This Monday, September 8, 2020, a young scholar I knew passed away.
The person was a colleague in the old university. The few times I saw him in the office he struck me as one with impeccable good manners. When he would leave the office, he would look around if there were other people still there. He would go where they were and politely bid them goodbye. I was one of those recipients of this great human goodwill.
This man was an accomplished scholar, with a PhD from a renowned university abroad. But now he is dead, and I am asking why him?
It is a common question and we all have the right to ask that. Why would a person who has all the possibilities to do good be struck dead?
If the universe has a quota for death in the hope that a cosmic balance needs to be maintained, there are many who deserve to die to fulfill that transcendental task. I can name a hundred already or even more if we consider the politicians running this republic. The fact that good men and women are falling on the wayside, we are compelled to demand from Fate or Destiny or any Great Force out there an audit and a report.
We, unfortunately, never have a good answer. In eulogies and in whisper we assure each other, the bereaved especially, that there must be a reason for a person’s death.
When facing the wall of grief, religion is always a scalable source of answers. God has a reason. There are templates of phrases and quotes from which we can gather a sumptuous wreath of assurances when we are faced with loss. The heavens give us sorrows that we can endure. Or, this: sadness is a light leading us to something. Or, the dead-end who are we know what God or the Universe has in store for us?
In 1972, the year Martial Law was declared by the dictator, September was the month elected for that vicious announcement. September was and is the month honoring the Virgin of Peñafrancia. It was the 8th of September in 1972 when the Traslacion took place. On the 17th of September 1972, the fluvial procession happened. That ritual was never completed. We all know this piece of local history – as the barge or pagoda was near the approach to the Colgante Bridge, the old structure collapsed, killing hundreds and causing distress to the city and the region.
What were the sins of those killed on that day they were honoring the deity of their faith? Ignorance, stubbornness, curiosity –the authorities were blaming the faithful (and the merely curious) when they stayed on a bridge that could only carry so much.
Was the Colgante Bridge ever blamed? Were the authorities demanded to give an explanation?
National broadsheet carried the news on the front page. There was a call for an investigation. No investigation, however, took place because martial law was declared a few days after the fall of the bridge. After the disaster, there was silence all over the region, and all over the nation.
A law, not deaths, would silence us. But it was a law of death. The death of democracy. The death of the freedom to dream. That was martial law. What followed were killings.
Those who were murdered were lucky if they were seen. The rest simply disappeared. For those who stayed in the city and towns, we were all quiet.
We, too, disappeared in our own fear in our own homes.
It is 2020. The silence and stillness are coming back. The rowdy fiesta will not take place. There will be no Traslacion, and no fluvial procession. The virus, it appears is stronger than faith; Religion has succumbed to Science.
The arrival of pilgrims is presently a threat. The touch, which is at the core of the respect the faithful accord to the icon of the Virgin, will not be allowed.
Like the passing of a young, good scholar, we ask the question: why us?
We are not perfect but we are not evil. Our imperfections are equal to the quotidian sincerity of each day in our lives. Why us? In our poverty, the wealth we can lay claim to is this fervent belief that the tiny image in the huge church is not a representation but our own Mother, the Ina.
In calamities and crisis, we have prayed for her intercession. Years back, even the poor shelled out cash and coins so that a magnificent shrine could be built to honor this magnificent woman, whose likeness proceeded from colonial histories but lived on to be the symbol and sign of our own free will to be sad and to seek succor.
Instead of invitations to our kin and friends, we issue clarifications that the pilgrims should best avoid this city named for pilgrimage. In the festival that embraces everyone, we walk back to the caves of fear. Isolation is the origin of our prayers as we look up, imagine that we are touching the hem of this Woman who stepped on the Serpent.
This we ask: is this virus with a crown the same slithering demon in the battle You fought in a year-less space of the universe only You, human, were enabled to explore? Say yes, and we will be assured; say no, and we will rest in peace with September passing on.