By By Ramonfelipe A. Sarmiento
The Dolor of Batong Paloway Goes to UK
posted 27-Oct-2011  ·  
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 (Firstof two parts)

October strikes me as aparticularly “religious” month. Throughout my life in Virac, October meant prayingthe rosary with my family every single day of the month, and being roused fromsleep at four in the morning by the haunting chant of penitents doing the aurora procession. So I take this asopportune time to share my experience when I presented a paper at the annualconference of the British Association for the Study of Religions (BASR) lastSeptember 5-7, 2011 at Durham University in the United Kingdom.  Doing that, I take it with some historicalsignificance that smacks with a bit of irony. Four hundred years after theEuropean had imposed on us a strange faith, I now come to Europe and tell themabout how we had loved their religion and turned it into our own, endowing itwith our distinct flavor, at a time when the Europeans themselves have largelyabandoned 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 knowing howthe devotion engaged with the society. Although yes, when I flashed the pictureof the Dolor on screen, there was acollective “ahh!” from the audience, proving the universal allure of the beautyof Ina.   

                So Iwas not at UK to convince people about the wonders of the Dolor. I always receive invitations to read papers in suchconferences, and they would always specify that they will not accept“confessional” pieces, meaning papers that profess a particular faith.  At the UK conference, I titled my paper “The Dolor’s Traslacion: the Journeying of aJourney 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 at once,but through a history of evolution that went closely with the history of the Dolor devotion itself. What brought itto existence was the very social dynamics of the devotion that was, and still isharacterized by conflict between the popular sector, or the masa, and the religious eliterepresented by the church authorities.

                Such conflictattended the devotion from the very start. The Dolor sacred image was found by a boy name Pasyo in the early yearsof 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.

Back those days, the traslacion was a mundane and simple taskof transferring the Dolor from one toanother place. It involved wrapping it in a white cloth and carrying it throughthe barrier of wilderness, along rice paddies, across streams and over fences,accompanied by a handful elderly. It was not even called yet the traslacion. It became known as such sometimesin the 1970’s when some lay religious leaders of the parish thought of carryingout this task through a full-pledged religious procession and call it traslacion taking after the practice inNaga. Much later, in a master stroke of organizational genius, the parishcouncil declared the Dolor as secondarypatron saint of Calolbon, thereby bringing the potentially wayward populardevotion well within the institutional church’s orbit.

Thus, the traslacion must be seen as the result of a negotiated truce betweenthe popular and elite (institutional) sectors of the devotion. It is averitable celebration of unity. Through the years  however, this significance and its history werelost to the ordinary devotee. What figures out now in their minds about the traslacion is its being a demonstrationof the Mother of God’s majesty and power, an evidence of her divine nature, asthe Dolor rides along streets in pompand pageantry, 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.

The other remarkable thing aboutthe Dolor’s traslacion is the factthat despite the sealing of unity between the two contending sectors through agrandiose ritual, the conflict continues. I have recorded at least three moremajor episodes of intramurals between the popular section of the devotion andthe institutional side after the ritual was established. One in the 1970’s,another in the 1980’s and lastly during the mid part of first decade of 2000.In this last one, the parish priest had to bring in the police, who wereineffective in breaching the barricade of locals at the shrine. Cases werefiled in court and somebody got jailed. At the height of the conflict, the ideaof not releasing the Dolor (held inhostage?) for the traslacion wasentertained. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and the ritual was undertaken.If that happened, the ritual of unity would have become itself a tool for wagingthe conflict. So the animosity continues and is seemingly a permanent fixture:even in times of relative peace, the contending sectors have nothing but suspicionand bad opinion of each other.

The caution for modesty considered,I would still say that the paper was quite well received. Perhaps I was prepared,but perhaps too I drew energy from some mystical source. I delivered thelecture under the shadows of the cathedral of Durham because the building wherethe session was held stands a few meters from the 11th centurymedieval house of worship, famous all over Europe as the finest example ofNorman architecture. There must have been some religious effect on myperformance because the day before my schedule to present, I visited thecathedral which is not even properly catholic. It is Anglican, the officialreligion of England which broke away from the authority of the Pope in Romeback in the 15th century. It is actually protestante. The cathedral holds the distinction of housing therelics of two Benedictine monks-saints namely St. Cubhert and the VenerableBede. So I lighted a candle before the shrine of the namesake of San BedaCollege, dropped my one-pound (seventy pesos) donation and prayed that 1) dai man lamang ako nebiyoson and 2) thatthese European scholars dai na mag para-hapotbecause I would die of embarrassment if I fail to follow their English,especially the Welsh and Scots who speak nabaging ga-ogom ning riwoy. My prayers were heard, although there was aforest of raised hands from the audience after I said “Thank you, I havespoken.” Perhaps seeing my predicament, those who queried asked their questionswith taltag English (like theycleared their throats, baging pig-tulonsu riwoy).

