Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Simbang Gabi

Having never traveled to the Philippines, and knowing how shocked RoseMary’s mother was upon learning of my non-religious beliefs, I needed to confirm with RoseMary what topics for conversation were off limits. After all, in some parts of the world, if you bring up the wrong topic for discussion, or give the wrong opinion, you may get yourself shipped home in a crate. I knew Philippines, despite their recent history of Martial Law under Ferdinand Marcos, was not that repressive, yet, I did not want to inadvertently and needlessly offend anybody. When traveling overseas, one needs to be mindful of local customs, mores and taboos.

“Of course, you may talk about anything. Nobody minds. Just pay proper respect to those older than you,” RoseMary reassured me.

“Your family discusses politics openly?” I asked with embarrassing ignorance.

“Yes, my family talks local politics all the time,” said RoseMary. Then came the warning from my wife, who knows me all too well: “But NO RELIGION”.

So with that warning from my wife, I promised to be respectful to her family’s religious beliefs. Of course, I was planning on being respectful without the warning, but I figured it was just best not to question, discuss or challenge any religious belief with any person at any time. RoseMary’s mother knew I was not Catholic, and I remember telling her once a few years ago that I doubted there was a god, but that frightful memory may have been repressed in the dark and forgotten corners of her mind.

I figured I had to look at it in this way: I was an outsider visiting an alien culture. I got the impression that the Philippine culture and beliefs were considered exclusive to the Philippine people and not necessarily for anybody else. RoseMary’s mother described her religious beliefs in a peculiar way. I am used to hearing the Gospel as a Universal Truth, applicable to all, and to be ignored by nobody. Instead of that, mother prefaced her beliefs with, “It is our belief that…”, or “it is our custom to…”, and never imposed such beliefs or customs on me or anybody else. Or, as mother once told me when discussing good luck charms for the Chinese New Year, “Those beliefs only work for the Chinese”. Much like Jews who practice certain dietary customs and other religious laws, they practice their own traditions, yet don’t seem to care what anybody else does. I guess some beliefs work for some people, other beliefs work for other people. Some traditions are for us, others are for them. In a way, I found it very refreshing. It seemed a very tribal mentality, and I suppose was her way of saying, “We have our beliefs, our customs and our ways of doing things. You have yours. We invite you as a guest to experience our beliefs and customs while you are staying with us.” At least I think that is what she meant. I am not entirely sure, however, since I was warned not to discuss religion with her family. I listened to what they said, nodded my head, and kept my trouble-making trap shut.

So with that in mind, I promised RoseMary that I was not visiting Philippines to make a statement. I was there to get to know her family, her people and the culture. I decided to attend Catholic Mass every time her family went (little did I know what I was getting myself into). RoseMary told me if I felt uncomfortable I could sit outside, but I figured that would draw too much attention to myself, which I promised I would not do. I would sit in the pew with the rest of the family, and perform the various rituals of the Mass except for partaking of the elements. I told RoseMary that I could not do that without feeling hypocritical. Since everyone in the church supposedly hates hypocrites, I would not eat the bread and drink the wine, but would do most everything else. Oh, and I would not stick my finger into the Holy Water.

I quickly learned that one should never promise to attend Catholic Mass with a devoutly Catholic family during the Christmas season, without knowing how many masses are actually on the schedule of events. Philippines has a tradition called Simbang Gabi. In the Tagalog language, Simbahan is translated Church and Gabi is Evening, but Simbang Gabi has come to mean Dawn Mass. The devout attend Mass every morning for the nine days before Christmas. Mass began at 4AM, and if you know anything about traffic in Manila (another article needs to be devoted to this subject – shoving a camel through the eye of a needle is nothing compared to trying to drive down a choked Manila highway), that meant we were out of bed by 2:30 or 3:00.

The reward for faithfully completing the nine-day Simbang Gabi cycle? In the words of RoseMary’s brother, “If you make a wish, it will come true”.

RoseMary’s younger sister said something to me along similar lines. Wishes will be granted, if only you can complete all nine days of Simbang Gabi.

I love RoseMary’s family, and in a way, it is painful for me to type these things about the way that they think. I do love them. RoseMary’s brother is mature, educated, and intelligent. Yet, somehow, he is sincerely making a claim that sounds to me more like something that should come from an 8-year-old boy who is showing me a tooth that he is ready to hide under the pillow.

This left me a bit… unnerved.

This brings up another topic that I found most fascinating, and something I will be thinking about and devoting at least one blog article to: never before had I found the lines between religion, superstition and magic blurred like I found in Philippines. Metro-Manila is a developing city, young, urban, worldly, sophisticated and cosmopolitan. RoseMary told me the older people are far more superstitious and that the superstitions are far worse in the provinces. I found this to be good news, and perhaps she is right, but I made a few observations that countered that claim. I suppose she spoke general truth which contained a few exceptions.

I completed all nine days of Simbang Gabi. I also attended, if memory serves, an additional five masses besides the Simbang Gabi. My counting may be off a bit, because the Masses tended to blend together into one massive, half-coherent memory. I did as I promised. I sat with the family. I was respectful. I did not call attention to myself. I am almost certain that I paid far more attention to the readings and homilies than most of the Faithful in attendance (I know – because I kept notes). True, I left the building during one Mass so I could video-tape the crowds outside the building and the taho vendor selling his sweet breakfast treats to hungry children.

I am glad I did – it was certainly very interesting. So what were the homilies like? How was the distinction between religion, superstition and magic blurred? Stay tuned ….


Lorena said...

Wow! You're back. Great!

Looking forward to more on your middle-of-the-night religious "escapades."

DoOrDoNot said...

I will definitely stay tuned!