Filipino piety

In Europe, religious piety produced some of the world’s greatest artistic achievements – Bach’s music, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes, and Gothic architecture.

In contrast, Filipino piety cannot seem to rise above the dread with which we regard the Supreme Being.  Our ardor does not result in offerings of sustained creativity but only in acts of senseless selflaceration.  One wonders what it is about our religious heritage that makes us so lacking in the raw material for worthy acts of piety.

Ben Enaje of Barrio Cutud in San Fernando, Pampanga has had himself nailed on a cross for the last 16 years in fulfillment of a “panata” he made for surviving an accident at work. He is a sign painter, and one must ask why he chooses to offer his hands for nailing year after year rather than for creating works of art that would honor Christ whose passion he emulates. Everywhere in the country, young flagellants offer their bloodied bodies as tokens of sacrifice instead of undertaking works of devotion they can easily create with their youthful energies. One does not typically hear of a Filipino who harnesses his talents to create works of soulful artistry for the greater glory of God.

We can only suppose that we are still dealing here with an aspect of the poverty syndrome that hangs like a veil over our national soul.  So deep seems to be our sense of impoverishment that we are unable to offer anything to God – not the fruit of our strivings, not our minds, not our art — but our scarred bodies.  We do not stand in awe of life’s enduring mystery and beauty; instead we kneel in perpetual supplication for the things we desperately lack.

The “panata” is usually made in exchange for some favor — a cure for an illness in the family or a break from the spell of an imagined curse — rather than as an act of penance.  Our spirituality is transactional. We offer our devotion in return for a wish  – a US visa, a winning ticket at the lotto, the return of a prodigal spouse, an overseas job. The expectant throng that El Shaddai gathers every weekend attests to this phenomenon.

Our most ardent prayers are requests for miracles rather than quiet conversations with a God we seek to understand.  We show our appreciation for good fortune by acts of sacrifice, but our piety tends to be seasonal rather than sustained.  We gather all the sins and misfortunes of the past year, lament our weaknesses, and in one summary act of atonement, we inflict pain upon ourselves for a day hoping to feel chastened the whole year.  We remain under the spell of religion as a narcotic art.

So long as we turn to religion like this, so long will it hide from us the real causes of our misfortunes.  We demand little understanding of the concrete world in which we live because we think the events that affect us are willed by magical forces that have to be appeased if we are to live tolerable lives.  We continue to inhabit an enchanted fearsome world in which our best tools are not our minds and our industry but the power of amulets and incantations.  Our manner of worship hasn’t changed much from the animism of our ancestors. We still cajole and ingratiate ourselves to a variety of saints and capricious spirits in the hope of making the world a bit more manageable.

In many ways, our religious life is cut from the same fabric as our political life.  Our concept of government is that of a remote but provident god, one who dispenses favors rather than empowers, one who must be flattered than reasoned with.  We don’t see government as a collective organ to assist us in our personal growth, that inspires us to be the best we can be, or takes genuine interest in our achievements.  We see it only as a distant being, mysterious in its ways, but who, because of its immense power, can spell the difference between life and death.  Feeling too small to make our own approach, we constantly search for intercessors and patrons to access its generosity.

Yet, like our piety, our citizenship is also seasonal.  We have nothing much to do with government except when we need something or it’s election time.  This relationship is likewise uni-directional: we ask and we demand, and we expect government to respond.  We do little to transform the relationship into something truly reciprocal.  We are so trapped in the cells of our private misfortunes that we are unable to feel and do anything to ease the pain of others.

The parallelism is hardly surprising.  In the history of our nation, the belief in one God and the concept of a central government share a common origin.  They entered our consciousness as tools of colonialism.  The powerful, jealous, and vengeful God that the Spanish friars introduced into our culture was an ally of foreign conquest.  And central government was little more than an instrument of plunder.  It had nothing to do with the people’s collective will.  Both were alien to the native sensibility.  Our ancestors adjusted to their presence by weaving a complex attitude of alternating obedience, indifference, and defiance.

We continue to live today with the residues of this attitude, even as we try to make the Christian God and the Western institutions of government our own.  With time we should lose our fear and extreme dependence on an Almighty God and a distant government.

Hopefully, we can then begin to cultivate spirituality as a habit of inwardness and citizenship as a habit of solidarity.

I do not believe that religious piety will die with modernity.  But it may begin to look closer to what William James imagined religion to be: what a person does with his own solitude.

Happy Easter to all!


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