The sacred and the profane

Every devotee who joins the procession of the Black Nazarene comes to offer a pledge (panata), or to honor one previously made.  A panata is deeply personal and is purely voluntary.  Often, it is passed on from generation to generation.  The devotee asks the spirit of the Nazarene to enter the core of his being.  He has wishes and intentions for himself and his loved ones, but he does not press these as demands or entitlements.  He leaves it to the Nazarene to determine their worthiness.  In return, he makes a lifelong pledge to attend the procession every year, and to visit the icon whenever the opportunity presents itself.

The wishes are varied: recovery from a critical illness, safety in one’s overseas journey, success in an examination, relief from a series of misfortunes, the grant of a longed-for spouse or child, forgiveness for something done or not done. These are not ordinary prayers. They are intentions secured by a pledge, a commitment to virtue, albeit limited, or to personal transformation.

Religious devotions are common in our society.  But perhaps no other piety can equal the manic fervor that marks the devotion to the Black Nazarene.  Individual devotees come as private seekers and are dissolved in the crowd, emerging as little bubbles in what the French sociologist Emile Durkheim calls a “collective effervescence.”  The energy that is formed and released by the multitude during the Nazarene’s procession is what religion, in its most elementary form, is about. The mass energy of a million people is focused on the image, and from there it radiates its power back to the crowd. This phenomenon prompted Durkheim’s conclusion that, in religion, what the people actually worship is no more than a representation of their collective being.

This is of course contrary to the self-understanding of religious systems, from whose standpoint the icon, the image, the statue, (the “totem”) is itself the source of the force. Whether one subscribes to Durkheim or not, no one can fail to be impressed by the demonstration of this astounding phenomenon in the annual procession of Quiapo’s Black Nazarene.  On the ground, one is either engulfed as a participant, or becomes an isolated entity with a limited view of events. It is the panoramic eye of the television camera that captures and reveals the multitude.  As it pans the heaving and swaying crowd surrounding the statue of the Nazarene, the camera offers the viewer some of the most graphic images of collective energy one can ever hope to see.  Tracking this elusive energy’s ebbs and flows, one is mesmerized by its moments of sudden seizure and graceful calm, its coherence and self-control, and its episodes of release and chaos.

So boundless is this elemental force that one might be forgiven for imagining what immense social good it could bring if it were harnessed to long-term collective goals.  At the same time, however, one cannot be unmindful of the dangers that lurk behind the excesses of the frenzied crowd from which it emanates.

At one point in last Monday’s 22-hour procession, the crowd went after a suspected cell-phone snatcher.  The man, garbed in the maroon shirt of a Nazarene devotee, literally rushed into the arms of the police to shield himself against the blind rage of a lynching mob. These professed followers of Christ tried to break into the security cordon where the man was being detained.  They wanted to kill him.  At that moment, they forgot who they were supposed to be: Christians moved by love and forgiveness. They had become mere members of a herd whose ranks felt threatened.

Such are the origins of fanatical violence.  A force for good unexpectedly turns into its opposite. The lines between the sacred and the profane, so exquisitely drawn in ritual observances, are summarily breached in the most inexplicable way.  It makes one wonder if Durkheim was right to associate religion with the demarcation of the sacred and the profane.

One of the most charming traits of Nazarene spirituality is the practice of going barefoot on the hallowed ground where the procession of the Nazarene passes. In an act of purification, devotees shed off their slippers and shoes as they enter the sacred domain of Christ.  But the deed is soon controverted and rendered meaningless by the profane and wanton littering that follows in the wake of the holy procession. It is astounding to see how the devotees mortified their bodies and purified their hearts but could not care less that they were dumping all their trash along the procession route and in front of the church that serves as the Nazarene’s home.

With single-mindedness, they jostled with one another to get close to the Black Nazarene for the rare privilege of wiping it with their shirts or touching even just the platform on which it rests.  So deep was their faith that after the carriage broke down from the weight of the people who had clambered aboard, several devotees hoisted the platform on their bare shoulders, and carried it through the length of the procession.

Yet, when the procession was over, and the statue was back in its glass case inside the church, the platform that a while ago had been part of the venerated objects was casually shoved to one corner of the courtyard where it lay unattended. Amid the sea of garbage left behind, the Nazarene’s andas stood as an ironic reminder of the shifting boundary between the sacred and the profane.