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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Holy Week Hostage

As the country comes to a grinding halt on account of the annual Holy Week, I am transported back to an incident that may have sparked my fervent call for secularism, especially where government and public service are concerned.

An incident that took place several decades ago (OK, the fact that I can say this means I am officially old), this was brought back to my consciousness while Art and I were thinking of our schedule for the upcoming Holy Week.

A tradition we had when I was much younger was that we would all gather at my uncle's house to be together for the Holy Week celebration. It was a time I looked forward to for the sole purpose of reconnecting with my cousins, and not much else; I was not really concerned about any religious rituals to do, or prayers to be said, all I knew was that Holy Week meant I would be able to have fun with my cousins. Period.

My uncle's place had a pool, billiard table and various board games, so we would be playing cards and sungka well past midnight, and it was the only time my mom couldn't object to us staying up late.

One such year (the year my "secular" consciousness was awakened), my mom started rounding up all of us cousins and told us to meet them at the big hall. It was close to 6pm so I thought we were having an early dinner, and we probably had some planned activity after that.

I was surprised to find my aunt lighting some candles at the center of the hall, and there was a picture or altar of sorts. (As one of the "late" cousins, I was situated at the back, so I really couldn't see.) After the lighting, my aunt turned to us, mumbled something (my cousin and I were busy giggling about something) and suddenly, everyone started mumbling as well: it seemed like they were repeating after her, and I started looking quizzically at my mom, who was trying to mumble along.

I excused myself from my cousin and went beside my mom, who looked just slightly less bewildered than I was.

"What are we doing?" I whispered.

"It's a prayer...can't you tell? Ssssshhhh."

"Yes, it sounds like a prayer...but this isn't the kind we pray, right?"

"No, we don't. It's a Catholic prayer. Ssssshhhh!"

"Okaaaaaay...if this is a Catholic prayer, then why are we praying along? Because last I checked, we're NOT Catholics."

"Because we're at their house! Ssssssshhhhh!"

Yes, the seeds of secularism were planted in that very moment. It was then that I noticed something pecuiliar that particular Holy Week: we never really had lunch, but my mom kept sneaking chips, crackers and what-not to me and my sister, and coupled with the fun I was having with my cousins, we never really noticed.

Until the evening when we were "forced" to pray. It was then that I also heard a familiar sound: my stomach grumbling. I went back to my mom and confirmed something with her.

"Ma...we didn't take lunch, right?"

"No, your tita is fasting, and since this is their house, we should all sympathize and fast with her. Sssssshhhh! Will you get back there and be quiet? Sssssshhhh!"

"But, I don't want to fast! Where can I get food?"

"Until she eats, we don't eat! Ssssshhhhh!"

(Courtesy of

We did eat a little while after the prayer, and I remember my aunt telling everyone that she made a promise to not feed herself anything until 6 in the evening, and with only vegetables and fish. (So you know what we had that very night.) I don't recall ever being asked to go to a particular church service that time, nor told to go bisita iglesia, but my mom might have been, since there was a moment when the adults were absent and it was just the cousins chasing one another in that big house.

And I don't recall us continuing the meet-during-Holy-Week tradition after that. The extended family did seem to go more separate after that. Some might see this as a bad thing, but I was grateful that I would never have to pray a prayer that went against what I was taught at the time, or do fasting or any other ritual against my will - that right is reserved for my parents alone, haha.

When the Supreme Court ruling on the RH Law came out, I noticed one of the provisions that was struck down was basically a religious test: if a person felt it went against her/his faith, s/he is not obligated to refer a patient seeking reproductive health services or advice if the advice/service provider would be prescribing something "sinful". I cannot help but note the parallels with that event one Holy Week: our aunt is fasting, so even if we weren't Catholic, we "had" to fast. It goes against my belief, so even if doesn't contradict yours, I won't tell you where to get help on the best artificial contraception for your own body.

At least, in the first instance, one could argue "well, you went into their house, you follow their rules!" although that would be an untenable argument at best because being in someone's house doesn't automatically mean surrendering your belief system. But for a PUBLIC health service provider to be able to refuse the law on religious grounds would border on going against our Constitution, which specifically mandates religion and state to be separate, and for no religious test to be required to discharge one's duties in public office or service.

(I can't wait for a Buddhist to head a government agency that would force this entire archipelago to go vegetarian.)

Truly, the personal is the political: this season, Art asked me if I would go bisita iglesia with him. This is someone who knows my stance on secularism, but he also knows I would never ask him to change his beliefs on account of mine, and that he is free to practice his faith - the same way each of us has that inalienable right. I readily said yes, because while I might not get to kneel and pray, I am endlessly fascinated by the piety displayed, and as a lifelong student of the social sciences, it is something I cannot ignore. (Not to mention I get to marvel at the architecture of many churches.)

The one lesson I learned that day at my uncle's place is that you should never force someone to conform to your point of view just because you deem it right. This goes for politics, food choices, and most certainly in matters that people profess by faith. But that right extends to your own body, your own belief system, your own world view. The moment you force someone - obviously against their will - to accept yours as the righteous path, you are infringing on someone's right to call the shots on their own life.

If only some quarters could see it that way, too.

1 comment:

  1. enjoyed reading your blog. i must agree though that one's belief or practices should not be imposed on others. my hubby fasts one day a week and i'm not forced or obligated to join him.

    have a blessed holy week.