Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Piety

This was my column yesterday.

I‘ve always wondered what it is that that impels people to plunge headlong into a veritable stampede of a shoving, jostling, swirling barefooted throng of humanity—risking life and limb in the process—just to be able to see, touch or kiss a religious image.

Is it really faith—the absolute, unquestioning kind—that propels them to throw logic and caution to the wind for the sake of sustaining a religious ritual?

Paradoxically, given the millions of Filipinos that converge in Manila January 9 of every year and who submit themselves to the unique rituals around the Black Nazarene of Quiapo—most of which border on blind fanaticism —can we say that we are people with strong faith? Is the increasing number of devotees who continue to perpetuate the same rituals despite advances in information technology and the preponderance of more scientific data that offer divergent perspectives evidence of the power of religion? Or is this one more proof of the growing level of desperation among Filipinos today?

These were some of the questions that were top of mind when I joined the procession of the Feast of the Black Nazarene last Saturday. The feast of the Black Nazarene is the biggest singular religious event in the country. It’s when millions of devotees - mostly men, although the last decade has seen an increasing number of women and children among them - converge in the area around Quiapo to indulge in the frenzy of religious fervor.

I’m not really a devotee of the suffering Christ—I am more partial to empowering images such as Christ in the manger or the Risen Christ. However, I’ve long wanted to experience first-hand, witness with my own two eyes, smell, touch and taste the piety that is palpable in the footages of the procession that we see on television and in various photographs that inevitably gets front page treatment in all national dailies the day after. I also went for some deeply personal reasons, which I can’t go into in this piece.

Most everyone I talked to had the same advice for me when I told them of my plan to join the procession this year: Be careful, be very, very careful. I assured them I had no intention of clambering up the carriage that carries the image of the Black Nazarene nor had I grand illusions of being physically fit enough to compete with tens of thousands of able-bodied people fighting tooth and nail for the “privilege” of holding the rope that pulls the carriage. I simply wanted to be there and witness the procession live instead of watching it on television.

The first thing I realized was that the procession involved not one but thousands of images of the Black Nazarene. Apparently, devotees —individuals and groups—bring their personal images of the Black Nazarene to join the procession. It was overwhelming to watch a long, very, very long procession of Black Nazarene images in varying stages and degrees of suffering. There were images of the suffering Christ lying down, sitting down on a throne, kneeling down, etc. There were images aboard bicycles, pick up trucks, aboard specially-crafted and decorated carozas, and even more images carried in the arms and shoulders of individual devotees. Each of these images received their fair share of attention from devotees who threw towels to be wiped on the faces of the images.

Another feature of the feast that isn’t given justice by media coverage is the extent to which Filipino culture is showcased and celebrated. It is after all still a fiesta so the usual fixtures of a traditional fiesta were still there from food, games, marching bands, etc. I even saw, strangely enough, Chinese dragon and lion dancers going around the various stores of the Quiapo district. As can be expected, the horde of enterprising people hawking all kinds of merchandise from T-shirts, towels, hankies, food, trinkets, etc, were all there as well.

The procession left the Quirino Grandstand early morning. It reached the area around the Liwasang Bonifacio at around 3:00 in the afternoon. The image of the Black Nazarene was pulled inch by painstaking inch by the horde of devotees, slowly meandering through the very narrow streets of the district of Quiapo, finally reaching Quiapo Church at around 11:00 pm, taking about 16 hours to traverse a route a mere five kilometers long. This year’s crowd was estimated at three million, the largest turnout so far. Many pundits attribute the high turnout to the many calamities that struck the country this year.

People who witness the procession on television only see bedlam and anarchy. What is not seen on television is the proverbial method to the madness. There are a whole lot of traditions and rituals that surround the feast and the procession of the Black Nazarene and these traditions and rituals come with their own norms and procedures. Most of the devotees are regulars—people who make it a point to return every year—and these are the same people who collectively bring order to the whole mess. I saw the many ways in which the carriage carrying the Black Nazarene was made to surge forward, the ways to clamber up and “fall” from the carriage, even how to get out alive when trapped in the middle of the stampede.

One veteran I got to talk to expressed annoyance that a lot of first-timers plunge into the thick of things without bothering to learn basic techniques in joining the procession. He said the new devotees are the ones that imperil the safety of many others and cause the mix-ups that delay the procession unnecessarily because they don’t bother to learn about the norms.

The procession was supposed to pass through a predetermined route. As in the previous year, this route was not followed for unexplained reasons. The automatic presumption was that residents of other streets not included in the route set for this year hijacked the carriage in effect forcing a rerouting scheme that would have the procession pass through their streets. Being along the route of the procession is supposed to bring good fortune to business establishments and residents. Who says politics, power, and piety don’t mix?

The procession of the Black Nazarene is a perfect metaphor for the way things are in this country. The whole procession—which has all the ingredients for a recipe called Disaster of Mammoth Proportions —precipitously teeters on the edge of utter chaos and pandemonium. What it is really is a stampede that is constantly threatening to spiral out of control. Yet surprisingly, it never does. The amazing thing is that the whole thing works. That, to my mind, is a miracle.

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