March 30, 2009
Blood on a Good Friday? For the largely Catholic nation like the Philippines, specially among the Tagalogs, Lent has become synonymous with scenes of hooded flagellants walking down a hot road, blood oozing from a flogged back. To the unknowing visitor, the scene may be all to much for an afternoon walk.
Locally referred to as penitensiya, the practice is widespread in Bulacan, Pampanga, Rizal, and Laguna. Participants with bare torsos wear hoods (which most often are old shirts) crowned with branches and leave, or even flowers as in the penitents’ hoods in Kalayaan, Laguna, and Infanta, Quezon.
The flagellant then whips himself with split bamboo sticks bundled into a braided cord of cotton or abaca strings (the number of bamboo sticks is said to correspond to the number of years the penitensiya will be performed).
These flagellants are usually accompanied by assistants who either perform the role of whipping him with crushed sugarcane stalk or coconut midrib on his buttocks, or slapping his back numb to prepare him for the incisions or cuts which will later be made on his back by a so-called “berdugo” or executioner. In this latter practice, the penitents’ upper portion of their backs are hit four times with a paddle-shaped wooden instrument (called taktak in Bulacan) embedded with bits of glass on a layer of vegetable resin. Others even use blade or the kitchen knife. This is suppose to produce the desired cuts from which blood could ooze, which, interestingly, as reported by most penitents, actually aid in numbing the pain, as opposed to a dry or bloodless cut. The path the penitents take is usually determined by the number of houses in a road where the pasyon (the passion of Christ sung) is being read, or the holy places in the community like chapels, or as practiced in the much-visited municipality Kapitangan in Paombong, Bulacan, the path where the fourteen stations of the cross have been set up. In each spot, he signs the cross on the ground with his finger and drops in a prone position. His assistant then steps on his buttock and proceeds with whipping him. This is repeated from one spot to the other until the penitent reaches the river to bathe. By some miracle, the cuts are healed and many happily return to their houses as if merely coming from a regular trip.
It is also in Kapitangan, as observed by anthropologist Alfredo Evangelista, where other penitents opt to impersonate Christ on the way to his crucifixion complete with a company of people who gives lashes throughout the ordeal. The final act is the actual nailing of the “Kristo” on the cross. Evangelista notes that many such crucifixions take place in Kapitangan on a Good Friday. This practice of crucifixion has of course, caught on, with women making headlines by participating in it, Lucia Reyes being the more famous of them, having brought the idea of the sacrifice further by having nails slightly driven to both her feet.
This seemingly masochistic acts may pale in comparison with the men and women in the southern Thailand cities of Phuket and Trang, who engage in outrageous body piercing puncturing their cheeks with various items including knives, skewers and other household items during their vegetarian festivals, but the picture of Filipino flagellants elicits much the same questions.
Why are Filipinos into this pain-infliction rituals which are not even sanctioned by the Catholic church?
To begin with, explains anthropologist Dr. Jesus Peralta, the practice is alien to Filipinos as pain is largely an experience man necessarily evades. The penitensiya is not even seen by those who perform it as an atonement for past sins committed, but as Evangelista himself had found out in a survey in 1958, is seen more of a vow made in faith for a recovery from serious illnesses, or even gratefulness from not being ill at all for their entire lives. Others even mentioned dreaming about a bearded man asking them to perform the penitensiya. Interestingly, even the roles of the assistants, or the ones who recite the prayers, or even the berdugo are vows made through such experiences. And yes, these vows are even passed on to a favorite son, nephew or even a niece.
Fernando Zialcita in the book Cuaresma traced the practice to the discipline imposed by the Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries on themselves, flogging their bodies in their own cells in order to “tame the flesh”—a discipline that caught on among their Filipino converts who eventually took the discipline outside the walls of the church.
People of various backgrounds may have all the reason for the penitensya, but this writer finds context to the one practiced in Infanta, Quezon. Here, the penitensiya is done by men wearing hoods embellished with colorful flowers, and who perform it on a Good Friday, supposedly the driest day of the year. Yes, blood is shed, but everything is seen as aiding in the renewal of the plants, everything is made in the context of fertility, a practice hearkening back to a goddess-worshipping culture much older than any of us could perhaps care to remember, (i.e. Mebuyan,” also Maibuyan, or the ancient underworld goddess of Bagobo and Manobo mythology). But then again, that is part of an altogether lengthy article.