So what did I contribute to thisforum on religion? I believe I added new insights on the nature of rituals, onhow it is a product of social and historical processes, especially as a resultof struggle between popular and institutional sectors. My paper also was anillustrative case-study of popular religiosity, which is a near-universalfeature of any religious formation. To the Europeans, it was a revelation onhow things are with religion in a third world society like thePhilippines.  I was the only Asian in theconference and so my presentation stood in stark comparison to their papers.The juxtaposition served to dramatize the gulf between the first and the thirdworlds, even in the aspect faith.

For my part, the exposure in the UKmade me realize how indeed different are our concerns in the Philippines fromthose of the Europeans. In the social sciences, the expectation used to be thatreligion will disappear in society as science increasingly finds solution toboth epistemological and practical problems. This is the theory of modernization. However, this did not provecorrect; religion remains alive, even in the most modern of societies, but inways very different from its manifestations in the Philippines and othernot-so-modernized settings. In my informal encounter with my colleagues at theBASR, I got to realize that many of them are non-practitioners of religion inthe manner many of us Filipinos are. And this is born by observation on how thenumerous churches in UK are almost empty during Sundays; indeed many of themget occupants through tourism.

 Listening to the presentations of the Europeanscholars of religion, I had a good notion of what religion had become in theirsocieties.  Considering that the generaltheme of the conference was “On Ritual Knowledge,” some of the topics discussedincluded “personal ritual,” “secular ritual,” “ritual innovation,” and even the“de-ritualization of religion,” all of which quite strange to one like me whois an observer of religion in the Philippines. Religion it seems is able toremain relevant in Europe so long as it changes itself and become compatiblewith contemporary frameworks of creating meanings in said society such asliberalism, personal rights and self-expression,  secular and materialist (I DON’T meanmaterialistic!) ways of understanding. In short, religion in the West has considerably moved away from the holdof institutional power and orthodoxy. Religion had been turned over to thecreative agency of the individual.  I amnot saying that in Europe it is a free-for-all in the practice of religion;communities of faith still exist but that the individual members are empoweredto shape their collective religious expressions.

Should it make us sigh with reliefthat here in the Philippines churches burst with people during Sundays and thatwe still practice our faith in much the same ways as our forefathers? I don’thave ready and clear answers. What I know for sure is that religion is dynamic;it keeps on changing, even in traditionalist settings like the way we are herein the Philippines. Whether it takes the course it has taken in the West isanybody’s speculation. But do the divine powers have any hand in all these?This is now a question of faith and as an anthropologist I cannot make anopinion on it. What Anthropology can say with certainty is that humans have abig participation in the process of religion’s production, reproduction andtransformation. Religion is very much our handiwork.  In Part 2, I will share on my impressions ofthe UK and its people

(Second of two parts)


Of the eleven days I stayed in theUK, three days I spent in London, one day on a blitz through Oxford,Stratford-upon-Avon and Banbury, and the rest I whiled away up north, mostly inthe city of Durham. London is a must, but the promdi in me liked it better outside of the capital city, in themore laidback and charming places. My particular attack in the short visit ofUK was to have London out of my way first and fast so that I could get soakedwith the outskirts where lies - I fancied and proved –the true British spirit.

So on the very first day, evenwhile I was still suffering from jet lag, I went through the motions ofvisiting the familiar London landmarks and took obligatory “I was there” shots: the London Tower, the London Bridge, theLondon Eye (there was too a London Eyesore – the office of the city mayor thatappeared like a dinosaur egg), the Parliament upon the Thames, Westminster Abbeyand the Buckingham Palace. But what made my bagongsalta day in London really remarkable was the Notting Hill festival, a mardi gras held where else but on HughGrant’s Notting Hill. Accompanying and initiating me to the ways of London was kababayan Judy Reginaldo-Banton whoworks as a nurse in the very hospital where Jack-the-Ripper practiced as asurgeon. On the second day I went back to Notting Hill and ransacked the bookstores,the antique shops and yes came across ukay-ukay! Then I crossed the expansiveHyde Park and squeezed time to visit the Stonehenge two hours south of London. Onthe third day, I took a train and passed through the university town of Oxfordand Stratford-upon-Avon (to pay my respect to the Bard), on my way to Banburyto visit a Viracnon friend Jingle Rola. The fourth day was “high culture and artsday” where I visited the British Museum and watched a West End play “Phantom ofthe Opera” in Her Majesty’s Theatre in Picadilly Circus. Another gracious angelof a kababayan from Mindanao, JulietSolijon, accompanied me.

