Updated 21:04 PM PHT Wed, April 12, 2017
Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “Parang babae yung kumakanta,” one of the senior choir members told me after I sang a responsorial Psalm during a Sunday mass. I wanted to assure him that, despite my budding gayness at that age — I was 12 years old then — it was unintentional. I didn’t want to sound like a birit diva tearing through "Ang Panginoon ang Aking Tanglaw" but my voice hasn’t cracked yet. Puberty has yet to further embalm my body with awkwardness. I thought “ipit ang boses” was a technique that allowed me to explore the possibilities of my singing. But in hindsight, it really was just a gay boy’s way of connecting through songs, maximizing his little voice before it croaks to reveal he’s really no good.
Singing a Psalm in front of the lolos and lolas of an early Sunday mass was a highlight of my short church choir career. I would like to think it validated my role as a lowly choir member and that my voice backed up my ambitions to become a, uh, divine diva (kidding). This was in the twilight era, when “Harry Potter” and “The Lord of the Rings” have yet to form my escapist core. Some kids had sports, vacations, or acting workshops — I had a whole summer that was, in many ways, a church camp.
I spent most of the day with the youth group: in choir practice, talking about our crushes or pop culture detritus, and rehearsing for the senakulo (I transitioned from taong bayan to disciple after a year). My parents thought I was being reared as a responsible Catholic but I, unconsciously, was transitioning from a Jesus-centric life to a stage where boys posed both the boon and bane of my existence.
There is more to religious songs than “Tanging Yaman,” Don Moen, and Hillsongs. In our ramshackle of a house, I used acetate and a flashlight to create a makeshift projector so I can practice church songs — in order of use during mass. Preparing for the Jubilee year meant introducing new arrangements and new songs to the repertoire and we were excited that an actual composer of church songs, Father Rey, was going to walk us through everything.
It was my first time hearing and singing some of these songs. My ears were trained to hearing Psalm 23, “Awit ng Paghahandog,” and “Papuri sa Diyos” that were in usual circulation during mass. The new songs take on a sheen unlike any other jubilatory praise songs. These songs were about love, conversations with God that sought comfort and enlightenment, such as in “Panalangin Para sa Pagiging Bukas Palad” and “Pagsibol.”
For a young mind whose music consumption was purely pop, church songs were suddenly a link to God that wasn’t alienating. The songs spoke through language that explored the depths of our relationship with the divine.
“Pagsibol,” for example, is almost painterly, evoking landscapes that glow with the warmth of creation. “Awit ng Paghahangad” is plaintive in its serenity, realized fully by the version sung by the Philippine Madrigal Singers. “Awit ng Isang Alagad” is a poetic plea for redemption (“Ang ulap na nagsisilbing dilim sa langit ko/Tunawin at gawing ulan, laan sa buhay kong tigang”), something that I’ve always enjoyed singing because of its earnestness.
The word of God has constantly been misused to oppress members of the LGBTQs but we always forget that the teachings of Christianity are founded on love. “Diyos ay pag-ibig,” a gospel song proclaims. The vindictive God of the Old Testament no longer spewed hatred in the New Testament — a fact that Bible-thumpers overlook, quick to invoke fire and brimstone to anyone outside their perceived lines. With the risk of sounding like a cheeseball, it is the value of love that underscores many praise songs — because it is a virtue that ultimately ties the divine with the human.
Like any other gay boy raised as a Catholic, I’ve always had a difficult relationship with faith. Most of the debates I’ve had with myself were informed by experiences where the presence of a higher being was challenged by valid and intellectual questions. I’ve even flirted with atheism but every time I hit rock bottom, which has happened many times, I always return to the contentions of my faith, bargaining with God and, a few times even, finding myself back in church, singing hymns to calm the tempest.
“If there's any kind of magic in this world, it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something,” Julie Delpy’s Celine says in “Before Sunrise.” If there really is a divine working through the “magic” of the everyday, it rests upon the mundane; the charm of the ordinary, sung in reverence and wonder as the church bells beckon another holy hour.