Tuesday, April 29, 2014

“Relic fever”

AN ACCIDENTAL traveler these past months, I’ve learned to quickly pass airport checks by putting my phone inside the bag and leaving home the scissors in my pencil pouch.

But there’s something in my jeans pocket that sometimes merits a probe by airport police.

In the most recent incident, the female security staff asked me about the bulge in my pocket. I showed her a small leather pouch, which she asked me to open.

I shook out the contents on my palm: a jade bi, a wooden cross on a string, a wooden rosary, a woven bracelet and a red handsewn pouch. The officer picked up the pouch.

When she pressed it, I knew she would hear inside the cloth the crackle of paper wrapped around powdery substance: incense blessed by a saint in a temple I visited with a friend.

But from the viewpoint of someone trained to spot guilt and crime, the substance could also be something else. This thought flashed quickly in my mind when the officer asked me to identify the red pouch.

I answered without dissembling: “anting-anting.” The officer instantly gave back the pouch and waved me through.

When I told my older son, he commented that it was a good thing the incident took place in the country, not overseas where an amulet would require more than a literal translation.

That exchange at the airport is intriguing on other levels. The officer and I are trained to be professionally speculative: she in the line of detection, I in academic and journalistic inquiry.

Yet, in the presence of “anting-anting,” we both reacted against type. A culture we shared was more powerful than education or discipline. A talisman against danger or misfortune, an “anting-anting” is an item so personal, some are even buried in people’s bodies to prevent loss, theft or contamination.

But what can be one person’s lucky charm may only be a fetish or idol to unbelievers. So perhaps it is not only accidental that many “anting-anting” are small enough to be hidden from sight or covered by clothing. Rebuking religion and science, amulets exist like the subconscious running beneath the surface of our avowed beliefs, the biases we repeat like a mantra, we no longer question them.

Yet, these seemingly contradictory streams are more parallel than divergent. Occasionally, these streams even coalesce. The twin canonization today has brought relics into focus. “Relic fever,” particularly for anything associated with John Paul II, started long before news broke out about his canonization. The Associated Press reported that the Vatican fueled the boom as soon as he was beatified in 2011 although the tradition is to venerate an item as a relic when it came into physical contact with or was physically part of a saint.

John Paul II, reportedly the “world’s first globe-trotting pope,” left many mementoes associated with him in his travels. Watching in 2013 a TV report about the plate, utensils and table napkin that is displayed, unwashed, in a Manila restaurant where John Paul II dined on fish and shrimp during his 1995 visit, the uncle mumbled to me, “Kalokohan,” a judgment he must have passed not so much on questionable hygiene as much as on the inexplicable encroachments of faith on reason.

Umberto Eco wrote in his novel, “The Name of the Rose,” about a saint whose foreskin pieces were venerated in so many monasteries in Europe, a monk speculated that if all these relics were put together, the saintly organ would be as high and prodigious as the Tower of Babel.

Throughout the ages, skepticism hardly threatens belief perhaps because it is human and universal to seek a prop for invincibility, some shelter, no matter how flimsy or insubstantial, from the unknown. When the Basilica Minore del Sto. Niño belfry toppled during the October 2013 earthquake, many of the faithful asked those guarding the area to give them pieces of the rubble in exchange for snacks or meals.

Recently, a friend showed me a piece of grey rock, part of the belfry and the 1735 construction in hard stone. He said it was given to him by a friend vending outside the Basilica. He keeps the rock inside a leather pouch that was the scrotum of a kangaroo, one of those legally harvested in Australia to prevent overpopulation.

Before my friend explained, I was curious about the leather pouch but not the rock. When I knew, I gave back his “anting-anting”. No more explanations needed. Some things, like faith, are personal.

(mayette.tabada@gmail.com/ mayettetabada.blogspot.com/ 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s April 27, 2014 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

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