Soul People

(by: Guillermo M. Pesigan)

Recently , Filipinos experienced, following hard on each other's heels, a volcanic eruption, a killer earthquake-, countless flood, seven coup attempts and a fuel crisis climaxed by 12-hour daily power outages.

In the past, they had gone through over 300 years of Spanish colonialism, over four decades of American rule and three years of Japanese occupation. The postwar reconstruction of the Republic sadly ushered in 20 years of dictatorship. (The People Power Revolution, which toppled that infamous regime, is among the bright moments in the nation's modem history.)

How do Filipinos cope? They transcend. They rise above the fact through a kind of spiritual reflex action acquired through historical experience. Modern-day Filipinos are a product of multi-cultural layering. One aspect of the national character which has been transformed by an interesting history is the Filipino soul. The Filipino's Malay ancestors, who were animists, were exposed to Islam in the mid- 15th century, to Catholicism in the 16th and to Protestantism in the 20th. At other times in their history, they had encounters with the Chinese, Japanese and Indians who did not press their faith on them but did leave behind some elements of worship that now show up in their language and folkways.

Today majority of Filipinos are Roman Catholics. But their brand of Catholicism doesn't simply adhere to the Iberian form. Filipino Catholicism accommodates both the liturgy of Rome and the indigenous rituals of the folk. It responds to the pantheon of saints as well as to a world of nature spirits. It respects the priest and the shaman as ministers of faith. It is phenomenal and syncretic, an admixture of elements of prehistoric animism and Christianity.

Because the Filipino soul finds sustenance in a unique religion, the Filipino sense of transcendence is equally unique. It is a cultural value, much like their sense of community, sharing, sensitivity and romance, except it is one that stays with them from cradle to grave and beyond.

We can recognize this sense of transcendence in many forms of Filipino religious expression. A visit to both urban centers and rural areas would reveal a plethora of calendrical rituals - most of them celebrating the cycle of planting and harvesting as well as marking human passage - and rites performed by individual communities to fill a particular spiritual need. Filipinos love ritual so much they extend the Christmas season until January and May time processions reenacting the search for the True Cross until June. Different types of popular religions and sects are also finding followers in the Philippines because Filipinos are millenarians at heart. Not that they believe the world is going to end in the year 2000, but because they are constantly anticipating a spiritual change. Foremost among their expectations is being shown the way to a lost Eden or chosen land, whether through a second coming of Christ, Jesus Sananda, God the Mother, or, yes, the national hero Jose Rizal.

Filipinos believe not only in God or Allah or Bathala, their prehistoric supreme being, but in the apocryphal: in the mythico-romantic romantic tales of princes and princesses; in traditional epic heroes like Lam-ang, a man of awesome physical prowess, and in pop heroes such as Darna, the Filipino Wonder Woman; in visionaries who claim to have seen the Virgin in various appearances heralded by a shower of light and rose petals or the Child Jesus whose proof of presence has been imprinted in stone; in mediums and shamans, priestesses and seers, and charismatic religious leaders.

Everywhere, there is a wealth of religious expression: novenas, processions, the muezzin's call to prayer, treks to ML Banahaw, a sacred mountain among some cults, faith healing, television evangelism and born-again Christianity.

All these religious expressions are symbolic of the Filipino belief in the kaluluwa, or soul, and in the powerful spirits that are capable of enhancing or menacing life on earth and beyond.

Filipinos are a soul people like no other. No proper Filipino home, no matter how humble, is without an altar. The most universal of their folk expressions, the fiesta, is both a supplication and a thanksgiving for a good life. When faced with uncertainty Filipinos say "bahala na," meaning "let it be," a phrase which acknowledges the hand of the god Bathala in shaping human destiny. When the farmer plants coconut he first pours thick rice gruel over the earth in the hope that once appeased the spirits would reward him with macapuno, the rarest of coconuts. The jeepney driver shows fear of God's law in many ways; for instance, he makes the sign of the cross whenever he passes a church. Having done that though, he roars through the streets, violating all traffic laws. That act of faith is repeated on the domestic front, for instance, by the housewife who draws the sign of the cross on newly cooked "- rice with her ladle before scooping out the precious grain, believed to be a gift from the gods. To presage a safe journey here and in the next life, Filipinos arm themselves with prayers, magical incantations, novenas and anting-antings, or amulets, until the soul passes through rocks, rivers, caves, falls and peaks, all of them "doorways" that lead to Celestial Bliss.

All of this implies a functional sense of transcendence, the Filipino's active reaffirmation of the -spirit world. Functional transcendence means many things: a link to their primordial consciousness, a source of personal and communal security, an expression of bonding with their fellowmen, and, most important, a way of explaining the world to themselves.

As Filipinos confront the post-Aquino regime, they are likely to draw strength - and hope - yet again from the world of benevolent spirits and heroes. Their sense of transcendence has been renewed by the result of this year's national polls. They have a movie star turned crime buster for a vice president and a West Pointer turned People Power hero for a president. Both seem ready to take on the nation's challenges.