Wednesday, January 11, 2012

In the name of devotion

This is my column today.

The feast of the Black Nazarene in Quiapo is one of the very few religious events in this country that gets prominent attention both from media and the general public. It is easy to understand why. It’s an event that draws millions of devotees— mostly male—although the number of women devotees has been increasing through the years.

The devotion has also started to attract the younger generation although there is heated discussion on what exactly is the motivation behind the resurgence of piety among the “younger devotees .” There is reason to believe that the bandwagon effect is the culprit; there’s a ton of anecdotal testimonies that illustrate how joining the devotion is a life-changing and affirming experience.

Many, however, insist most of the groups of young people who have latched on to the tradition do so mainly out of a misplaced sense of self-actualization, believing that hurdling the Black Nazarene procession gauntlet gives them a sense of invincibility; in addition to bragging rights, of course. Last Monday, I personally noted the presence of too many groups of adolescent devotees who created human chains that snaked in and out the route of the procession. But even more astonishing, it’s one of those events that precariously teeters on the edge of total catastrophe and yet, miraculously, does not. The Black Nazarene procession is one of those events that strengthen the power of faith. As Benjamin Franklin once said, the way to see faith is to shut the eye of reason.

This year’s procession, which started Monday morning and culminated early Tuesday morning (the carriage broke down several times, lost all of its wheels, and got stalled on Echague Street for almost four hours as devotees and church authorities debated over the final route of the procession), received further scrutiny on account of alleged terrorist threats, which thankfully, did not come to pass. The kind of mayhem that would have been produced by a terrorist attack on an event that is already chaotic is unthinkable.

People who have not experienced how it is to be swept or borne aloft a heaving mass of devotees in the throes of religious passion will never understand the Black Nazarene phenomenon. As newly installed Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle said, the devotion to the Black Nazarene is something incomprehensible to outsiders. There’s a whole system of meaning around the devotion that is shared only be devotees ranging from practices, norms, beliefs, and yes, superstitions.

I used to view the religious event with amused curiosity bordering on the sardonic until two years ago when I accompanied a brother who personally wanted to bring the case of his terminally ill wife to the attention of the Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno.

My brother, driven by desperation, threw caution to the wind and plunged into the sea of devotees all jostling for the privilege of being able to hold the twin ropes that pull the carriage of the Black Nazarene forward, inch by painstaking inch. He wasn’t successful; but if it’s any consolation, at least he didn’t suffer major injuries in the process. We learned later that there is a method to the madness; one does not simply plunge into the wrestling pit without the benefit of years of preparation or at least advice from veteran devotees. There is method to surviving the “agos” or current, “indayog” or movement of the crowd, and even the correct way of grasping the ropes and positioning one’s head and hands while clutching it.

Last Monday was the third year that I joined the procession although I still haven’t been able to summon the courage—or set aside mental functioning - to actually join the maddening crowd that jostle each other for the chance to kiss the image or pull the ark. I stay at the fringes, or at least walk a few paces behind the ark. But I can say that I have learned to get in step with the cadence and the natural rhythm of the crowd. I don’t get terrified anymore of being crushed because I have learned how to “surrender” to the mob.

The Black Nazarene procession brings to the fore many contradictions that are sadly representative of the state of things in this country.

It’s a religious event, one overflowing with raw passion and fervor. Millions of people risk life and limb just to be able to fulfill their annual devotion. And yet, the fiesta atmosphere is palpable. Because the procession coincides with the fiesta of Quiapo district, there’s a lot of bingeing that coincides with the religious celebration. One can see people imbibing alcohol, or holding singing or dancing contests along the route of the procession. They do stop once the procession is nearby, light candles, wave white handkerchiefs and join the chanting of “viva!, viva!” How many of us are able to balance the seeming irreconcilable paradox is truly a source of wonder.

The procession is best described as ordered chaos. It’s pure anarchy that operates as devotees push and elbow each other. And yet, there is and underlying system to it. All that a person has to do to get rescued from the middle of the mess is to raise his arms and people will reach out to pull him out of there. It’s every man to himself as devotees try to outsmart, outmaneuver, and overpower others. However, it is also there that one witnesses extreme acts of kindness and humanity. Last Monday, I personally witnessed how people rushed to the aid of a man who collapsed in the middle of the crowd. I saw how everyone automatically made space for the person, fanned the person with their shirts and bags, splashed water on him, etc. I saw how an old woman rushed to apply ointments on a fallen devotee. No one loses his or her temper even the midst of extreme provocation; in fact, everyone addresses each other as kapatid (brother).

The whole mayhem is created by the need of many people to clamber up the carriage to kiss the cross or the image itself during the actual procession (the image is made available two days for people to kiss it, for crying out loud) and to be able to hold the twin ropes of the carriage. The act of piety should be admirable. People go to great lengths and expose themselves to great harm just to be able to show reverence for the image. And yet, many actually end up defiling and disrespecting the very image they venerate. People often end up swinging from the cross, or destroying the clothes of the image, or splashing mud, water and other dirty stuff on the image. Actually, one can only see a very limited part of the image during the procession as it is usually protected by dozens of people who surround it.

Yes, there must be a better way to do it and the organizers of the procession do try to make things better every year. But how do you discourage devotion when the whole system is designed to nurture it? How do you tame a beast of your own creation? How does one manage a throng of devotees that has turned into a mob? The whole procession was actually hijacked by mobs that used force to get their way. They refused to have the image transferred to a firetruck, refused to shorten the route, and made sure that they got what they wanted. At a certain point, the authorities just let the mob be. Am not sure this is how we want things to be in this country, but do our leaders know it?

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