Like a Pilgrim

Pagsanjan / Cavinti / Luisiana, Laguna, the Philippines

March 27, 2010

Cross over Candelabrum

An alien in your own land – that’s how it feels being non-Catholic in a predominantly Catholic country. The Philippines, erstwhile colony of Spain, takes pride in being the only Christian (specifically, Catholic) country in Asia – that’s how our culture is more akin to Latin American than Asian. But I was raised a Baptist, a Protestant denomination. I grew up insulated from the rituals and superstitions of the Catholic faith. I have never subscribed to many Filipino traditions because they are, in fact, Catholic traditions; my being a non-traditional Filipino is not iconoclastic but doctrinal.

One such tradition I missed out on is the visita iglesia, loosely translated as “church hopping” – visiting 14 churches in a day – during Lent, or Holy Week as Filipinos prefer to call it. Each church corresponds to one of the Stations of the Cross, or Via Crucis, that represent Jesus’ condemnation, crucifixion, and burial (basically the plot of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ). Since we are not in Jerusalem to retrace Jesus’ steps, local pilgrims visit churches of neighboring towns, which isn’t too hard to do in the Philippines as there’s at least one huge cathedral in every town.

Though not strictly visita iglesia because we went to only 5 churches and it wasn’t Maundy Thursday, the day this is usually done, it was still in this spirit that this pilgrimage was organized. It was my first pilgrimage and I was a curious observer. I took part as a Filipino, latently embracing my cultural identity, not as a devotee to dogma. The first stop was Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Pagsanjan, where the Lady’s statue from Mexico was enshrined.

Pagsanjan Church: Our Lady of Guadalupe
A Long Walk down the Aisle: Pagsanjan Church

At first glance, the blindingly white facade seemed too simple for the favored baroque cathedral architecture in the country. The church’s claim to fame was its aisle, said to be one of the longest in the province – making it a favorite venue for weddings (perhaps for those with budget for kilometric wedding gown trains!). In fact, we weren’t able to get in the church because of a wedding. Instead, we were led to an inner courtyard.

Classical Corner
Ring my Sacristan Bell

I felt rather guilty for loitering and photo-snapping in the courtyard while the pilgrims were saying prayers at a back chapel. Eventually a sense of propriety compelled me to join them, only to be distracted by the sacred items inside. The richly elaborate vaults, vessels, and vestments in a Catholic church were a stark contrast to the decidedly austere Baptist church. The symbolism in these cathedrals was almost flamboyant to my Baptist eye. My eyes feasted while the rest had their eyes closed in prayer.

Our Lady of Guadaluper: A Gift from Mexico in 1948
Flower Girl at Pagsanjan Church

Next stop was Transfiguration of our Lord Parish in the neighboring town, Cavinti, sitting on rugged terrain. Our huge bus had to gingerly navigate through its narrow, winding streets. The cathedral’s facade was also a drastic departure from Pagsanjan Church. Imposing stone structure, colonial baroque designs, garden-fresh atmosphere were its strong suits.

This church could’ve been the best-looking in the bunch. Perhaps decades ago, it was a breathtaking sight: an old stone church, built in 1621, overlooking a slope dotted by tableaux of the Stations of the Cross. These days, views of both the church and the statues had been crowded out by awkwardly-placed, newly-constructed structures. While I understood that the parish was merely maximizing the use of the church lot,  aesthetics should’ve been taken into consideration as well. After all, such cathedrals were not just places of worship but also cultural relics.

Cavinti Church: Transfiguration of our Lord Parish

Though tempted to take photos, I decided to stay put on the pew and listen to the homily. The Scripture reading was immediately familiar: the famous Pericope Adulterae from the Gospel of John. To me, it contains the Great Equalizer, one of the most dramatic statements by Jesus: “He who has not sinned among you cast the first stone.” In a sentence, it rendered all of humanity – great or small, woman or man, Baptist or Catholic, adulteress or religious leader – on equal footing in the eyes of God. We are all miserably flawed beings – no valid cause for judgment and discrimination. But the passage also contains the most powerful statement of hope and redemption: “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” That’s the essence of Christianity right there – in two biblical sound bites.

