Sunday, February 13, 2011

Simbang Gabi Superstition

A visiting priest from Nigeria conducted the fourth and sixth Simbang Gabi homilies and it was obvious that English was his second language. Since English was also the second language of nearly everybody in the pews, I knew not a word he was saying was being understood by anybody. It was probably just as well. His accent was beautiful and exotic, but very thick! It was difficult for even me to understand anything that he was saying, so I could imagine that the average Tagalog speaker was completely lost.

His homilies were also very, very long. I could tell they do things very differently in Nigeria. When he appeared in the priestly procession a second time, there was audible groaning from the young people in the pews.

I kept notes to pass the time. Rarely have I heard such nonsense as came from the mouth of this Nigerian priest.

· Only the virgin is pure, and it is a rare woman who will be accepted by a man after she has been defiled. It is even more rare for a man to accept a woman to marry after she has been made pregnant by another man. This is why Joseph is to be revered, and God blessed Joseph by giving Mary the gift of perpetual virginity.

· Choose the name of your baby carefully, as the power of that name will serve to shape the character and personality of that child forever.

· Your will never feel happy or fulfilled unless you repent and submit to God.

· Make a prayer, then recite the Novena to St Jude Thaddeus 6 times each day for 9 consecutive days. Your prayer will be answered before the 9th day. This has never been known to fail.

· The tongue of St Paul is left preserved in the Vatican. Somebody once tried to burn the room down where it was stored, and although the tongue was charred, it is still preserved. Paul’s tongue is preserved because he always spoke the truth.

I don’t think anybody in RoseMary’s family understood a word he said, and RoseMary herself only caught the bit about the only way to happiness was to submit to God (she wrote ‘this is B.S.’ on my notepad). It was only later that they dared laugh about it and admitted that they did not understand what he was saying.

I did not laugh – simply because I did understood most of what he was saying. I confess, the whole thing started to make me a bit angry. It was a righteous anger – because I love the Philippine people, and I don’t like when these people, most of whom are poor and relatively uneducated, are lied to.

Philippines is a country steeped in superstitious beliefs. It was everywhere, and it got to be a bit unnerving. For instance, women celebrate the New Year by wearing polka-dotted clothes (this would bring money, because the dots are shaped like coins), eating pansit (this would bring long life because the noodles are long), placing coins on all the window sills (again, this would bring in money for the year), and adorning the table with 13 different spherical fruits (because in China, I was told, 13 is a lucky number – and the fruit ensures an abundance of food throughout the year). Fireworks were also fired to chase away evil spirits.

A howling dog is a sign that somebody has just died. Never speak of death, because speaking of evil things will make it so. Unborn fetuses are influenced by things the mother sees, so the mother should avoid looking at ugly things. Television news or scary movies should be avoided since watching anything ugly on television could make the baby ugly. Philippine tele-novellas (similar to American soap operas) are all tinged with the supernatural, magical and fantastic.

Although I asked lots of questions (while trying not to be offensive), I could never truly get straight whether these modern, educated people actually believed these superstitions to be true, whether they actually have power, or whether they are just a fun and harmless cultural practice. When RoseMary and I bought a house, we performed a house christening ritual straight from the Philippines. We filled jars with water, rice, sugar, coins (and I added two staples from my home of New Mexico – dry beans and corn meal), as an ancient tradition that ensures we will never run out of these staple items. Of course, we don’t actually believe this superstition has any power over whether we will go hungry or not, but it just a fun practice that allows RoseMary and I to connect with her Philippine heritage and give her remembrance of her home. Those jars sit on our kitchen counters to this day. Not a problem. Harmless and fun.

But to actually believe these superstitious practices have power? And to be fed such superstitious beliefs from the pulpit, where everything from the lips of the priest is to be taken as unquestioned truth? That got me a bit upset more than once.

A couple of times after Simbang Gabi, as RoseMary and I changed our clothes and prepared for breakfast, and safely away from her family, I vented my frustration. Once, in a coffee shop across from the church I could not restrain myself from venting to my long-suffering wife:

“Pray the Novena 6 times and your prayer will be answered?? It never fails?? There are ways to test these claims – does anybody ever try that? See that girl out there?” I said, pointing out the window to a young, one-legged girl hobbling on a crutch and begging for coins, “I will recite the Novena 6 times and pray that her leg grows back. It never fails right? So why isn’t anybody helping her? If this stuff is true, why isn’t everybody doing this?? Because it is bogus – and you all know it, but nobody dares admit it!”

