Culture, faith, and the Black Nazarene

If there is a cultural phenomenon that perhaps perfectly encapsulates the complexity of the Filipino religious psyche, it must be the devotion to the Black Nazarene.  Every year, on a day like this, Jan. 9, almost a million Filipinos from all walks of life participate in the frenzied procession of the statue of the Black Nazarene of Quiapo.  The crowds have grown bigger every year, defying prognostications of the waning of faith in the modern world.  The procession is such a stunning spectacle that people from the tourism industry are raising the possibility of using it as a magnet to draw pilgrims and visitors from all over the world.

In a mass display of intense faith, devotees of the Black Nazarene redeem a personal pact (“panata”) they make with God. They come barefoot and lose themselves in the throng, intentionally exposing themselves to injury and pain.  The greater the mortification, it seems, the more meaningful the experience becomes.  Many come to tell God their troubles and unfulfilled wishes.  But some are there just to express gratitude for blessings received.  Still others participate as if to buy advance absolution for a year of sinning. Whatever it is that impels individuals to go there, one cannot but be awed by the collective energy contained in that crowd.

As a student of society, I have been at pains to understand the core beliefs behind this religious devotion.  On one hand, the Nazarene devotion seems to signify the continuing vitality of faith in the life of the Filipino.  But, on the other, I cannot help wondering if this tremendous collective power can ever be harnessed as a positive force in the building of a prosperous nation and a decent society.

We need to ask ourselves how we are able to blend so much religious fervor with a culture of corruption, or mix a manifest devotion to the exemplary figure of a selfless Christ with a life of greed, or gospel values with hate, oppression, and selfishness.   The answer cannot lie in the ability to compartmentalize, or to differentiate functional spheres—qualities that are more associated with the modern man.  I am more inclined to think that these contradictions arise from a failure to understand faith as a philosophy of life, or as a practical and meaningful guide to daily living.

I believe there is some basis for the thought that all this may be due to the fact that our people first encountered Christianity as a tool of colonial subjugation.  According to this view, the Christian God entered our culture as an all-powerful Being that was more fearsome than loving, more punitive than kind, and more controlling than trusting.  The outcome of this was an infantile religiosity that we never quite outgrew.

We remain fixated with icons, with the physical representations than the meanings behind them.  We struggle to get the rituals right in order to avoid bad luck, while showing little discipline, if any, in the daily practice of a virtuous life. We have mastered liturgy but not catechesis.

The bright side to this is that our faith, being naive, is immune to disappointment.  It may be shallow, but it is firm, and is ever hopeful.  That is why our churches are never empty.  Rather than cause resentment and despair, every misfortune is read as a summons to stronger faith.  Nothing fazes us—not calamities, not foreign cultures, not poverty, not even death.  Maybe this is the same quality that foreign observers celebrate as Filipino resilience.  We bounce back all the time.

Yet we seem chronically unable to improve on past performances.  I suppose that is the dark side of our culture—where faith fuses with fatalism.  What insulates us from despair all too often also prevents us from stepping out of the skin of our culture and transforming the way we live.  We are quick to accept the conditions of our lives as though they were unchangeable givens, waiting for a providential God to supply what we lack. That is why our overseas Filipino workers are exceptional. Their faith gives them the strength to venture out into the world, pick up their lives, and reshape these according to their hopes.

Such has also been the vision for the last 20 years of Ramon Macaraig, a polio victim. Despite his condition, he joins the annual procession of the Black Nazarene without fail, hoping for the rare chance to climb up the platform bearing the statue and, in that fleeting moment, to wrap his arms around it.  He believes that it’s all he needs to surpass himself.  And so he keeps trying to get close to the carriage, refusing to heed advice that that is a most dangerous place to be in for cripples like him.

I was watching him the other night being interviewed on the early evening news by my daughter Kara David.  He speaks of a clear sign—familiar to devotees—that one has been chosen to approach and touch the Black Nazarene. Suddenly one is lifted from one’s feet by the heaving crowd, and thrown into the air like a piece of cloth. Every year, Ramon waits for that moment, searching his bones for the surge of lightness that will make him float.  In the meantime, life has dealt him another blow: leprosy.  Yet his faith is unshakeable.  As in the gospels, he believes Christ will one day make him walk and cure his affliction.  Filled with anticipation, he remains cheerful.

For once, I think I began to understand what Blaise Pascal meant when he wrote: “Man surpasses man, infinitely.”  Faith makes that possible. If only we could find a way of harnessing the immense power of faith to surpass ourselves as a nation.