Spirited Away

“It was always an emotional ride from the entrance of the cemetery to his grave close to the center. Spirited away, I succumbed to flashes of memory: his laughter while watching a Dolphy show, his chicken tinola, his low, manly voice, our weekend afternoon sessions of counting the number of white, curly hairs I could pluck from his head, which was directly proportional to the number of pesos I would earn to buy my favorite orange drink and biscuits.”

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WEEKS AFTER my father passed away when I was in grade school, I raised a question to our catechist, Ms. Y: “Where does a spirit go after a person dies?” My classmates and I were then sitting on the steps in front of a Catholic church in the financial capital. Ms. Y responded: “Ben, he’s in heaven with God. He’s watching over you. Pray to him every time.” Still baffled, I followed up with more questions: “But will he be bothered if he sees me getting low scores or failing grades, or unable to submit projects on time because of his absence? Does that mean that the dead still think about us, the living? Do they still have problems in heaven, a supposed worry-free paradise?”

At a loss for answers, she moved on with her discussion. But I did not.

In this Catholic nation, it’s instilled in the majority that we should observe Undas, a holiday where families visit cemeteries to lay flowers and light candles on the graves of their loved ones, to honor them.

I still vividly remember how every year after my father’s death, I took on the task of repainting his grave a week before the holiday at the Manila South Cemetery. With a small towel covering my nose to avoid inhaling the vapors from the white paint, I gleefully sang to my father some Fernando Poe Jr. songs, to bond with him, to reminisce on the old days, to feel his presence. FPJ, known as “the King of Philippine Cinema,” was his favorite actor.

After painstakingly removing the wild grass that had grown around his grave, I talked to him, whispered my dreams that I hoped he’d help me realize, and asked him to guard and guide us, especially my mom who had to take on the gargantuan role of being father and mother of the family after he left.

It was always an emotional ride from the entrance of the cemetery to his grave close to the center. Spirited away, I succumbed to flashes of memory: his laughter while watching a Dolphy show, his chicken tinola, his low, manly voice, our weekend afternoon sessions of counting the number of white, curly hairs I could pluck from his head, which was directly proportional to the number of pesos I would earn to buy my favorite orange drink and biscuits.

Years later, I questioned everything.

As a once devoted and proud Catholic, I became more inquisitive about things of the spirit, religion, faith, and the Bible when I entered college. After rereading Jose Rizal’s novels, “El Filibusterismo” and “Noli Me Tangere,” confusion plagued my mind. Rizal is our national hero but I wondered why most of us don’t heed his words. We even have “Rizal” as a required subject in tertiary education, to delve deeper and study his life and works, to learn from him, to inculcate in us the virtues of an exemplar of Filipino brilliance and excellence. But do we understand him? Have we realized the principal reason he was banished, with all his might and courage, from the face of the earth, which we commemorate every Dec. 30? Are we blind to historical facts?

On page 72 of the “Noli,” Rizal wrote: “But now, let’s see how the idea of Purgatory, which is absent from both the Old and the New Testaments, became Catholic doctrine. Neither Moses nor Jesus Christ make the slightest mention of Purgatory…” Yes, purgatory is never mentioned in the Bible. A quick search in your electronic Bible can prove this to you. The question then is: Where did the doctrine of purgatory come from?

What about the scrapping of the doctrine of limbo by then Pope Benedict XVI when he authorized the Catholic Church’s International Theological Commission on April 22, 2007, to publish a 41-page document titled “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die without Being Baptized”? In an article written in Rome for Telegraph.co.uk, Nick Pisa reported: “Babies who die before being baptized will no longer be trapped in Limbo following a decision by the Pope to abolish the concept from Roman Catholic teaching.”

Why do we have to light some candles, thick and thin, big and small, during Undas? Why do some Catholics steal and disrespectfully recycle the very candles of their fellow Catholics that are believed to illuminate the path for their deceased? Why are we made to believe that our departed loved ones are guarding and guiding us from heaven? Isn’t it true that the dead know nothing, as what’s written in Ecclesiastes 9:5 (New International Version), “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten”?

For hundreds of years people have been made to believe in doctrines that have no basis in the Bible. Worse, these are just invented teachings that go against the principles of truth and justice. But to no surprise, when I brought this up to the other members of my Catholic family, they were caught uninformed. Because of fear for our souls to be condemned, we grew up following our leaders without testing or asking them, and, like a sail in a vast ocean with no map, GPS tracker, or a virtuoso captain to follow, we’re clueless on why we practice or celebrate centuries-old traditions.

While it is true that we’re a democracy and that our Constitution protects our freedom to choose and practice a religion, it is time to rethink our stand and course. We’re living in a world where access to information is encouraged—something nonexistent when the greatest Filipino who ever lived challenged those in authority in his time using his proverbial pen as his sword. Yes, there’s fake news. Yes, deception is rampant. Yes, it’s an uphill battle to get to the bottom of things. But today, more than ever, we have a duty to get to the truth, for veracity to shine, not just for other people but for our own sake—for our souls.

The choice is in our hands.

And with God’s grace and mercy, someday I hope to talk to my father again. No, not in this world, not next to his grave, or while sitting in front of another Ms. Y, but with the almighty Father in heaven, in his paradise.

(This piece has been published in Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Op-Ed section – Young Blood – on the 31st of October, 2017.)

A comeback story

Somewhere along the way you’ll get hurt.
Broken promises.
Failed relationships.
Frustrations from all angles.
To face these is inevitable.
But take heart.
What’s life if we get everything we want
and prayed for at the moment we
expected them to greet us?
Where’s excitement in not challenging
our limitations and weaknesses?
We’ve all questioned everything at one
point in our lives – our decisions,
our gifts, our value as a person.
But look at the one gazing at you from
the future – the stronger you.
You’ve gone through this before;
you can do it again.
Meaning breathes from tales of triumphs
and overcoming of odds.
Be a comeback story.

Pause and pray

THERE’S AN ongoing crisis in the Philippines that’s worse than the Maute group attack in Marawi City. Yes, it’s greater than the Filipino fascination with heroes and cursing of villains. It’s our attempt to simplify things by resorting to one-liners, labels, and generalizations. It’s more convenient to describe single mothers as ‘na-ano lang’; the 16 million supporters of the current president as ‘Dutertards’; the PNoy true believers as ‘Yellowtards’; the corrupt media men and women who sold their honor to be a voice of a particular party instead of binding with the truth and reason as ‘Presstitutes’; the millions of addicts as ‘sub-human’; the gays and lesbians in our midst as ‘worse than animals’; Muslims as ‘terrorists’. These do not accomplish anything but create more divisions. And while we are busy figuring out how others are different from us, or on how one’s opinion gravitates from fake news at a glance, we forget to listen, to read, to research, and ultimately, to convince ourselves that in times like this, it’s best to pause and pray for our country.