Yeah, I did get flustered quite a few times, I fully admit.

Nothing useful or educational was dispensed from the pulpit. The homiles were, one and all, saturated with useless superstition. Even the more traditional Christmas homiles, soaked in notions of sin, repentance, and salvation, though fully orthodox, were just as superstitious – it is just that they are so organized in ritual, so universally recognized, so regularly practiced and unquestionably observed, that they are never thought of as superstition.

“They are harmless superstitions,” I was told. No, I do not think they are all harmless, especially if I cannot tell the difference between superstitious and religious beliefs – and unquestioned and faithful adherence is considered a virtue. Here are some claims made by Catholic priests from the pulpit during Simbang Gabi. Make the choice - is the claim based on religion or superstition?

· A priest has the power to turn wine into the blood of a god, and a wafer into the flesh of a god.

· You are dead in sin, but drinking the blood of a god offers salvation.

· A woman is impure to a man if her vagina has been penetrated before marriage.

· The tongue of Paul is preserved because he always spoke the truth.

· Angels minister to believers, provide for their needs, and protect them from danger.

· Reciting certain prayers will make wishes come true.

· After you die, and after you are purged of your sins, you will live forever in Paradise.

How does one tell which of these claims are true and which are false? Accepting these claims as unquestionable truth does nothing but make the faithful adherent an ignorant and uneducated sheep. The priests who dispense this nonsense wield frightful power over their flock, and they use this advantage to spread lies, mythologies and superstitions as if they were relevant and modern facts that people must surround their lives around. I attended mass day after day, and I could not help get more and more upset as each morning service passed.

This is difficult for me to type. I met several of the priests, and to RoseMary they are old family friends based on relationships that are decades long. They are indeed charming, kind, intelligent, and I am sure, very loving and generous people. It is also not easy for me to be so overbearing and judgmental on a foreign culture. But experiencing this convinces me all the more that a life lived by educated choices is better than one lived by superstitious ignorance, and I can only hope that the world is slowly climbing out of the fear of superstition. I truly do love RoseMary’s family and the culture and climate of the Philippine people. But this is why such lies from the pulpit, whether they are called magic, superstition, religion or tradition, make me so upset. Especially lies given to people who are largely poor and relatively uneducated.

So what do you think, Dear Reader? Is my judgment of the Catholic traditions and the Philippine people too harsh? Am I wrong to call traditional orthodox beliefs given from the pulpit 'lies'? Do I have a good cause to be upset about the spreading of superstition, or should I exercise more caution?


prairie nymph said...

Are you wrong to point out wrongs? Only according to those it benefits. And I would highly doubt that it benefits the average person in the pew to hear that if they perform some magic ritual their wish will be granted. Provided they give their scant resources to the priests, of course.
People need hope, but to hope in certain things is to make sure that they don't do anything about their situation that would make a real difference.

I know that many clergy really care, but even the best of us have mixed motives.

The Catholic priests I met in India revelled in their feasts and intellectual banter. Meanwhile, they treated their servants like dog poo and completely ignored the hungry and desperate faithful outside their little hall falling down in front of statues.

btw- There isn't even a clear medical definition of virginity. The one I go with is after first orgasm. Poor Mary, the perpectual virgin.

D'Ma said...

Make a prayer, then recite the Novena to St Jude Thaddeus 6 times each day for 9 consecutive days. Your prayer will be answered before the 9th day. This has never been known to fail.

Is this the equivalent to chain mail for the religious? Will your teeth fall out if you don't? Will you be infested with the fleas of a thousand camels?

Are you wrong to point it out? Nah, you're not wrong, but why bother? My guess is that if anybody actually did it, they'd soon find out it doesn't work and end up disappointed or angry anyway, just not with you.

DoOrDoNot said...

The priests are certainly spreading misinformation, whether or not they knowing do this must vary from one to another. I would be upset as well listening to the homilies. How can poor uneducated people improve their lot in iife if only given useless tools? There is no doubt a real placebo effect from enacting superstition, but if these practices prohibit people from taking more effective steps, they become repressive.