Then quite surprisingly, the priest did something I hadn’t heard any priest do. He asked us, the congregation, to group ourselves and discuss which character in the pericope we identified with and share our answers. Group dynamics during a mass! As a teacher, it was way up my alley. I was thankful I heard the homily this time rather than mindlessly taking photos. The message and the ensuing discussion made my Holy Week meditation.

Station of the Cross Tableau

A powerful Holy Week message was delivered, not by a church elder, but an elderly woman. She was bent with age, clambering up the ascending pathway to the church, yet there was an unmistakable spring in her step, evident even from afar. Something told me she religiously walked to church. This scene of unfettered devotion put a different perspective on this pilgrimage of camera-toting, bus-riding pilgrims.

The True Pilgrim (Cavinti Church)

Introspection in a pilgrimage of this size, though, had time limits. The siren suddenly blared, calling all pilgrims to board our buses. The din couldn’t be any more ear-splitting or disruptive in this quiet little town.

Luisiana, Laguna’s border town with Quezon Province, was our next stop. These three towns had distinct personalities: Pagsanjan, the bustling commercial center; Cavinti, the sleepy old town; but Luisiana was in a league of its own. It was a funky town! As the bus rolled into the town center, we were welcomed by a tarpaulin bearing photos of scantily-clad men and women: contestants in a local beauty pageant for both genders – at least there was gender equality in this small town. And this was just beside the town hall and across from the church!

Mr and Miss Luisiana 2010 Contestants
Luisiana Church: Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Parish

The facade of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Parish had that unfinished look, probably in the process of reconstruction. A small anteroom opened up to the interior of the cathedral, revealing it to be rather modern than its neighboring towns’ counterparts. What it lacked in its facade, the church more than made up for in its interior – opulent and modern. This church, rebuilt in the late 19th century, was the youngest of the three. This relative youth was clearly evident in so many ways.

Luisiana Church Anteroom
Luisiana Church Nave

Posh chandeliers hung from the wooden ceiling. The retable was made of either marble or granite, with a cross highlighted by backlighting, seemingly embossed. All these anachronistic features made this church look well-funded but also rather off. The parish priest was just as unconventional. I remember him peppering his homily with jokes, but the only thing he said that stuck was how the town got its name – a name combination of its founders: Don Luis and Dona Ana. Luis y Ana = Luisiana (pronounced as lu-wi-sha-na).

The church somehow matched the wild-child personality of the town. It was the only church I had seen to have a wishing well right inside! The incongruous well sat at the base of a huge grotto of the Virgin Mary. Beside the well was a candelabrum stand for votive candles. These flickering lights added to the aura of solemnity; that wishing well distracted from it. I wondered how Catholicism and folk beliefs seemed to be inextricably entwined. That attention-grabbing corner in Luisiana Church straddled the thin line between faith and superstition.

Candles and Prayers
Luisiana Church: Wishing Well and Grotto

It was just halfway through the pilgrimage but it already emphasized what a misfit I was in my own country. It felt as if I were in another country experiencing and learning about a foreign culture. I took that to mean I wouldn’t always need a passport to be a tourist.


16 thoughts on “Like a Pilgrim

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  1. Lovely…when I was looking at your pix last month I knew you were about to write something ….
    I love the way you descriced both places and feeling….as if I had been one of those pilgrims…You know my fav pic here..though I must confess I love them all..:)
    It’s really wierd how at a certain time, cause of various reasons one feels alien in their own country…;(
    And yes, I must say, I also felt guilty for loitering and taking pitures in all the churches and mosques…I truly hope those people did not hate us much…
    Looking forward to your new work…;)))

    PS. You’ll be tired of reading my comments-hahaha…sorry-an AJ’s blog for a good night..;)))

    1. Yeah, a Facebook album is like a foreshadowing of a blog entry. At least this time you’re warned, Reny. 🙂 And once again, I’m glad you always get the feelings and ideas I attempt to convey in my blog. I suppose when we meet (if we ever do), you’d feel like you’ve known me a loooooong time.

      Oh, and don’t worry – I’ll never tire of your comments. You know I don’t earn from this, but each comment from you feels like a hundred bucks. Allow me this psychological income, at least. Haha!

