Soyez Realistes (Be Realistic)

I know it may be a little too late for a Lenten reflection. But then again, genuine reflection can also happen unbidden, or without following a schedule.

This particular reflection was prompted by two things. The first was I was reviewing our recordings and photographs of Pantaron Manobo ritual for my dissertation proposal, and it occurred to me how simple Manobo ritual was. This is not to mean that their belief system as a whole is “simple” as in it is easy to understand (on the contrary, I believe it to be very complex and that we have only just begun to scratch the surface of the imaginary behind it). But as a performance, it really does not need too many fancy accoutrements and neither are there any substantial visual spectacles (unlike, say, the “ordinary” Catholic mass).

Briefly, a typically Pantaron Manobo prayer ritual or panubad-tubad proceeds like this. Spiritual practitioners called baylan and important members of the community like the datu take turns in addressing the group that is present, as well as unseen spirits. Depending on how big the assembly is, or how many villages are participating, anywhere between two or five baylan and datu could speak one after the other. They hold a chicken while speaking, and at appropriate points in their prayer would perform the pakulab motion of sweeping the open wing of the bird. A sacrificial animal would then be killed (such as the chicken itself, or for large groups a pig) and its meat distributed.

Individuals with prominent social roles always wear their best karaan clothing, and the butchering is always the focus of concentrated discussion. But there does not seem to be any way to strongly command the attention of the congregation as the panubad-tubad takes place, and neither is there any great investment in material manifestations (like altars or structures) of religious presence.

The other thing that prompted my reflection was an almost-accidental visit to the Museum Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder in Amsterdam. I say almost-accidental because from street level all you saw was a non-descript Dutch building whose only give-away was a sign with the museum name. As a museum nerd I made a beeline for it despite not knowing what the other Dutch words meant. It turned out that this was the Our Lord in the Attic Museum, a typical 17th-century residence of a well-to-do trader named Jan Hartman who built a fully-functioning Catholic church in its upper floors.

In the mid-1600s when Calvinism became the de facto state religion in the Netherlands, Catholics lost many privileges such as the use of their churches and performing public worship (it did not help that this religion was associated with the Spanish empire, from which the Dutch seceded to declare their independence). But despite formal prohibitions, the Dutch authorities were (even more so now) tolerant of unofficial religious practices. As long as services took place in private it was not a problem. And apparently there never were any for the Hartman family, as well as their church-mates. It remained a living church all the way until the 19th century when religious rights were restored and the church was converted into a museum.

Something similar can be found with the Lutheran church here in Leiden. As a different branch of Protestantism it too had to minimize its public presence, and so the building was hidden behind a row of houses. Also in the 19th century its rights were restored, and the houses that kept it from view were demolished, finally revealing its façade. If you look closely you may notice that all the other buildings beside it opened directly onto the street, while the church is the only structure with a front yard of sorts – the space where the demolished houses used to stand.

Let us clarify that we should staunchly remain against religious persecution and discrimination. Nor should we go back to the age when spiritual beliefs and activities were policed, and laws that infringed on this right were enforced. But in life we would always face challenges and adversities. The best thing to do when this happens is to make it a source of strength and even more blessings in the form of knowing one’s self and one’s place in the world even better.

Taking off from this episode in Dutch history I considered for a minute what sort of spirituality may be cultivated when one’s focus is made to divert from showy exteriors to what is more deeply interior. The Hartman family made do: from the outside nothing stood out about their house but the church inside was a splendid sanctuary, a space for similarly oppressed persons to gather in comfort and solidarity.

Then I thought of how, in some places in the Philippines, religiosity resorts to a lot of showiness, or even ostentation, in the course of many of its practices. I thought of how it often becomes very difficult to disentangle “expressions” of “community” from a just-as-prominent strain to outdo one another (or in the more vivid Tagalog, “pabonggahan”).

I suppose that in the days when the Church was an undisputed spiritual and secular authority, it served its purposes to be highly visible, its rituals and places of worship to be visually impressive or even overpowering. This is why, for example, many religious structures are more akin to palaces or government buildings – they are designed to be monumental structures signifying hegemony and dominance. Not to mention that these also materially convey the considerable economic resources over which they exerted control. Many of the faithful followed suit.

Which is why I remembered the Manobo panubad-tubad and its simplicity. If our religious practices now really revolve around a genuine sense of community and equal love to all our sisters and brothers, then there should be less and less room for flashy manifestations of grandeur and affluence. Like the Manobo, we can realize a sense of love and community through more modest ways. We too can redirect our senses, and our minds and hearts, to the proper locus of spirituality (or the core of religion) that lies on the absolute obverse of showiness and ostentation.

What if the Pantaron Manobos — resisters and fleers from lowland-center, pueblo-colonial expansion and colonial-state hegemonizing moves as they are — and their mobile life in the highlands not only necessitates material simplicity in their ritual practices but also gets them closer to what really matters when we commune with the “spirits”? (davaotoday.com)

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