                I didlove some aspects of London. I was charmed by Notting Hill, not only because Ienjoyed immensely the mardi gras, butI also savored its quaint but bohemian spirit. I was too thrilled by PicadillyCircus where many of the theatres were located it felt like the fun-loving sideof New York City.  There of course wasthe British Museum where I spent three hours marveling at the collections onancient Egyptian, classical Greek and Roman art, and at original Van Gogh’s,Cezanne’s, and most of the famous impressionists.  Of the properly British art, the country isnot known for really original contributions: British art is genericallyEuropean art. In architecture, of which I have special fondness, there isnothing in UK comparable to the Doumo of Florence or the Sagrada Familiacathedral of Barcelona. For sure, UK is full of nice buildings, but that’s it,they are nice but safely so, never daring and trailblazing. From pictures, Iknew that Buckingham Palace is bland, and seeing it in actuality, it wasblander.  The Westminster Abbey has noespecial character; it’s like any other Gothic cathedral.

But London is an important city ofthe world, it boasts of many things. Like, it is relatively easy to go aroundUK’s capital citty. The transport system is the best, with such extensivesubway (called the Tube) and bus route networks. Traveling is a breeze becausethey have all information needed available in street signs, in brochures, and throughpolite and helpful people who would take time to give directions to a stranger.The air is clean and there are open and green spaces where one could forget theurban choke. Outside of London, there are even more gems. The gentle topographyof the English countryside sooths rather than amazes. Of course there is theStonehenge (for very obvious reasons). Oxford is where The University is (Me:“Can you tell me where the university is?” Guy on the info counter at trainstation: “Oh, walk into town and the university is all over the place.”), TheStratford by the river Avon is “touristic” but thoroughly worthy of itsreputation. And how can somebody like me professing to be a writer skipvisiting Shakespeare’s hometown? But the best things I saw in UK were the cityof Edinburgh (in Scotland) as a whole, and Durham cathedral. 

London is gray but Edinburgh(pronounced ‘eden brah’) is dark gray, perhaps on account of the moss thatthrives on rocks and adobe. But this darkness is contrasted by the crisp coldair, the vibrant green of the expansive parks, the bright multi-color of the traditionalwoolen kilts (skirt worn by men) and blankets, and the lilting and seeminglydistant bagpipe music you hear at every turn along the streets. Everywhere, youpass by these Scottish men in customary garb, playing their traditionalinstrument and would appreciate a coin dropped by their feet. It all produces amysterious and sumptuous broodiness that is awe-inspiring. It should be nowonder at all: it was already the highlands of the north; it was Scotland. Consideringmy underdog complex, the allure of this place surely was boosted by the factthat the heroes of the Scottish people were those who led them in their long-runningresistance of the hegemony of the English.  Think of Braveheart. But all that is historynow. During my one-day stay, the famous Edinburgh Arts Festival was still goingon. But all I was able to do was to visit the British Gallery and the EdinburghCastle, and walked about the Old Town. I explored the labyrinthine narrowstreets lined with old buildings ranging from medieval to Elizabethan, to 18thand 19th century architecture. What was marvelous was how they wereable to resist the itch to destroy and build anew in order to put on a “modern”look, like what we do here in the Philippines.  

Durham City, being the venue of theconference, was where I stayed the longest. It’s my piece of the UK. Beingsmall, it took little time to get intimate with it. On my second day, I wasalready giving directions to tourists on how to go about. The entire city is aworld heritage site but its centerpiece is the cathedral. Together with theDurham Castle, it sits atop a hill that is an islet of sort because it is almostcompletely surrounded by the river Weir. This islet-hill is skirted by thickvegetation, mostly trees, and the river banks on both sides are lined by apaved walkway. One can complete this riverbanks walk in forty five minutes, athing which I did every day of my stay, at six in the morning. At this time,nobody stirs in the city yet. So I had the place practically to myself tomarvel at sceneries that were said to have inspired such famous Englishlandscape painters as Turner and Constable.   

