On the surface, Holy Week in the Philippines is a bizarre admixture of Catholicism, individuals’ eccentricities, and sadism-masochism tendencies. Under the scorching heat of the sun, half-naked men roamed the streets of Mabalacat, Pampanga flogging themselves until they bleed exposing the inner layer of their skin. It was first time I witnessed this tradition; having lived my life in southern Philippines, there was nothing like this in my place, except that I recall when we were young how our father gave us a few soft lashings using a bitter vine believed to keep evil spirits away.
Here in Pampanga, men create wounds on their backs by making small cuts using razor blades then repeatedly lash their back using a device made of bamboo that promotes profuse bleeding. This act, as well as crucifixion is also practiced by some women.
Each barangay (a unit of local government) in Pampanga has their own makeshift structure that acted like a station of the cross where bands of men inflicting pain on themselves pass to pray and ask forgiveness for the sins they committed during the year. This act which they call panata, roughly translated to a ‘vow’ is done by the namamanata or the person doing the act for a specified number of years, usually spanning several decades, for reasons ranging from thanksgiving for the blessing received from heavens, realization of a wish, or expression of faith.
What struck me, however, is the magnitude of faith that has been brought to an almost maniacal height. I opted not to go to San Fernando, another municipality of Pampanga that was once featured in the National Geographic’s ‘Taboo’ episode. Here actual crucifixion was being done to not less than 30 devotees, or fanatics, the choice of the better word is left to the reader of this blog. The blood and gore I saw in the self-flogging of the namamanata in Mabalacat is already too much to bear.
Faith in the most Christian nation (the word ‘Christian’ is an absolute adjective so that means it does not lend itself to comparison and qualification; please forgive this blunder) in Asia is not considered as just one of the components in the life of an ordinary Filipino. For some, it is the only thing they got that allows them to live amid all the poverty and despicable living conditions. The pain from the nails passing through one’s hands and feet are nothing compared to the struggles an ordinary Filipino endured during the rest of the year. Pain, as a part of the Filipino conception of himself, has been wired in his national psyche that Filipinos do not anymore get stupefied when they see blood, skinned back from lashing, and crucified bodies.
The tradition lives on.
To a certain extent, events during the Holy Week in the Philippines have become spectacles in themselves where most local government, in the aim to increase revenues from tourism, even have marketing strategies to lure local and foreign tourists that are amazed and amused with the display of faith, tradition, almost supernatural ability to endure pain, and the extent a human being has to go through to show his faith.
I do not want to sound judgmental here, for when faith assumes the subject of a discussion, I relinquish whatever position I have, probably because I have nothing close to it to speak of. Culture is bound to be absurd from the perspective of an outsider, but somehow finding myself midway: an alien and a member of the greater Filipino culture all at the same time, I can’t help myself from feeling dazed, awed, traumatized to a certain extent, and a bit proud.