A few days before Christmas, our family returned to Alegria in the southwest of Cebu.
On the last day, after we achieved our purpose for going upland, my husband broached an interest to visit the sitio chapel.
Just as the sun began its visible descent and the air nibbled with metal teeth, we, along with our two sons, hiked up a slope.
I’ve yet to go around our country, but I feel this must be true anywhere: to the outsider, the “kapilya” always seems to be constructed in the remotest, most forsaken spot.
Yet to the community, their “little church” is where it should be: nearer in physical and emotional terms to them than the historic edifice the Spanish colonizers ensconced in the town center down by the coast.
A mountain barangay usually has at least one but can also have as many as three “kapilya,” depending on the distance and terrain separating households.
Though a “kapilya” is removed from the daily ministration of the parish priest and loiters only around the periphery of parish life, the chapel is but a short walk from upland homes and farms.
Perspectives differ, of course.
To an uplander used since childhood to carrying farm produce twice or thrice his body weight down slippery gorges or up steep slopes, a “short walk” may not even warrant the pursing of the lips that, in the mountains, translates to a fair amount of strenuous activity a city dweller will associate with Olympian quests.
We refused our friends’ offer to accompany us as there still was livestock to feed and keep away for the night. But when we took their advice to “just go beyond the hill,” we realized how much we took for granted when, after cresting one hill, we saw, as far as the eye could see, how many more hills there were behind it.
We found the chapel before the fireflies came out.
To the outsider’s eye, made more critical by the gut-squeezing travails to locate it, a “kapilya” looks emaciated and forlorn beside its more substantial brother, the monumental cathedrals erected by conscripted labor, hewing stones and gouging forests out of the virgin pagan heart of centuries ago.
In constrast, this chapel was a diminution.
Just as the eye is challenged to guess at the span of waistlines of priests regularly plied a steady stream of eggs, native chicken, sea catch and other offerings by a devoted flock, there was so little of the “kapilya” for our eyes to grasp.
Perhaps it was because we searched for stained glass windows, the marbleized flesh of saints and martyrs bleeding rosebuds of blood, or, following the vogue in the city, overwrought chandeliers and boxes spewing artificially cooled air.
This chapel did not even have a cross.
Until a new priest replaced the previous one, this chapel never even witnessed a mass. Apparently the failure of the lot owner to donate to the parish prevented the parish vehicle from reaching this spot during fiesta.
So the flock had to go down to the coast to seek its shepherd.
Did this denial reduce this little church to the bare insubstantiality of a soul?
In October, when the hand-carved icon of San Miguel is taken from the safekeeping of a local family and restored to its spot in the altar and the nocturnal fog is dissipated by the heat from Petromax lamps and bodies compressed inside that crude dwelling, the “kapilya” is a lidless eye mirroring the moon in the dark sea.
Then, many of the locals walk for an hour or two after supper to come here for the novena, sing, talk. Sometimes, strangers join them, outsiders drawn to the beckoning warmth, the beacon of belief. Eleven years ago, my husband turned up and dedicated our infant son, born with a hole in the heart, to the celestial guardian squashing a serpent underfoot.
In December, when the dawn masses draw the faithful to the churches along the coast, many a “kapilya” in the mountains are empty shells.
This halfway place in Talayong did not even harbor the stray nest of a chicken.
In the twilight, I saw the silhouetted rows of sawn coconut trunks, barks still intact. Parallel to these crude pews was a bare altar. Nothing distracts, in the manner of a community, tied to the soil, follows a rhythm that varies little from getting up to work and lying down to rest.
In the darkening, I heard the nonstop chatter of my sons and was comforted.
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* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 27, 2009 “Matamata” column