Defining the divine: A partial lexicon of the Filipino faith

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For the followers of the Black Nazarene procession, to articulate a religious experience is to succumb to using words that may not truly express the depths of their faith. The words “ginhawa,” “utang na loob,” or “panata” acquire a meaning of their own. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — How does one express an experience of God?

Seldom do we have the precise vocabulary for it. Perhaps this is why religions of the book are such a big deal — that the vocabulary of faith is articulated, and made final for either consumption or scrutiny.

The traslacion, a ritual reportedly celebrated since 1797, attracted roughly a million this year. It traces its roots to a church decree to move the image from Intramuros to Quiapo. It seems to signal the expansion of the Kingdom of God — God made accessible to the masses outside of the walled city. Perhaps this is why the devotees of the Nazareno are predominantly from the working class.

According to National University of Singapore research scholar Mark Iñigo Tallara, Ph.D., devotion “appears to be a fulfillment of a personal ... vow during a life crisis in return for a divine favor.” It is “recognition of a debt and its promised payment among the devotees.”

The definition first strikes me as entirely transactional, because something is expected in return. But upon immersing in the scorching heat and shifting congestion of the traslacion, I find myself disputing that the procession is nothing more than blind devotion. In fact, I began to wonder: what do these devotees know that we do not?

We had been told during our orientation to pack accordingly: wear jeans, no backpacks and wear rubber shoes — dress appropriately for a crowd like this. But upon arriving, as he squeezed among the devotees, our photographer was told twice by different devotees that he should have come barefoot. Dress appropriately for a crowd like this.

I realize how different the language that we spoke was from that of the devotees. What they know, that we do not, manifests in language, so here is a partial lexicon of the traslacion.

nazareno trio.jpg Devotion “appears to be a fulfillment of a personal ... vow during a life crisis in return for a divine favor,” according to National University of Singapore research scholar Mark Iñigo Tallara, Ph.D. It is “recognition of a debt and its promised payment among the devotees.” Photos by JL JAVIER

Nazareno 1

To think that the ritual is a manifestation of folk Catholicism is not entirely wrong. Tallara says that the devotion is “a reflection of the pre-Spanish elements of Filipino understanding of the divine and the sacred fused with Catholic faith.”

Inculturation became the means by which the Catholic Church adapted Christian theology to ethnic cultures. While early Filipinos gave offerings to anitos in exchange for protection, they also transposed this practice to Christ, Mary, and the saints, says Tallara.

“The power believed to be immanent in the anitos is now transferred to the person of Jesus, Mary and all the saints,” Tallara explains. “Rather than seeing them as models of a holy life, these holy men and women are seen in the same light that early Filipinos saw the anitos as powerful gods.”

This was how, Tallara believes, the Christ’s passion and resurrection came to appeal to Filipino imagination.

Panata

The Feast of the Black Nazarene, upon both impression and immersion, is a pulsing mass of people and a terribly sensory experience. So many things happen at the same time; everyone is moving, pushing and waving, making it impossible to be alone. It is such a public act.

But for the devotee, this is the manifestation of something deeper: a private arrangement, between the devotee and God.

Panata is a personal and a secret vow that needs to be performed publicly and communally and is directed towards touching and being touched by God,” explains Mark Joseph Calano, Ph.D., who teaches philosophy at the Ateneo de Manila University.

“[The panata] loses its potency at the instance of its articulation,” Calano continues. “So, we can never know the most common or strangest reason why people touch the image, but we do know that the act of touching or its attempt is, in fact, a communal and public demonstration of the personal vow. In this sense, it is a conscious and rational devotion.”

nazareno touch.jpg “Panata is a personal and a secret vow that needs to be performed publicly and communally and is directed towards touching and being touched by God,” explains Mark Joseph Calano, Ph.D., a philosophy professor at the Ateneo de Manila University. Photo by JL JAVIER

Ginhawa

When I ask devotee Sammy Bautista of Sampaloc, Manila, what he prays for, he makes a list which he later drops and seems to correct. “Sa amin naman, hindi namin nakikita, nararamdaman lang.”

