Popular religion and liberation

Popular religion and liberation

February 5, 2024

In the Quiapo procession of the Black Nazarene are bodies—sweating bodies next to each other, rushing and pushing bodies—trying to reach, wipe, wave at the passing image which is also a body of the suffering Jesus trying to stand up from the unjust pain imposed on him. A week after, at the Cebu or Kalibo processions of the Santo Niño, we will also see bodies—dancing and singing bodies—also waving and swaying to the drum beats at the same time uttering their deepest prayer beyond words and which only their bodies can express.

People from outside do not understand. On the one side, we hear voices of condemnation: fanaticism, superstition, uncritical devotion. On the other side, we witness devotional commercialism and political opportunism at their best, seemingly oblivious to what is going on within the hearts of the participants.

But regardless of what “outsiders” say, the devotees continue walking in the procession rain or shine, from morning to the next dawn—saying their prayers, wiping their towels, waving their handkerchiefs, lighting their candles hoping that at the day’s end, a problem will be solved, a sickness will be cured, a relationship healed. And even if these do not happen, one gains some strength to continue to survive and a hope that life shall be bearable no matter how.

It is only people who have experienced this for a long time who know what this is all about. For these people, there is no need to explain. They keep coming here every year and place their bodies on the line. They believe. And no matter how much you prevent them, they will still come no matter what.

I met an 80-year old lady in Quaipo who has been coming to this place since she was 20 years old. She came alone despite the warnings of her children. She knows her way here and she feels it is the safest place to be. She thinks she will get sick if she does not come.

I have also talked with old women gracefully dancing the Sinulog in front of the Cebu Basilica year in and year out, candles in hand and a ready prayer for the one requesting. If you are there for the first time, you feel awkward to dance. But these women can spontaneously utter a prayer in the sincerest of their hearts accompanied by graceful steps because they have been doing it the whole of their lives. And a danced prayer is better heard by the Santo Niño, they say.

As I was trying to make sense of these powerful experiences, I remember a sociologist by the name of Pierre Bourdieu who talks about habitus. Habitus are durable bodily dispositions which we learn as members of specific societies. We are identified as members of these communities because of our habitus.

Since we are ‘born into the social game’, we possess the ‘feel’ for it. We possess that capacity for endless improvisation of these taken-for-granted practices which our society taught us—the wiping, the dancing, the believing. Only those who are socialized into them can do and can understand.

This sociological insight is important to understand the events in Quiapo, Sinulog, Ati-atihan, Baclaran—and almost the whole of Filipino popular Catholicism. First, the ‘body’ is central, i.e., the senses, corporeality and physical presence. We need to kiss the crucifix, to wipe the santo with one’s handkerchief, to walk through the procession, to bathe the image of the saint in a fluvial parade in order to pray for rain, to make the Sign of the Cross no matter how hastily when one passes by a church building, to kneel down or prostrate oneself, to close one’s eyes, to wave one’s hands and shout ‘Amen’!

An overly ‘mentalist’ or intellectualist religion, at least in the context of the many countries in the South, could never survive. Even in the West where these practices are long gone, people still love to light candles (not necessarily in the church) or are quite charmed by the repetitious rhythm of Taizé hymns. Even the radical Left movements know this: protest rallies and mass mobilizations also acknowledge the centrality of bodily expressions, such as the ‘clenched fist’, the kapit-bisig, the one-liner chants or the long marches. A ‘sea of protesting bodies’ conveys the statement of dissent much more powerfully than an intellectual debate.

Second, since practices are embodied, they are enduring and stable. In fact, it is in their durability that social agents feel a sense of order and security generated by their capacity to master the game itself.

But such permanence does not connote a sense of stasis. On the contrary, it is habitus’s durably structured dispositions which engender the capacity for inventiveness and creativity. A ‘new participant’ in the game is not yet capable of improvisation. It is the stable habitus alone that generates the ‘feel for the game’.

What consequence has this point for pastoral practice? People love to go through the same practices year in and year out: the same rituals, same processional routes, same hymns and gestures, etc.

Yet the innovative value of these regularities could not be underestimated. A traditional Marian procession can organically spill over into a protest march against Marcos’ martial law; a repetitious chanting of the Pasyon can provide a language to articulate a social upheaval against colonial oppression; a seemingly innocent religious activity can transform itself into, and be perceived as, an act of resistance.

Third, spirituality can only be bodily. Our bodies are the only ways we communicate with the divine. This incarnational approach to the divine runs counter to the intellectualist Western tradition which privileges the inner mental state, the esoteric experience, the internal consciousness. The Platonic disdain for the material dismisses the bodily, the sensuous and the ordinary as quite base and lowly.

Yet we can only relate with God through these sensuous realities. It is thus imperative that all pastors and church ministers immerse themselves and get involved in the tempo of people’s practices. Anyone who ministers from the armchair or who issues pastoral directives from isolated convents risk of becoming useless and irrelevant.

Moreover, if the Church is to help mediate and channel God’s salvation into the human community, these practices should be considered as the only way in which the Church must walk and think, for it is here that people articulate the acts of God experienced in their everyday life.

For ordinary people, these everyday practices which are deeply intertwined with one’s cultural memories and religious histories are the only wells from which they can draw the strength needed in their daily struggle for survival.

Yet, in some recent past, almost every morning we also see bodies lying on the streets during the War on Drugs, more than six thousands of dead bodies (or more than 30 thousand according to some concerned groups). Bloodied bodies were sprawling on the same streets where our processions pass. And yet, we seldom hear a voice of protest for desecrating the same hallowed bodies that people use to honor their God. The voices who jubilantly shout “Viva!” to the Nazareno and the Santo Niño also disdainfully say “May’ra!” (Maayo rang namatay kay addict man. Linisin natin ang lipunan!)

The official political machine of course tyrannically extolled the success of the project. Sadly, we seldom heard cries of protest from the people. The only cries we heard were the wailing of widows and orphans as they see the bodies of their beloved now lifeless, and being carried away by armed men they do not know. And their cries should not be as loud to avoid added violence or retaliation. No one came to their wakes because of fear. The poor painfully suffer in silence because the political machine uses all its “eyes and ears” to coerce them to submission.

The same hands that clapped for the Nazareno are the ones that also applauded or did a fist bump for Duterte as he commanded the police to kill the addicts left and right. The same hands that waved at the Santo Nino are the same hands that also voted for the corrupt politicians and brought them to power in the last elections.

What has become of human lives? What has become of human dignity? What has become of honesty and transparency in public service? What has become of the embodied God in our human bodies? What has become of our faith? What has become of our world?

Can our praying bodies, moving bodies, dancing bodies, place themselves on the line and stand up to protect the thousands of dying bodies around us? Or, shall we keep waving handkerchiefs or dancing in front of our santos and continue to applaud for corrupt politicians who ravage our lands?

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