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Mapping the Eternal Return

By the second week of September, Bikolanos and non-Bikolanos as well begin their return to the city of Naga. It is not only a pilgrimage but a return, a travel through time and remembrance. For those who were born in this city or around the region, the trip is almost a requirement for a rite of passage that goes on and on. For those who have promises to be in the city where the votive Virgin of Peñafrancia can be found, this perpetual trip is a promise made to oneself and to a faith that needs to be affirmed through touch - si pagkapot, pagpahid kan panyo sa mahal na hawak ni Ina (the touch, the handkerchief gently pressed against the precious corpus of the Mother).

Who is the pilgrim? Alan Morinis in Sacred Journey defines for us this concept: “The pilgrimage is a journey undertaken by a person in quest of a state he or she believes to embody a valued ideal.” For Morinis, the end of the pilgrimage can be an actual site, a shrine located in a fixed point. But being a pilgrim can be metaphorical and allegorical.

Extending beyond what Mircea Eliade - he who has proposed the myth of eternal return in ritual - has immortalized as a “sacred center,” Morinis talks of a shrine that is not a home of the “saint” or icon but one that “incarnates the idea it embodies.” Morinis further articulates this idea: “The message that this place is the holy of holies is strongly reinforced for the pilgrim in the art, architecture, music, drama and so on that embellish the center.” Following Morinis, the shrine of the Peñafrancia devotion can develop what is called “spiritual magnetism,” that makes it “so powerful that it overwhelms group or cultural boundaries and so draws pilgrims of many affiliations…”

Can there be more than one shrine? Can there be no center? Should there be major points of devotion?

Are we connected to another shrine, the Shrine of the Birhen ng Peñafrancia de Manila, the Birhen del Rosario (the Virgin of Rosary) and Inang Mahal ng Mga Dukha (Beloved Mother of the Poor), a devotion dating back to 1697?

A new reading of devotion and pilgrimage has been developed so as to answer indeed the question of this quest.

Where before there was this small shrine at Penafrancia Street, we now have a Basilica Minore. The names matter in the ecclesiastical administration. But do the faithful care? For some years now, a new practice has been developed to address the significance of certain sacred points in the devotion. The Traslacion (transfer) at present does not proceed directly to the Metropolitan Cathedral; rather, there is a brief stop from the basilica to the old shrine, where the grand land procession happens. It is as if Ina, the Mother, affirms her old home because, after all, she is going to be visiting a massive house where She would be billeted not permanently but only for days so that her symbolic children can pay homage to Her, present their supplications, or, in the humblest language of their belief, be there with Her. In joys and sorrows.

Will everyone agree to the idea that the Traslacion merely affirms what many already know, that we have the right to affirm our own definition of our faith and devotion to the Virgin? The institutional church can always contest this but I am proceeding from a different reading. Like the riotous and imperfectly human process by which we bring our Ina from Her shrine by the river to the center, there are down there, as one looks from the grand perspective of the priest lording it above all the jostling men, more ways of loving the Mother.

John Eade, Michael Sallnow et al talk of “competing” interpretations of pilgrimages and, it follows, religious devotion and belief. This does not mean the pitting of antagonistic interests against other interests. For Eade and Sallnow, “pilgrimage is above all an arena for competing religious and secular discourses, for both the official co-option and the non-official recovery of religious meanings, for conflict between orthodoxies, sects and confessional groups, for drives toward consensus and communitas, and for counter-movements toward separateness and division.”

And so when September comes again, and the Virgin is taken from Her Shrine by the polluted river, expect a thousand and one faiths all clamoring for recognition. No humans will ever know the petitions; only the cri de coeur, the cry from the heart, will be heard. And that is all that matters. Viva la Virgen!

Note: I call my column FieldNotes II after a brief hiatus. Here I am returning as in a ritual.


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