Sunday, October 25, 2009

Armless Christ

There is an armless Christ on a crucifix hanging on the wall facing my room. It’s been there for a long time now. The sacristan told me it was taken off the Catholic cemetery chapel’s altar after the crucifix fell on the floor, an incident that broke the right arm of the Christ image. Till now nobody can tell me where the missing arm is. And, as I pondered all kinds of stories about the missing parts of the Christ image in other places and times, including the rather expected but now-worn-out exhortatory insight that has been the stuff of homilies, talks, PTA or graduation addresses etc. (“We are the arms, the hands, the feet etc. of Christ”), I wondered if and how I could find ways to have the arm restored and the whole image repaired.

Then it struck me.

The armless Christ speaks of who we are. We are mostly a poverty-stricken people who often feel powerless (yes, armless) not only over the forces of nature exacerbated by global warming, such as typhoons, torrential and flood-causing rains, earthquakes etc. but also even over our seeming inability to find solutions to problems, like bad governance, corruption and a tainted culture which feeds it. For instance, in my home province of Eastern Samar we have been badgering our leaders to have our roads repaired only to find piecemeal responses (only selected stretches are repaired), following standards that even simple common sense sees as way below par (how about new asphalted roads that already have craters or those that feel like you are sailing over a rough sea?). And, lest I be accused of being too parochial, how about a fundamentally sound economy that little translates into good economic conditions for the people? Or how about claims of our having democratic elections that, in reality, are not decided by the ballot and informed choice but by money, celebrity or personalized transactional politics?

The armless Christ speaks of why we are where we are. The missing arm is what we do not extend to one another. It sometimes takes powerful disasters to interrupt our bad habit. But most of the time Christ’s right arm is missing because ours is missed by others who need it. We are busy taking care of our families, our hometowns, our province, our region. We forget about nation and country. We are active parts busy ignoring the whole. It could be argued that we are an archipelago geographically, politically, psychologically and, hence, culturally. Nonetheless, our present conditions only reinforce the truth that we can only sink unless we swim together.

The armless Christ points to where our salvation lies. The right arm is missing. Mostly what is missing in the country—and the world, for that matter—is a ‘strong republic’ sense of what is right in our politics, economics and social relations. We have to begin restoring ourselves by being and doing right. Right is not decided by might, sight or fright. Right is decided by what is already inside our hearts, nay, in a special center called ‘conscience’. It is decided by what brings us closer to the One who speaks in it and towards the ones with whom He asks us to be one in faith, hope and, most of all, in caritas—yes in that love which Vatican II says we are called to be perfect in order to be holy.

Now I see your eyes wide open as if to ask: “You’re saying all this just because you saw an armless Christ?”

Maybe. But here’s one more. Our Christ has no right arm because it is out there busy saving people—not excluding ourselves.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

On being Pinoy during the time of calamity

SOME of our kind say that being Pinoy is almost synonymous with ‘calamitous’. And, like it or not, there are tons of reasons behind their saying so.

First, there is the reality of our predictable, permanent, yearly visitors’ program reserved to the most unwelcome tourists, namely, TYPHOONS and their notorious relatives, such as flood-causing rains, life-and-property-devastating winds, diseases, family displacements, unemployment, rise of criminality. I might have missed mentioning their other relatives but I swear Pinoys never miss them one bit. As far as most of us are concerned the only other thing worse than being in the path of typhoons is being unable to relocate the country to, say, somewhere below Hawaii.

Then there is also our calamitous politics that largely runs on our patronage and transactional culture for fuel. For the educated Pinoy this one is among the most frustrating occupants of our National Hall of Shame because it keeps on leaving the hall in order to incessantly ravage and possess our people who transfer its bad spirit on to our politicians. The culprit, we all realize, is less our poverty than our stubborn resistance to change a deeply-ingrained quid-pro-quo cultural mindset. You want my vote? not a few voters seem to say. Then give me my advance share of your lucrative access to our money once in power. Even well-meaning politicians are aghast over this hushed-over disease but eventually succumb to contagion. Money is expected to abound on the way to next year’s elections, our poor could behave like ‘instant millionaires’ destined to be ‘instantly impoverished’ in subsequent days. Could massive, no-nonsense voter education programs such as those being contemplated by many sectors, including the Church, help? Something in me aches to think so. But reality check might dampen our enthusiasm. For a good start, we should collectively pray for a miracle to cure the moral cancer inside our culture that basically wrecks havoc on our spirits.

We should not by-pass our chronically challenged (read: lack of a) sense of discipline. The massive environmental pollution in our urban centers and our ubiquitous traffic mess (“Why are Filipinos unable to obey traffic rules?” many foreign visitors ask in bewilderment) are classic cases in point. I wouldn’t be surprised if, upon honestly assessing the latest flood disaster in various places in Metro Manila, we will simply acknowledge a simple truth: we are mostly the cause of the disastrous effects we see around us. We do not dispose of our garbage properly. We hardly follow building rules for our houses and establishments. We do not observe our own traffic rules. Now we literally reap the whirlwind.

No, I don’t believe in mere self-flagellation. I believe in acknowledging the truth, which is why we need to talk turkey about ourselves, as, I believe, I had tried to above. But there is also so much that is good in being Pinoy. We need not mention how but, especially during the time of calamity, we also show our better selves.

We keep on rediscovering we can be heroes by our simple ‘bayanihan’ spirit, ‘bayani’ meaning hero. Neighbors rescuing, feeding and sheltering neighbors are a staple story in our every disaster experience, not excluding that from ‘Ondoy’. When my sister’s family residing at De Castro, Pasig City, ran out of food as they were battling more than ten-feet flood, their neighbors came to offer a share of the little food they had. Scenes like that were multiplied in many other neighborhoods.

We also happily realize the power of praying together, the living praying together, the living asking the prayer of saints or simply invoking the all-powerful name of ‘Jesus’ to spare fellow Pinoys and the whole country from further suffering born of the much-hyped Super-Typhoon ‘Pepeng’. When my sister panicked on seeing flood waters reaching their house’s second flood (thank God, they have a second floor), with the rains continually pouring, I counseled her to keep calm and to pray with me. After fifteen minutes, she texted back and informed me that just as she finished the rosary, the rains stopped. “Please offer our dawn rosaries specifically for the super typhoon to spare our people in Luzon,” I beseeched some parishioners after morning Mass. I saw most nodding in deep sympathy. Wonder of wonders, ‘Pepeng’ veered away from its feared route, even if Northern Luzon was eventually hard hit. The point is that Pinoys rediscovered the power of praying together, something that even a political phenomenon like Edsa 1 showed them.

Most of all, people like us in Samar Island who think we know most what typhoon victims go through, now could offer our most profound sympathy, for a change. We have been typhoon victims ourselves since time immemorial. As my small barangay parish prepared to send the little aid we can afford to our brothers and sisters in Metro Manila, I remembered, as a child, horrible typhoons that twisted and felled down our coconuts, trees, crops and houses. Yet we simply picked up the pieces the next day. There was very little evidence of government-sponsored rescue operations. And I don’t remember anyone complaining about it. We simply relied on family, neighborhood and community. Recently a true-blooded Eastern Samarnon whose name I wouldn’t wish to mention here in print made a remark: “I used to have a classmate in Manila who kept on asking me a question I often took for an insult: ‘Ano ba ang bagyo?’ (‘What is a typhoon?’). I’m sorry to know his area was recently flooded. But, at least, I see one positive spot here. I don’t need to answer his question anymore.”