By By Ramonfelipe A. Sarmiento
The Dolor of Batong Paloway Goes to UK (First of two parts)
posted 20-Oct-2011  ·  
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Octoberstrikes me as a particularly “religious” month. Throughout my life in Virac,October meant praying the rosary with my family every single day of the month,and being roused from sleep at four in the morning by the haunting chant ofpenitents doing the auroraprocession. So I take this as opportune time to share my experience when Ipresented a paper at the annual conference of the British Association for theStudy of Religions (BASR) last September 5-7, 2011 at Durham University in theUnited Kingdom.  Doing that, I take itwith some historical significance that smacks with a bit of irony. Four hundredyears after the European had imposed on us a strange faith, I now come toEurope and tell them about how we had loved their religion and turned it intoour own, endowing it with our distinct flavor, at a time when the Europeansthemselves have largely abandoned it.

Mypaper was about the Dolor devotion atBatong Paloway. When I tell my Catandunganon friends about my adventure at UK,they beam with pious pleasure at the prospect of having our Mahal na Ina become global, that hervirtues are broadcasted to the corners of the world, as they should be. So Ifind it difficult to explain to them that the forum I attended was one ofscholars of religion who are interested in the scientific and objective inquiryof religious phenomena. At best, these academics are sympathetic skeptics whoknow that religion is a force to reckon with, that it can do wonders, but alsoso much harm, in the social and cultural realm. Are the beliefs of a religionthe truth? They do not at all bother with that question; they treat allreligions as the same. They are only out to understand religion’s place in thesocial life of people.  My paper on the Dolor phenomenon got them listeningattentively not so much because of the report of miracles but more on knowinghow the devotion engaged with the society. Although yes, when I flashed thepicture of the Dolor on screen, therewas a collective “ahh!” from the audience, proving the universal allure of thebeauty of Ina.    

SoI was not at UK to convince people about the wonders of the Dolor. I always receive invitations toread papers in such conferences, and they would always specify that they willnot accept “confessional” pieces, meaning papers that profess a particularfaith.  At the UK conference, I titled mypaper “The Dolor’s Traslacion: theJourneying of a Journey Ritual from Means to End, and Back.”  On the broad stroke, it is about the Dolor devotion being a set of catholicbeliefs and practices that had been re-shaped according to local pre-Christianprecepts. In short, it is Catholicism indigenized. This I demonstrated byanalyzing the traslacion ritual, orthe practice of bringing the Dolor sacredimage in a grand procession from the shrine in Batong Paploway to the parishchurch of Calolbon and back. This once-a-year ritual had become the mostimportant event in life of the devotion. But it did not materialize from out ofthe blue, nor passed on to us mortals from the blue of the heavens.  It was created by the devotees, not all atonce, but through a history of evolution that went closely with the history ofthe Dolor devotion itself. Whatbrought it to existence was the very social dynamics of the devotion that was,and still is characterized by conflict between the popular sector, or the masa, and the religious eliterepresented by the church authorities.

Suchconflict attended the devotion from the very start. The Dolor sacred image was found by a boy named Pasyo in the earlyyears of the twentieth century in the wilderness of Batong Paloway. It gainedimmediate popularity. Although catholic in character, it operated outside ofthe church’s effective control, under the management of Bingge, Pasyo’s mother.The parish priest became wary about this, but stayed on the sidelights waitingfor his opportune time to make a move. So when Bingge violated churchregulation by slaughtering a cow on the day of the vigilia (fasting and abstinence for the feast day of Sts. Peter andPaul), he appeared at Batong Paloway unannounced, confiscated the Dolor and brought it to the parishchurch where it stayed for some twenty years or so.

Afterthe war, with the dark episode well into the past, the people of Batong Palowaypetitioned the priest to lend them the Dolorduring their fiesta on December 13. The priest consented. After a fewyears, they asked that it be kept permanently at the shrine. Again the priestconsented but on two conditions. One, that a komite should manage the affairs of the shrine and two, that itmust be brought to the parish church nine days before the town fiesta onNovember 30. On the segunda dia, theythen bring it back “home” to Batong Paloway. Thus started the practice of the traslacion, as a fulfillment of acompromise agreement between two contending parties.

Backthose days, the traslacion was amundane and simple task of transferring the Dolorfrom one to another place. It involved wrapping it in a white cloth andcarrying it through the barrier of wilderness, along rice paddies, acrossstreams and over fences, accompanied by a handful elderly. It was not evencalled yet the traslacion. It becameknown as such sometimes in the 1970’s when some lay religious leaders of theparish thought of carrying out this task through a full-pledged religiousprocession and call it traslacion takingafter the practice in Naga. Much later, in a master stroke of organizationalgenius, the parish council declared the Doloras secondary patron saint of Calolbon, thereby bringing the potentiallywayward popular devotion well within the institutional church’s orbit.

Thus,the traslacion must be seen as theresult of a negotiated truce between the popular and elite (institutional)sectors of the devotion. It is a veritable celebration of unity. Through theyears, however, this significance and its history were lost to the ordinarydevotee. What figures out now in their minds about the traslacion is its being a demonstration of the Mother of God’smajesty and power, an evidence of her divine nature, as the Dolor rides along streets in pomp andpageantry, claiming dominion and bestowing grace. The ritual’s history andoriginal purpose have all been forgotten. But this is not at all puzzling. Itis the way of rituals. Their mundane history and origins in the hands ofmortals are best relegated to amnesia in order to make the divine nature ofrituals and their being aspects of eternal truth compelling.