  2. Hi AJ! I’m so glad you did this kind of write-up! 🙂

    Anyway, some of my notes:

    1.) The facade of Pagsanjan Church is definitely baroque. There’s no such design as “renaissance”, but your description is accurate: uncomplicated and classic. Franciscan missionaries in Laguna have employed this kind of architecture all throughout the churches of Rizal and Laguna in the east coast of the lake. Other religious orders, like the Augustinians, Dominicans, Jesuits and Recollects, employ other types of church architecture like Neo-Baroque, Neo-Classical, Romanesque, Gothic and Byzantine.

    2.) Back in the 80s and 90s (and even up till now), when NHI was lenient in its initiatives to preserve and restore our national cultural heritage sites, as in the case of Spanish-era Catholic churches, they leave it up to the parish and local government to initiate the funding for such. Parish priests, in turn, spearhead the planning, but in so many cases, restoration turned out to become reconstructions, renovations and site developments instead, which are more often than not unguided and under-researched. Consequently, around 80-85% of all church renovations have removed, damaged, or totally destroyed the churches’ original ambience, as in the case of the church of Luisiana. BIG DISAPPOINTMENT. There have been countless instances on how the parish priests there have rampaged and ransacked our retablo mayors and palitadas of the adobe walls. And coupled with dabblings by the mayors and councilors, many of our magnificent church facades are shadowed by a lot of commercial structures like multi-purpose halls and establishments (perfect examples are the churches in Pakil and Paete, and of course the church in Cavinti).

    The usual excuse for many of the parishioners and even parish priest for renovation instead of restoration is “lack of funding”. But what almost every one do not think of is that church restoration is actually 90% research and 10% action. Instead of investing money on the action done, more money should be instead spent on doing actual research so that everything step of the process done on the actual restoration itself is guided truthfully, according to original plans laid out by the Franciscan missionaries and secular priests.

    AJ, I have a project in mind this year for a particular church in Laguna. I believe I have a calling for this. For the rest of the summer all my weekends will be spent there in Laguna. If you have free time one weekend you’re very welcome to join me. I’ll tour you around our heritage sites and inject you with a lot of knowledge I have so you have the awareness about the importance of restoring and preserving our legacy.

    1. Wow, that’s quite a mouthful, Meis. Thanks for the comprehensive feedback! 🙂

      I was told the architectural style of Pagsanjan Church was early-Renaissance. I wouldn’t really know, so I’ll take your word for it. You’re the expert!

      Yes, that’s a worthy cause to take on – restoration and preservation of our national heritage. Not many Pinoys take that seriously, hence the desecration and wanton “renovation” or tearing down of historical edifices. Can you imagine how quaint Avenida Rizal and Quaipo would’ve been had all the Art Deco buildings been preserved and maintained?

      You’re right though. Research is of paramount importance – and should be the springboard – in any architectural restoration. In Cambodia, they take on the process of anastylosis (reconstruction of ancient structures using the same materials and process as the original) – and that’s for 1,000-year-old temples! I’m certain we can do the same thing here, given adequate funding, research-based knowledge, expertise, political will, passion, and a sense of nationalism.

      Yep, I’d love to join you in one of your Laguna weekends. Text ya when I’m free. Thanks! 🙂

  3. I am a non-catholic and I can relate to your belief. With a universal mind, we embrace, respect and accept our brothers belief. Our country is full of idols from saints to movie stars. Idolatry has been a part of our culture. We love to emulate and follow our idols, and these can be seen during the Lent season. Its hard to switch and change the belief we grew up with. Its a belief cemented and instilled in our head.

    1. Couldn’t agree with you more, Inno. You know the song “Losing My Religion”? Well, I’ve lost mine already. Not my belief in God, just in organized religion. I still have deep respect for religious icons and structures though – on a cultural/historical standpoint. Despite the waning religiosity of the new generation, it’s still important to preserve our old churches so they have a more concrete grasp of our historical heritage.

  4. Love this post! I have a friend who did the visita iglesia this year and sent me some great pictures. However, you lend a bit more color and insight to it that a person who never set foot in the Philippines appreciates.