In my entire stay in the UK, the cathedralat Durham was my single most photographed thing. It is of singular beauty,towering and massive, you never lose sight of it while in the city. It has manyof the basic features of a gothic cathedral: tall cross-rib vaulted ceiling,tall stained-glass windows, rosettes, spires. But the wonder of it all is thatthis structure, especially the walls, is not held in place by flying buttressesthat one sees in cathedrals of the high gothic period. So it is the sheer.thick, no-joke masonry that puts it together, like our old churches here in thePhilippines.  While it is similar toother important houses of worship in Europe by becoming largely a tourist spot,what sets it from most is the serene surrounding that must have stayedunchanged since medieval times. No noisy traffic going around like inWestminster Abbey or the Notre Dame in Paris. In addition, it maintains itsreligious routines, holding regular liturgical services. Its bells without failannounces the hours throughout the day. One time, I chanced upon a group ofteens issuing out of some medieval gate and hurrying up to the cathedral’spriory, their youthful giggles floating in the early morning cold and silence,their black robes billowing in the wind. Harry Potter and his classmates? No,they were the cathedral youth choir on their way to sing the morning praise.   

But then, it remains that churchattendance is meager, like it is everywhere in Europe. I sat around on a Sundaymorning near the cathedral door and took account of the faithful coming in forservice. They were mostly elderly and they came in trickles. By worship time, Ipeeped in. The small size of the congregation was made acute by the cavernousspace of the cathedral. Kapupung-aw. Suddenly,I missed home and so I hurried to the front desk of my hotel and asked if thereis a catholic church around. They showed me a map and gave directions on how toget there. It was St. Cuthbert’s Catholic Church of Durham. It took me sometwenty minutes to reach the place. When I arrived, I saw that it was a smallchurch, like a large barangay chapel, and almost filled to capacity. Thecongregation however was already singing the recessional song. Then everybodyfiled out. I intended to linger a bit to offer some payers, but I had to leavebecause they were closing the doors.  SoI tried to scan the people going about and look for Filipino-lookingchurchgoers; I realized it was quite a number of days already that I did notencounter a kababayan. But I did not see any. Durham is small andbeing in the northern part, there is small likelihood of Filipino presence. Itwas then that I felt so alone in a strange place. And being noontime already,my hunger became a craving for Filipino food. It’s been four days that I didnot taste rice. I have also noticed that my pants had gone loose on mywaistline. I had lost weight, due to the double effect of rice-less diet andall that walking I had to do.

I did not want for Filipino foodduring the London phase of my stay. I was all the time enjoying the hospitalityof kababayans. While Pinoys are notas numerous there as it is in other places such as Hong Kong or the U.S., theirpresence is considerable in the UK. But being mostly skilled professionals whoonly wish to be able to work in peace, these Filipino expats do not make their presence felt like other nationalities,like those responsible for the riots. One chances upon them on parks, trainsand other public places. The few that I had close encounter with were mostlynurses and care-givers. Most were doing well, but some are in the red due tothe recent tightening of policies on migrants. Talking to them, you hear theusual themes of OCW’s sentiments. Like how difficult it is to be away fromhome. Like how they have to work so hard like horses, taking in two or morejobs. Like how people back home do not seem to realize their ordeal, seeingthem only in terms of the padala, asif these grow on trees like leaves.

Ialways assumed that Filipinos abroad would rather stay non-committal about politicsof their host country. But I was proven wrong. I chanced upon a Filipino coupleat the train station in Edinburgh on my way back to base in Durham. They toldme they were from nearby New Castle, about an hour away, and had just finisheda three day vacation in the Scottish city. I told them “Buti pa kayo, papasyal-pasyal.” Well, they said, they would gocrazy if they do not have at least twice-a-year vacation. Before, they would togo to continental Europe or the Mediterranean. But it’s bad times. They werefeeling the bite of the economic crisis. Then they regaled me with a discourseon British politics, how the Conservatives is responsible for their currentwoes, and how they wish that the Labor Party gain control. That outpouring cameas a surprise to me. This same sentiment, in less sophisticated version I haveearlier heard from my Viracnon hosts. And I wondered: is their politics limitedto verbalizations? Do they put them in action? I was not able to explore on this.But I think that these Viracnons in UK would rather remain conservativeaction-wise and keep their grievances against the government to themselves.Just like at home.        


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