Sunday, May 03, 2015

Sleeping Saint Joseph


My May 3, 2015 column.
A dear friend gifted me with an image of a sleeping Saint Joseph recently. She was quite pleased with her present because she said she had difficulty sourcing the image—apparently, it’s one of the most in demand religious images in the country today, thanks to Pope Francis who provided a moving testimony during his visit last January on the supposed ability of the image to grant wishes. According to dear Lolo Kiko, whenever he found himself in a fix, he would write whatever was troubling him on a piece of paper and slip it under the image of the sleeping saint for the saint to “dream” about. 
I thanked my friend profusely for her thoughtfulness. What I didn’t have the heart to tell her was that I actually already have three other sleeping Saint Josephs all given to me last month during my birthday. I truly and deeply appreciated each of the four images given to me; they occupy special places in our house and in my office. I must admit, though, that I did wonder what the gifts meant: did my friends think I am in desperate need of a wishing factory? (In case you are one of those who are still in search of an image of a sleeping Saint Joseph, it’s not actually that difficult to find anymore. Most religious stores in major malls already sell them; in fact, they can actually be bought in stalls around major churches such as Baclaran and Quiapo). Did anyone really think Filipino entrepreneurs would let go of a business opportunity? Of course it was just a matter of time before images of the sleeping Saint Joseph would find their way into stores and homes. They are quite pricey at this time though, probably because the demand is still high and the novelty is still fresh.
I am not a very religious person although I do believe in the power of faith and prayers. I was also reared by a grandmother who was a devout Catholic and who was a devotee of several saints. Thus, I could actually distinguish Saint Joseph from, say, Saint Anthony of Padua – two saints that carry the image of an infant Jesus in their arms. Aside from differences in the colors of their vestments, Saint Joseph has always been pictured with facial hair while Saint Anthony, unfortunately, has always seemed in desperate need of hair growing products. Until the recent papal visit, I’ve never really thought saints could be pictured in poses other than either standing up, kneeling, or sitting down. How does one pray to someone who is sleeping or busy doing something else? 
Just last weekend, at the wedding of a friend’s daughter at the Santuario de San Jose in Greenhills, we found a life-sized image of a sleeping Saint Joseph in one corner of the church. I can tell you that the image is really best appreciated in miniature form. 
But what got us transfixed in one side of the Church was an unusual image of the Virgin Mother. It was a life-sized image of Mary nursing an infant Jesus, her right breast and nipple fully exposed. The inscription at the foot of the image said it was an image of the Nuestra Senora de la Leche. I thought of a friend who had just given birth but was having difficulty breastfeeding her baby; she said her body just didn’t seem to be producing enough milk to satiate her child. I offered a prayer asking the breastfeeding saint to help my breastfeeding friend. But a friend who found me in front of the image couldn’t help but snicker and joked about how the image could become favorite saint of virile young men. Of course breastfeeding is one of the most powerful natural phenomena in the world; every mammal in the animal kingdom practices breastfeeding. Unfortunately, malice does exist in the mind rather than in the object of one’s attention. Thus, I also thought of the many religious women from various Catholic associations who would probably find the image of the breastfeeding mother unacceptable. After all, the Virgin Mother is supposed to be the epitome of purity. 
There is some logic in the assertion of feminists that the Virgin Mother must have been a very strong, perhaps even muscled woman. She was exposed to very hard work and based on stories of the Bible, also did a lot of strenuous activities. Imagining her as a woman who breastfed, did work in the field, or carried heavy load would not diminish her worth as an object of worship. In much the same way, the image of a sleeping Saint Joseph is actually quite logical. He was a man who was content with being relegated to the sidelines; someone who knew his place and performed his role silently and without question. 
With the new and growing popularity of the sleeping Saint Joseph, I hope there will come a time when images of saints are no longer depicted in idealized forms but in ways that make them more “relatable.” I look forward to a time, for instance, when images of the Virgin Mother are no longer bedecked in jewels and when saints are no longer made to wear princely vestments complete with sequins and elaborate embroidery. The frills are not really necessary particularly when one’s faith is strong enough to enable him to see beyond the allure of man-made images.

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