This is my column today.
I woke up yesterday to find more than 30 text messages in my cellular phone all wishing me and my family a Happy Easter. Some of the messages contained profound reflections on the real meaning and significance of Christ’s resurrection. Others were the usual cute messages conveying Hallmark-styled greetings of hope, love and redemption.
The messages came as a surprise. I realized of course that it would be unfair on my part to make deductions on whether or not the messages were indicative of the state of the senders’ spirituality. But being a theorist at heart —my friends rib me constantly about being a certified geek who tries to fathom meanings out of mundane things, they call it my “Sheldon personality” (after that nerd character in the television sitcom Big Bang Theory)—I did wonder if this new phenomenon of sending text messages on Easter Sunday were reflective of something more.
Are we really seeing a resurgence of spirituality in the world today?
I noted that a good percentage of those who sent me Easter Sunday greetings were people who were at least 30 years old. No one among my college students —the very same people who would usually send text messages about anything and everything—bothered to send greetings.
I’ve read somewhere that anywhere in the world today, half the bestsellers in any bookstore are spirituality books. This is easy to validate, of course. The more observant among us would easily notice that spiritual books occupy a prominent location in any bookstore today. And it’s not just during Lent but all year round.
I’ve made this observation many times with my friends. There was this one time when we actively took note of the range of spiritual books available out there and were amazed, for instance, that preacher Bo Sanchez had already authored more than a dozen books—all bestsellers. Sanchez’ books were tailored for specific demographics—one for the lovelorn, another for those aspiring for successful careers, one on parenting, even another for those with addictions, etc.
Why, even Jonathan Livingston Seagull is back in the shelves of major bookstores. Other books from my religion subjects in high school have also made a major comeback including Herman Hesse’s books and Trina Paulus’ Hope for the Flowers.
I must also point out that there seemed to be more people around churches last Maundy Thursday. In past years, doing the Visita Iglesia was quite a breeze for us. Not this year. Traffic was really bad around the more popular churches. To illustrate, traffic at Intramuros leading to the Manila Cathedral and the San Agustin Church was hopelessly gridlocked and many were forced to park their vehicles as far back as Roxas Boulevard and the Luneta area.
I also noted that these seemed to be more organized groups that did the Visita Iglesia this time around. Even more interesting, the groups seemed more easily identifiable because they wore the same shirts, walked around as if they were part of a procession, and had more “commercial” trimmings such as lanterns, banners, megaphones, etc.
It was heartwarming to note that the groups seemed to have quite a number of younger people among their ranks, or that they seemed unembarrassed to display piety. One can only hope that the whole carnival-like display was grounded on stronger spirituality.
I noted that many of them were documenting their pilgrimage with digital cameras and that some tended to be rowdy during picture-taking sessions. They would walk around barefoot, enter the church together calling attention to themselves because of their uniform, the religious icons and banners that they carried, and the sheer volume of people in their procession. They would all kneel down, do their prayers together, and then… take pictures of the group in front of the altar. Obviously, this was distracting to others who were deep in meditation.
To be fair, this practice of lugging around digital cameras and whipping them out at any occasion seems to be a norm nowadays. I also noted quite a number who did the same although some were more discreet as they did their “documentation.” I used to take pictures of the altars of the various churches we visited, but I stopped the practice this year. I didn’t want to add to the distraction.
We came across one large group at the Sta. Cruz Church, for instance, that even carried banners that proudly proclaimed “16 years of Visita Iglesia and still counting!” as if there was a competition somewhere for longevity.
What are we to make of these new phenomena then?
Someone offered the theory that the whole resurgence of seeming piety is a direct result of the difficulties people are going through as a result of the global recession. Perhaps it is in times like these when people do turn back to God and become more religious.
One wishes, of course, that people would learn to make distinctions between spirituality and religiosity. More to the point, one wishes that the Church and the religious groups would go out of their way to teach people about the distinction. It’s really not just about following traditions blindly. It’s not just about making sacrifices such as flogging one’s self to a bloody pulp or traversing the distance between Quiapo and Baclaran Church barefoot. It’s about finding personal meaning in the whole thing.
Spirituality is about situating the whole essence of faith in one’s life rather than just practicing some rituals on given occasions. Thus, doing the Visita Iglesia as a physical journey is one thing, doing so with a reflective heart is another.
The observance of Holy Week is largely religious. If we aspire to become more spiritual, then the end of the Lenten Season yesterday was simply symbolic. The real challenge is to live the meaning of the Lenten Season in our daily lives the rest of the year. Perhaps, even the rest of our lives.