In the pit of darkest Lent, the country gained renown, or notoriety, again for its grisly religious rituals. Several wire agencies reported on it.
The rituals had to do with self-flagellation and reenactments of Christ’s crucifixion by penitents in Pampanga. “Reenactment” itself sounds pale before the reality, the “reenactors” literally having their hands and sometimes feet nailed on wooden crosses. The devotees invariably do not take painkillers to make their sacrifice more authentic, or to gain more indulgence. AFP reported that more than 20 fanatics (its word), including one woman, had themselves crucified in the outskirts of San Fernando. One man had to be rushed to the hospital for excessive bleeding.
The more common sight though is of men and women walking on dusty roads lashing at their bare backs with thongs studded with dulled glass shards or sharp stones. Producing one truly bloody and blood-curdling mess, particularly for those who see it for the first time. “Priests often tell us that we should not be doing this,” Melvin Pangilinan, an organizer of the annual Lenten ritual, told Reuters. “But it has been our tradition for decades and we have to honor it.”
On a less outré, but not entirely out-of-this-world, note, a multitude gathered in Lucban, Quezon, last week to visit the Kamay ni Hesus shrine. Among its offerings are 300 steps, called “Stairway to Heaven,” you have to climb to get to a 17-meter-tall statue of the Resurrected Christ. The appeal of the place has been humongous, with visitors streaming in as early as Palm Sunday. An estimated 1.5 people will have visited the place by yesterday, making the climb to the top of the hill where the transfigured Christ stands not just arduous but epically long. “The last person on the line would wait for three hours before stepping on the first step of the stairway,” one volunteer said.
The wait was worth it, said most of those who did. It was “spiritually worthy.” Fr. Joey Faller, the priest who built the shrine in 2002, echoed the sentiment. “Grabe,” he said, “such tremendous expression of faith is really heartwarming. It is a manifestation of the strengthening spirituality of our people.”
Well, different folks, different strokes. To each his own. We Filipinos have our own way of doing things, we have our way of expressing faith. If we can turn a popular uprising like Edsa into something resembling a fiesta, we can turn the recollection of Christ’s death and resurrection into something resembling a House of Horrors. Or indeed, if others can have eco-tourism, we can always have religio-tourism.
I just wonder if our concept of spirituality is deep though, notwithstanding the intense, or indeed fanatical, expressions it often takes. It seems to be governed by two things: outward demonstration and personal salvation.
I do not worry unduly about extrinsic displays of faith or symbolic gestures of devotion. You need that as much in personal as in religious life, as spouses who forget to remember their wedding anniversary, or lovers who forget the birthday of their loved one, thereby forgetting as well to give token gifts or show special affection that day, know very well from the verbal flagellation they get afterward. Where I worry is when the extrinsic displays or symbolic gestures take the place of, or substitute for, what they are meant to signify.
Unhappily, that is what the flagellation and crucifixions and visitations of shrines often do: They take the place of, or substitute for, having to live a reasonably decent, never mind righteous, life. You inflict pain on yourself on Good Friday so you can feel free to steal, rape, and even murder the rest of the year. Even more unhappily, that is what the confessional often does, too. You admit to being thoroughly unworthy once a month so you can remain exactly that pretty much the rest of your life. The ritual gives a license to live licentiously the way the double O gives a license to kill.
Just as well, I do not worry unduly about a preoccupation with personal salvation. Heaven knows this country can do with it, though it can do more with being saved from those who need saving. Where I worry is when the preoccupation with personal salvation becomes a preoccupation with self to the exclusion of others. It can be a symptom of tremendous selfishness.
Unhappily, that is what the rituals are often about, too. The penitents themselves say it explicitly: They take on the ordeal in the hope that God will cure them of a disease, grant them a wish, or earn them a berth in heaven despite a life that makes hell for others. Even more unhappily, that is how religion itself is for many of us, a means of escape from perdition the way the animals in Noah’s Ark escaped the Flood.
The world having just marked the first anniversary of the disaster that flattened Fukushima, I remember again the story of the 9-year-old Japanese boy who did a strange thing. The boy lost both parents in the tsunami, and waited in line to get his ration of food. A cop of Vietnamese origin who had immigrated to Japan saw him and, taking pity on him, gave him his own ration. He had already eaten, the cop said.
The boy took the food, but did not eat it. He went to the table where the rations were piled up and put it there. Astonished, the cop asked him why. The boy said he saw the others in the line and knew they were hungry, too. By doing it, he made it possible for the food to be divided equally among all of them. The cop’s eyes filled with tears.
Some gestures are a little less attention-getting. Some gestures are a little less self-absorbed. But you wonder which ones are more meaningful. You wonder which ones are more moving.
Tricky word: Spirituality.
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