“The more they participate in the traslacion, the more they encounter the Lord and the more they are empowered to face the difficulties of life and have a foretaste of God’s ginhawa,” explains Calano, who explains ginhawa as “something salvific.”

The word has often been used before, if you ask devotees what they feel upon seeing the Nazarene. The word ginhawa is also difficult to translate into English — ‘comfort’ and ‘ease’ cut it too short.

But there is causality at work here. Calano likens this to the Gospel story of the bleeding woman, who was cured upon touching Jesus’ cloak.

“More than the cure, I think premium should be given to the fact of the encounter,” he says. “What is the cure, if there was no encounter?”

Quiapo

In a paper he wrote for the academic journal Kritika Kultura, Calano argues that the informality of the procession is “a mirror of the informality in the lives of its many devotees.”  This informality is even, he says, “a determining feature of Filipino culture.”

Quiapo is a place best manifests this chaos. Its informal settlements, Calano once wrote, give its urbanity “fluidity and spontaneity.”

Nick Joaquin once said that Quiapo is the intersection of the divine and the profane, and the two may be impossible to separate, lest the church be reduced to an “antiseptic shrine” and people clamor again that God be returned “to the dust and tumult of the market place.”

“Downtown is terrible, but downtown is where the Lord is,” Joaquin is quoted as saying in Gregorio Brillantes’ “Black Christ in Neon Lights.”

Quiapo to you and me is chaos; Quiapo to the devotee is home.

nazareno informality.jpg The informality of the procession is “a mirror of the informality in the lives of its many devotees,” says Calano. This informality is even, he says, “a determining feature of Filipino culture.” Photo by JL JAVIER

Nazareno 2

“Many think that the appeal of the Black Nazarene comes from the fact that it is a portrayal of Jesus suffering and, since we are a people used to suffering, we find a model in the suffering one,” says Calano.

He recounts a story of a colleague who was involved in parochial work in Manila. He had said that the basilica once commissioned an image of the Black Nazarene. The sculptor crafted “a really ‘suffering’ Christ burdened with the cross.”

“When the devotees saw this image, they turned it down and refused to accept it because for them and to them, the Black Nazarene is not a Jesus who is powerless in the face of suffering, but, instead, a Jesus who is standing up and overcoming a fall,” says Calano.

“I think devotees see themselves as overcoming their difficulties because of Him, who first overcome them,” he continues. “The image portrays a compassionate Christ, one who literally suffers with His people. More importantly, Jesus not only suffers with us, but overcomes His suffering with us.”

Utang na loob

Tallara says that devotion should also be seen in light of utang na loob, roughly translated as a ‘debt of gratitude.’ “Gratitude perhaps on the miracles received,” says Tallara, “so in return as panata ... the devotee will join the procession or pilgrimage every year.”

nazareno compassionate.jpg As manifested in the Traslacion, "devotees see themselves as overcoming their difficulties because of Him, who first overcome them,” says Calano. continues. “The image portrays a compassionate Christ, one who literally suffers with His people." Photo by JL JAVIER

Nagpapasalamat ako sa Kanya,” Bautista, who has been attending the procession since he was fifteen, told me. “'Yung isa kong anak nakapunta ng Dubai ... dahil sa Kanya.”

He gestures toward his barangay’s smaller replica of the Nazarene, the way one would gesture toward a friend who was just standing in the corner. It is a strange direction, to point sideways when referring to God, instead of upward. As though Christ in flesh were right there on the carriage.

Calano also shares an encounter with one of his respondents when he wanted to know what she asked from the Nazareno.

“She sternly corrected me and said that she is not asking anything. Instead, she is thanking the Black Nazarene for favors and blessings received,” says Calano. “The basis of the devotion is gratitude, not need. People flock Quiapo because of our understanding of utang na loob. It is a perpetual debt of gratitude.”

***

This incomplete dictionary can capture only a partial understanding of the traslacion — after all, I have not been doing the procession for years, and I have not touched Christ on the carroza. As figures from the sea of people leapt up like fish to cling to a side of the cross and disappeared again into the mass, I wondered if I would be struck by some incredible knowledge if I were to touch the Nazareno.

I was once told to be conscious of what the poor can teach you. There is a reason, I believe, that theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.