Two years ago, the Holy Week from April 5 to 11, came almost a month after the entire Luzon Island was placed on a lockdown. While there were uncertainties with regard to the meaning of closing off the biggest island of this republic, the question about whether the sacred rituals of processions can be mightier than any virus proved to be the greater uncertainty.
The pandemic isolating vast spaces brought us fear and physical death; the reality of our Church and its rites defeated by something unseen but causing the most palpable of impact on human lives made us rethink about our spirituality. Religion, the tremendous and the fascinating, buckled down at the might of disease, or so we assumed.
When all else fails – medicine, recovery, science, wellness – we turn to our Church, the most physical aspect of our believing. Whether it be in the limited space of a shrine, or within the humble chapel bracketed by open fields and low hills, and most importantly in our cathedrals where we can not only feel our heartbeat but also listen to its wondrous echoing, our faith is unassailable before the Cross or the Grieving Mother, or our favorite Doctors of the Church, and martyrs of most ancient histories. And yet in that year of 2020, and in the following year of 2021, there seemed to be no hope in those sites where all hopes were, de facto, surrendered not out of despair but because of belief in the acclamation, Thy Will Be Done.
“Thy will be done” is the acceptance that barricaded all the lines of the favored prayer as we battled the air with the instruments that shut off from the surrounding the same air from which we first learned the lesson of life, which is breathing. We were forced to wear mask and develop the ease to use them; we washed our hands briskly at the touch of another person’s hand, or of the object handled by another human. The tactility which mediated healing turned into the curse of contamination. The world outside became dirty even if we did not describe our Earth in that manner. We were not sure anymore if we were clean enough not to be the carrier of that which, each day, decimated the population.
Short random prayers were not enough. In our household, as in many other households, praying the Rosary was both urgent and urged. While in the past we could have used the repetition of prayers coursed through beads as a singular form of centering the mind distracted by the daily busyness of a prosperous world, the isolation of affliction had us sensing the vitality of each Hail Mary or Glory Be recited. The beads had, in that quiet night where no blood on the wall could command the wind to desist from carrying into living rooms the deadly disease, assumed proportions of power and efficacy. Reminded by older people of the practice to bring out onto our respective porches icons that were otherwise relegated to forgotten altars or left to decorate a corner in a room, we put up on small tables the saints of our childhood, and picked from our humble gardens blooms that bore our agonies and supplications.
There were two positions available to the thinking person during those times and even now: to think of the virus and the pandemic it has wrought upon the world as a natural component of a human ecosystem is one. The other is to declare religion or that aspect of believing, which transcends the human affairs as an element in the existence of human groups. To the first, one can fit in a kind of resignation or understanding supported by science; to the second, one can once more listen to the silence of one’s belief that does not test our endurance but map for this humanity the endless bridge to life and death, and life again. Crossing that bridge makes us human and learning how there is more to the journey from life to death than transition is not a consolation but truth and beauty. And both non-negotiable.
All these are of the last two years. Politics at present has allowed people to gather once more. There has, fortunately, been no surge of infections. Instead of the belief in religion creating the path to a world returning to its stable axis, it is the plan of men and women in their right to governance that has speedily brought about a regularity in human organizations.
With the Holy Week barely a week away, there is certainty the icons will be brought out once again. With votive candles and splendid displays of flowers, the characters from what remains to be the greatest story about humility shall be our narrators.
When the virus was at its most virulent, the communities of humans around the globe agreed we should all be kind to one another. With the virus gone, or seemingly wiped out, what happens now? Wallace Stevens in “Sunday Morning” asks: “But when the birds are gone, and their/warm fields/Return no more, where then, is paradise?”
The warm fields are back for us humans. Shall paradise be also here?
We are all alive as you read this. I am breathing as I write this. We have come from a long war that we did not fight; we sat it out. Even when the medicine had arrived, there were questions. But here we are, with answers: however tiny and shaken our faith, it has served us, linked us to the Sacred out there, to a belief that accompanied us in our sorrows and fear.