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Documenting Faith

Much maligned perhaps but the social media and the Internet have contributed to a heightened experience of the recently held Peafrancia fiesta in Naga City. For those who were not in the city, there were many streaming videos of what was happening in the pilgrim city of Naga – from the Traslacion to the fluvial procession.

The quality of photographs and the videos also showed how generations have embraced and developed their skills with the new technologies. I could even see how one of my nephews began the day of the Traslacion from the preparation at his home then to the crowd massing in front of the shrine.

In another generation and another time, I would have been left with limited choices. I could have stayed at home and listened to the annotations of the radio announcers. I could have watched the TV and followed the events at each juncture. Or, I could have brought myself to a vantage point and watched the pomp and pageantry unfold. With Facebook and Messenger and many other new ways, I was going through the Peñafrancia on a more heightened sense.

There were so many photos of the two main processions that I was reveling in the angles and choices of the photographers.

On this fiesta, everybody became documentarians.

The Internet also afforded me very quick opportunities to share a photo. In seconds, I was “posting” photos and sharing videos. In this regard, I was very traditional first in that I tried very hard to find out who was behind the photo or the video. I would contact them and seek their permission to use their photos. But as the scenes pictures piled up, I was buoyed up by the sensation of being in the moment, I went into a frenzy of sharing. As with any act of posting, the comments were coming in fast and furious, too as quickly as the images appeared online.

I found a photograph and labeled it “my favorite.” It showed the icon of the Nuestra Señora de Peñafrancia already taken out of her carroza and being moved to the altar at the Basilica. At that point, the cortege, I imagine, had survived the jostling and pushing as the image was removed from the barge into the arms of the priests. The photo arrested a violent scene: a burly priest was rushing away his soutane hugging his body as he seemed to run headlong and prepare the way for the Virgin. Behind him were other priests. Two were seen in front bearing the Virgin whose image was now standing on a small scaffold while more were guarding the rear side of the icon. The priests were all in white and around them were seminarians also in white forming a cordon that will push the laypersons milling outside the line.

The energy of the photo urged me to comment how, in the end, the sacred guards took over and banished the laymen to the side. Immediately, a short debate ensued.

Halfway through my newfound passion, a friend commented how he did not have the idea that the Peñafrancia was “this big.” This inspired me to be purposive in my selection of images. That comment seconded by another friend inspired me to add comments to each photo. I was annotating the fiesta. I was in the festivities of my city. There was no need to tell anyone I was somewhere else. That information was irrelevant and unnecessary. I could have been there in that crowd shouting “Viva” or I could have been by the bank of the river nervous how the return of the Virgin Mother to Her shrine would go.

Then Elvert, one of these friends, said, “cinematic.” This was expected because this friend is a filmmaker. He was looking at the pagoda, golden with the candles, the river throwing off blue tint against the fading sheen of the twilight. I, too, was looking at the barge and the sadness that pervaded the riverscape. It would make good cinema.

Old believers always treated the fluvial procession as a real journey home for the Virgin.

The boat in the photo was not only gliding over the river filled up by the rains that never disappointed the devotees; she was going back to her home by the River. This journey may have a different meaning from the side of the institutional Church but for the people, this journey home is a bittersweet one. She will be away for a year, very much like a beloved who stays away for some time, makes a visit, and leaves again.

“Do you know that women are not allowed in that boat?” I mentioned that fact casually; whereupon a chorus of “why” ensued. Even Vincent, a friend from high school asked the same question. “You didn’t know, Vincent,” my voice was even more incredulous.

I rattled off reasons, mostly developed from social-scientific perspective. Not answering the question directly, I mentioned other rituals from other cultures where women are not allowed to participate. I talked about taboos and the impurity of women not allowing them to approach sacred sites. I could have gone on and on, but I sensed an indifference to my perspective.

I remember posting another photo. This was of a young man, cool and composed, as he walked over the heads of other bearers of the Virgin. Again, the online house was divided: one half cursed the man for being vulgar and showy about his faith and another half admired him for his devotion.

If women would not question why they are not allowed to be with the “Ina,” the Mother in her boat on her way home, then a man walking on a sea of humans is the most credible photo of faith, love and devotion. No question about that.

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