LAST year, when my niece had to be operated twice to relieve bleeding in the brain, family members prayed to the Birhen sa Simala for her recovery.
This September, my niece turned 17. My sister and her daughters recently came home, and I joined them in visiting the Simala church in Sibonga.
A trip down the south of Cebu usually offers a scenic respite from the city and its tawdry charms and charmless hustlers. Today, one can still string a couple of sleepy southern towns, where a dog sauntering across the street constitutes the biggest excitement in a week.
Yet, the church in Simala, with its reputation for miracles and its droves of devotees and tourists, has raised the local threshold for spectacles by several notches. I prefer empty churches, where one can hear oneself better. After several visits, I conclude that the church in Simala will never lack for two things: people and construction projects underway.
The pilgrimage up the hills of Lindogan in the barangay of Simala requires the same mindset and skills required to survive in the cities, if one chooses to visit on the 13th of the month or on weekends. On these days, the “habal-habal” drivers waiting at the junction connecting the highway to the upland road will be more snobbish than Manila taxi drivers mobbed by mallgoers in November when ATMs are disgorging Christmas bonuses.
The scenery in Lindogan is verdant and unspoiled, save for the parking signs that demand P50 for the privilege of parking under swaying coconut trees. Patronizing local sellers is a bit of a challenge, specially when a jackfruit about the size of two basketballs will make the buyer poorer by P700.
To avoid these vexations, we went to Simala on a weekday and ate fast food in Carcar. Leaving Lapu-Lapu City at midmorning, we reached the Simala church a little after noon, just in time to hear mass.
It’s been at least two years since I’ve visited the shrine. At the carpark, my reaction to the view of the church silhouetted against the bright blue mantle of a cloudless sky was the same as my nieces, who were there for the first time: It’s a castle! It’s a church! No, it’s a castle church!
What does it say of a faith if believers require monuments in stone and gilt to worship? I had no time to answer my question as I quickly packed bottles of mineral water and chips, revealing a mindset that perhaps answered adequately my confusion as to whether I was stepping inside a place of God or a theme park.
Fortunately, the rest of the churchgoers seemed to be less muddled than I was. In comparison to the church exteriors, with its towers, curtain walls and Disneyesque features, the place where the mass is heard is small and intimate. I found myself listening to the homily, singing the hymns.
There were children but they were nearly as solemn as the grown-ups. As we made our way to the image of the Birhen sa Simala, my niece whispered that no one jumped the line, a rare experience for her in the country.
The church interiors still resembles a warren but there is better documentation and organization now. The curation is interesting, the collection of crutches, wheelchairs and testimonials donated by the healed and the aided as riveting as the narrative accompanying the multiple images of the Virgin Mary.
To experience Simala is to be pulled in different directions all at once. We bought rosaries and religious items. We got our change along with the information that our purchases had already been blessed. It’s pretty efficient: from buyer to sales clerk, cashier and priest. Look, Ma, no lines.
What tames the heathen in me is not a miracle. It’s the tables with their sheaf of paper and pens. Like many others, I don’t consider a visit to Simala complete without writing a letter to the Virgin and dropping the folded sheet into a box.
The box slit is too small to accommodate a pair of crutches or even a graduation medal. Like the perpetual construction and trading occurring in the place, there must be a system, too, that sieves the letters of the faithful for archiving and showroom display.
Yet, in the near silence of bent heads and whispering pens, it is not impossible to believe in the impossible. In the Age of Disbelief, that surely counts as a miracle.
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*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s October 5, 2014 issue of “Matamata,” Sunday editorial-page column