Memories of Lent

Devotees pray during the commemoration of Ash Wednesday inside a Roman Catholic church in Paranaque, Metro Manila on March 5, 2014. Catholics in the country celebrated Ash Wednesday, which serves as a reminder that "as a man is dust, so unto dust he
Devotees pray during the commemoration of Ash Wednesday inside a Roman Catholic church in Paranaque, Metro Manila on March 5, 2014. Catholics in the country celebrated Ash Wednesday, which serves as a reminder that "as a man is dust, so unto dust he shall return" and marked the beginning of a 40-day period of Lent in the Roman Catholic calendar where many devotees in the Philippines will start the season of fasting and prayers. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

I am fond of Lent because of the memories I have of it.

When I was a child, the week leading up to Easter Sunday was always a surreal experience.  Everything would start winding down on Monday, culminating in an almost statis state on Good Friday, when there would be nothing on TV and radio; no newspapers, no work, no school,  nothing at all.

There would be nothing to do except huddle together as a family and talk about family stuff or play cards or bingo, or gather with old friends for a dip at a nearby creek or river, or unhinge the family water buffalo and go for a joyride through muddy trails and tobacco fields, or just watch the day pass by under the shade of a big mango tree and think about things that really mattered in life: family, friends, dreams, world peace.

The Lenten week emptied metropolitan Manila of its population. We would head for the boondocks to commune with the grannies and grandpas, and the provincial uncles, aunts and cousins we got to see only once a year.

I enjoyed those trips. I remember one trip I took a long, long time ago with my father to his mother's sleepy hamlet deep in a mountain in Ilocos Sur, a province north of Manila.

It was suppose to be just an eight-hour trip, but this was when Ferdinand Marcos was still president and martial law was the law of the land. The bus we were on had to stop by the roadside at around midnight and shut down till the curfew was lifted by the first light of dawn.

I remember climbing onto the roof of the bus with my father and sleeping among the bags and riffraffs fastened to it.

Most of the interesting stories I learned about my father were told during those trips.  It might be something he saw while staring out the bus window at a seemingly endless plain of rice paddies, but my father would turn to me in the middle of a trance, mention the name of an uncle I could barely recall and then tell a story he’d associate with that name.

There was the uncle who saved him after he dove head on from a bridge and onto a shallow river and got his entire head buried in the mud.  There was another uncle who taught him how to hunt for deer with a spear and a machete.

Then, there was his father, my grandfather.  I never met him, and I honestly could not even remember his name. I imagine him to be a handsome man, his skin varnished a deep mahogany brown by Ilocos Sur’s exceptionally warm, humid clime, his body toned by hard labour at sea and decayed by decadence on land.

My father was still a child when my grandfather passed on. It was an early morning, and he was out at sea.  He had been fishing with coconut husks stuffed with gunpowder, an easy-money but risky trade.  One of the husks caught fire and exploded in his hand.  There was hardly anything of my grandfather left to identify when they took bits and pieces of him to shore.

My father was not a particularly religious man. It was my mother who was the enforcer of rituals and traditions. She was the one who insisted that we visit seven churches on Maundy Thursday to recite the Station of the Cross.

It was also her belief that if we were all sincere enough with our prayers, God would grant her wish to win the sweepstakes, and we’d all be hauled out of poverty in an instant.

Of course, she never won the sweepstakes, so her nagging suspicion that her husband or one or all of her broods had been less than sincere with their prayers in all those little church pilgrimages linger till now.

She couldn't make a professional career out of it, but my mother could sing, and she’d put her talent to good use joining a motley crew of women for the “pabasa” (reading), a marathon chanting of an epic poem about the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

For three days and working in shifts, my mother and her coterie of middle-age and late-age women would chant The History Of The Passion Of Jesus Christ Our Lord That Surely Shall Ignite The Heart Of Whosoever Readeth.

I guess they were aiming for a Gregorian chant, but it really was more like an orchestra of theremins, wailing a melody that straddled a limited range of the musical scale, undulating like the sea, cresting and falling, seemingly endless. It was maddeningly repetitive.

To amuse ourselves, we, the children, would mimic the chanting in our own little corner of the house and replace the lyrics with something as preposterous as: When Judas died,

God shaved three strands of his beard. (It’s funnier in Tagalog, I swear.)No matter what day of the week it began, the “pabasa” would always end at 3pm on Good Friday, the hour that Catholics believe Jesus died.  It was a signal for everyone to stop what they were doing, keep still and be in the moment.  We weren’t even suppose to bathe on that holy day.

Black Saturday would roll in hours later, and the white noise that had made the week quiet, soothing and intimate would slowly dissipate.  The life that we had put on hold would gradually start to stir.

Easter Sunday would then arrive, and we’d all head to the beach for one big picnic or the nearest theatre to see a movie. And just like that, the Holy Week would be over.

rdancel@sph.com.sg