Rebounding rituals: The Virgin in September

Column box-Tito Genova Valiente-Annotations

The first major event to succumb to the pandemic in the Bicol region was religious. This was the Traslacion, the transfer of the centuries-old icon of the Nuestra Señora de Peñafrancia from Her Shrine near the river, to the Naga Metropolitan Cathedral. During typhoons, Bicolanos pray to her and when the storm changes its course, the people thank the Ina, the Mother, for that is what they call, for helping once more their region. A bit naive, perhaps and selfish for how would the Divine spare some of her children and allow the others to be battered by winds. But that is how it always worked, in their mind and heart.

However, the virus that came to this world, affecting everyone and not giving extraordinary treatment to those whose faiths have always guarded them against plagues. It locked down nations and villages. It created boundaries where there was just a flow of people; it imposed isolation. It redefined “social distancing,” from the language of class structure into a concept of public health, a non-medical intervention enforcing spaces for individuals.

As the September of 2020 neared, it became obvious to the devotees and the institutional church that this massively popular ritual, actually a procession, was facing a question that was not only logistical but also spiritual and ideological. The event had always called for males to be the voyadores, those who carried the Virgin during the said transfer. That act of bearing had changed through the years. Given how the men, some of them drunk from alcohol or tipsy from all that sweat and smell, fought to touch the icon, changes had been made to the carroza of the Virgin. From the usual palanquin type, the carriage for the image was made into a huge metallic globe. Its shape and sheen are meant to be slippery so that believers with bravado can be pushed easily to slide down to ground with the prayer that they be not crushed by the mob. That globe can also be taken, perhaps in a quite facile way, as a metaphor of the Divine unshaken above the Earth.

Where the mandate during the pandemic was for the human race to be masked against each other, here was a ritual that affirmed the body more than the soul, a ceremonial celebrating the commingling of violence with veneration, fusing faith with fervid physicality.

The virus would eventually win. No one dared question the health protocol. Science triumphed over religion. A ritual failed, or so it seemed.

Could faith survive when death threatened those who held to that faith? The second September came in 2021. No consolations came. No procession took place. The Virgin, the Mother stayed in Her home by the river. The affliction persisted.

It is true however what theorists say about historical reports and data. Do not trust the traditional storyteller. In his essay, Of Other Spaces (published in the French journal, Architecture/Movement/Continuité, and translated from French by Jay Miscowiec), Michel Foucault writes: “The great obsession of the nineteenth century was, as we know, history: with its themes of development and suspension, of crisis and cycle, themes of the ever-accumulating past…” He continues to explain what is true at present: “We are in the epoch of simultaneity, we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed.”

Where in one monumental space of churches, bishops and priests, of formal ceremonies, and colonial traditions, the fiesta of the Marian Image of Peñafrancia, has ceased, in other spaces, the unimpeded belief in the powerful Mother went on. In villages, at six or seven in the evening, with the sirens sometimes making a sound, neither for emergency nor for death, but for salvation, as the icon, propped up on the carriage on a small pickup truck, was taken around the dark and tight streets. People—we and my family—ran outside to catch this rite as if to miss it was to miss one more opportunity for healing or protection from the disease. With flashlights trained on Her, we prayed for succor, then we looked around us in a furtive census of our friends and neighbors, all fearing for our life, all dreading the phantom infection.

Photos also began to circulate of people on their knees by the roadside on the outskirts of the city as they, too, waited for the quick procession in their area. With their heads bowed, hope insisted on being greater than faith and faith gave way with all charity.

And so, it came to pass that, after two years and some five months later, the Church and the local government both agreed it was time to bring back the grander, not necessarily truer, demonstration of faith —the Traslacion. The discussion that preceded it underscored the very essence of the ritual, which marked it as the antithesis of what the virus had held us hostage from for a long period—the tactility and face-to-face existence that make us human and the breach of the boundary between the sacred and the profane (the mortals bonding with the eternal without the mediation of the priestly offices), making the Peñafrancia devotion a persistent question for the Church and a victorious assertion of folk beliefs. 

On Thursday night of September 8, 2022, the icon of the Lady was carried by devotees, from the sanctuary in Basilica down to her original, smaller shrine across the river. In that short procession, there was no violence, no scrambling to kiss the hem of Her manto or cape. The performative religion, the battle to reach for the image, the display of what Patrick Curry in his essay, Enchantment and Modernity, calls “non-anthropocentric animism,” —“the transgression of the official boundaries between human/non-human, animate/inanimate as well as spiritual/material”—would take place the next day, the second Friday of September, as it had happened years before, all before the pestilence.

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Image credits: Jimbo Albano