Theother remarkable thing about the Dolor’straslacion is the fact that despite the sealing of unity between the twocontending sectors through a grandiose ritual, the conflict continues. I haverecorded at least three more major episodes of intramurals between the popularsection of the devotion and the institutional side after the ritual wasestablished. One in the 1970’s, another in the 1980’s and lastly during the midpart of first decade of 2000. In this last one, the parish priest had to bringin the police, who were ineffective in breaching the barricade of locals at theshrine. Cases were filed in court and somebody got jailed. At the height of theconflict, the idea of not releasing the Dolor(held in hostage?) for the traslacionwas entertained. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and the ritual wasundertaken. If that happened, the ritual of unity would have become itself atool for waging the conflict. So the animosity continues and is seemingly apermanent fixture: even in times of relative peace, the contending sectors havenothing but suspicion and bad opinion of each other.

Thecaution for modesty considered, I would still say that the paper was quite wellreceived. Perhaps I was prepared, but perhaps too I drew energy from somemystical source. I delivered the lecture under the shadows of the cathedral ofDurham because the building where the session was held stands a few meters fromthe 11th century medieval house of worship, famous all over Europeas the finest example of Norman architecture. There must have been somereligious effect on my performance because the day before my schedule topresent, I visited the cathedral which is not even properly catholic. It isAnglican, the official religion of England which broke away from the authorityof the Pope in Rome back in the 15th century. It is actually protestante. The cathedral holds thedistinction of housing the relics of two Benedictine monks-saints namely St.Cubhert and the Venerable Bede. So I lighted a candle before the shrine of thenamesake of San Beda College, dropped my one-pound (seventy pesos) donation andprayed that 1) dai man lamang akonerbiyoson and 2) that these European scholars dai na mag para-hapot because I would die of embarrassment if Ifail to follow their English, especially the Welsh and Scots who speak na baging ga-ogom ning riwoy. My prayerswere heard, although there was a forest of raised hands from the audience afterI said “Thank you, I have spoken.” Perhaps seeing my predicament, those whoqueried asked their questions with taltagEnglish (like they cleared their throats, bagingpig-tulon su riwoy).

Sowhat did I contribute to this forum on religion? I believe I added new insightson the nature of rituals, on how it is a product of social and historicalprocesses, especially as a result of struggle between popular and institutionalsectors. My paper also was an illustrative case-study of popular religiosity,which is a near-universal feature of any religious formation. To the Europeans,it was a revelation on how things are with religion in a third world societylike the Philippines.  I was the onlyAsian in the conference and so my presentation stood in stark comparison to theirpapers. The juxtaposition served to dramatize the gulf between the first andthe third worlds, even in the aspect faith.

Formy part, the exposure in the UK made me realize how indeed different are ourconcerns in the Philippines from those of the Europeans. In the socialsciences, the expectation used to be that religion will disappear in society asscience increasingly finds solution to both epistemological and practicalproblems.  This is the theory of modernization.However, this did not prove correct; religion remains alive, even in the mostmodern of societies, but in ways very different from its manifestations in thePhilippines and other not-so-modernized settings. In my informal encounter withmy colleagues at the BASR, I got to realize that many of them arenon-practitioners of religion in the manner many of us Filipinos are. And thisis born by observation on how the numerous churches in UK are almost emptyduring Sundays; indeed many of them get occupants through tourism.

Listeningto the presentations of the European scholars of religion, I had a good notionof what religion had become in their societies. Considering that the general theme of the conference was “On RitualKnowledge,” some of the topics discussed included “personal ritual,” “secularritual,” “ritual innovation,” and even the “de-ritualization of religion,” allof which quite strange to one like me who is an observer of religion in thePhilippines. Religion it seems is able to remain relevant in Europe so long asit changes itself and become compatible with contemporary frameworks ofcreating meanings in said society such as liberalism, personal rights andself-expression,  secular and materialist(I DON’T mean materialistic!) ways of understanding.  In short, religion in the West hasconsiderably moved away from the hold of institutional power and orthodoxy.Religion had been turned over to the creative agency of the individual.  I am not saying that in Europe it is afree-for-all in the practice of religion; communities of faith still exist butthat the individual members are empowered to shape their collective religiousexpressions.

Shouldit make us sigh with relief that here in the Philippines churches burst withpeople during Sundays and that we still practice our faith in much the sameways as our forefathers? I don’t have ready and clear answers. What I know forsure is that religion is dynamic; it keeps on changing, even in traditionalistsettings like the way we are here in the Philippines. Whether it takes thecourse it has taken in the West is anybody’s speculation. But do the divinepowers have any hand in all these? This is now a question of faith and as ananthropologist I cannot make an opinion on it. What Anthropology can say withcertainty is that humans have a big participation in the process of religion’sproduction, reproduction and transformation. Religion is very much ourhandiwork.  In Part 2, I will share on myimpressions of the UK and its people.


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