    I’m an atheist and have been one my entire life so in general any and all religious activities seem a bit odd to me. Here in the U.S. the idea of a country where a single religion can hold such sway itself is very foreign. That makes it all the more interesting to read and see all the social facets this entails. Thanks for sharing.

    As for architectural and historic preservation even I’m saddened to see what you have lost there as an outsider. The demolition of places like the Jai Alai Building in Manila are losses that tear at the fiber of a place. It’s like the past unravels a little bit with every old structure that gets hit by the wrecking ball. Sigh.

    1. I’m glad the post reveals a bit of Pinoy culture to my foreign readers. I intended it to be accessible to as broad an audience as possible, despite my very personal approach. To be honest, I left out many other things. The original draft was looooooooong. 🙂

      Religion, history, and the state – that’s always an exciting mix in the Philippines. It’s nebulous now if the Christianization of the islands by Spain was a boon or a bane. But that’s what makes the country unique in Asia, at least. 🙂

      I’m surprised, though, how updated you are about Philippine issues. I never expected a person “who never set foot in the Philippines” to know about the Jai Alai Building! Yeah, twas a sad day when they tore it down. It’s even sadder that the government building they wanted to put up in its place didn’t even happen! Geez, it still raises my hackles!!!

      Drop in again, TAO!

      1. The internet makes the world so very, very small and brings people together over large distances. I’m lucky to have a number of “virtual” friends in the Philippines who are all lovely people. So I make adobo, sinigang, and lumpia and try to learn a bit about the fascinating place my friends live. It helps that it seems Filipinos are very outgoing. LOL!

        As for destruction in the name of progress I could have mentioned the more recent demolition of Santa Ana Park in Makati which also was Art Deco. That was not just the loss of a building but a whole environment that spread out to the neighboring area. You might be able to tell I hate the destruction of old historic fabric and ignoring it’s importance. I’m just an observer being so far away but it makes me sad.

        I hope to visit Metro Manila, Baguio, Dagupan City, and other places that people I communicate with live. I’d love to go to Boracay even though I’d sunburn badly and look like a giant lobster. Oh well, some day.

        Thanks for the response and the post.

      2. The Sta Ana tracks – that’s another thorny issue. Politicians only look after their own interests – historical heritage and urban planning be damned.

        Anyway Hemingway, you might wanna lemme know when you’re here too. I live in Quezon City but work in Manila.

        Oh, and I recommend you go to the wonderful island of Bohol. It’s my favorite among the 7,107 or so islands we have here. 🙂

  5. AJ, I understand exactly how you feel. I also live in a Catholic country and as a Protestant I do feel like an alien 🙂 I love the photo of the old lady walking to church and how you describe that she has a spring in her step. That was wonderful to read. Great article!

  6. Hi AJ … a long post !!I m live in India u know that India is famous for its diverse culture and traditions here we have more than 5 religion and i m a Christian (Roman catholic).Great post you have taken me for a mini pilgrimage trip to all these church n hats off to her(old lady)Great commitment by her .. Wonderful pic mate

    1. Sorry I’m always wordy. 🙂 I can’t imagine a country with 5 religions! The diversity must make for an interesting study of contrasts. You’d feel more at home here probably. Most Filipinos are Roman Catholic.

  7. Hi AJ! Geez, I reckoned you’re kind of a long-winded fellow who just could not stop talking till the cows come home… ;D Loved this post! And although it took me long to read it as I’m a slow reader (lol) I enjoyed every part of it.
    By the way, I’m a Catholic but when I came to Singapore to work, I became a free thinker, reason being I was exposed to different cultures, traditions and beliefs. This multi-cultural country had let me experienced and worshiped every kind of religion whether it’s Buddhism, Hinduism, Islamic, etc. but of course I’d never forgotten Catholicism. This had made me decide on becoming a free thinker instead. My faith is still the same…..

    1. Sorry naman, J. I’m just wordy in writing but I’m a man of few words in speech, really. You wouldn’t notice I’m there.

      I’ve lost my religion many years ago but not my belief in God. I’m still Christian, though I’ve rejected doctrinal differences that divide. Faith is not necessarily synonymous with religion. You’re on the right track, baby, as Lady Gaga would say. 🙂

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