lived too far away to have known about the Benedictines and their elaborate liturgical services. My parents were not particularly devout. Yet I learned about the Benedictines from an ex-Benedictine. The late Fr. Gabriel Casal was a short, handsome man who left the cloister to take up directorship of the Ayala Museum, and later the National Museum of the Philippines. He spoke with a heavy Spanish accent that went well with his mestizo good looks. He was, I heard, a man with a short fuse whose face could transform in an instant from angelic as his patron saint to the kontrabida Eddie Garcia he resembled remotely in his advanced age.

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In 1990, while discussing the biggest bequest of Juan Luna paintings to the museum, I could not help but notice the clutter in his office dominated by a pair of oversized stuffed chairs in orange leatherette that was so tacky it was hip. By force of habit, my eyes scanned the room and focused not on the papers and files that littered his desk but on an ancient marble head, the size of a golf ball, given to him as a gift by a Spanish abbot, who had wrenched it off from some ancient Roman sarcophagus.

I mentioned, in passing, that folks at home complained about a presence that allegedly emanated from the prehistoric Philippine pottery I had been collecting. My mother was not pleased to find out these were grave furniture, looted from archaeological sites by pothunters before the National Museum got wind of them. Spirits and heritage laws did not bother me and I was drawn to these crude earthenware vessels by an appreciation of their age — 10th century or earlier — and the idea that these shiny, red vessels of pleasing shape accompanied our ancestors on their journey to the underworld.

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When I asked Father Casal if he could do a house call to pacify the terrified help, his eyes opened wide as his lips pursed into a disdainful smirk. Pointing to two prehistoric limestone burial jars on a shelf behind him, he said: “One of these burial jars still contains human bones, how come I am not haunted?” Then he opened his right desk drawer, reached inside, and handed me two aluminum medals that bore the image of Saint Benedict on one side, and a cross with mysterious letters on the reverse. “These are powerful medals,” Father Casal explained. “They should do the trick because these have been given a blessing so special that no prayers are required to use them. Place one in your car and forget about it, put the other one in room with the pots, and if your household is still bothered by spirits after a week, I shall go and bless your house.”

Driving home from the National Museum that evening, I stopped at a red light along Quirino Avenue and a jeepney crashed into the passenger side of my car. I looked at the medals Father Casal had given me quarter of an hour earlier and was tempted to throw them out the window because they did not protect my car from accident. I should have been grateful though that I was unhurt. When I stepped out to assess the damage, I saw the reckless jeepney driver scratching his head and took it to mean he had no insurance and no money to pay for repairs. The jeep’s fender lay on the street, its headlights broken and part of the hood was like crumpled aluminum foil but my car that absorbed the impact had nary a scratch. I returned to the car and drove off dumbfounded as the jeepney driver. This time I gave the medals a second, now appreciative, look. Needless to say, the medals put the mischievous pot spirits in their place, too.

Every year during Holy Week, I remember the medals that led to a detour in my life.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, Looking Back, Saint Benedict
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