Palm on the run: A reflection on faith and tradition
I was struggling that morning on my run. It had been a few weeks since my half marathon and I was trying to get back in the groove for the next one. I took it easy, knowing that I normally spent the first 15 minutes of my runs fighting the urge to quit and go back home. My knee was talking to me, I didn't have my caffeine yet, and it was too cold outside.
Turning from a corner was a surprise of a procession for Palm Sunday. I'd never seen a procession in the United States before, much less in my Brooklyn neighborhood where Catholics were sparse. But there they were, a mostly Hispanic congregation, waving their palms and singing a Spanish song while onlookers from the nearby coffee shop stared at the oddity of a religious ritual.
I passed them without incident, secretly thankful for my invisibility but a bit homesick from the reminder of what day it was. Other than my wife asking her cousin to get her a palm leaf from Mass, the day was inconsequential to me.
A mother's note
I remembered a note my mom gave me when I left for the US over a decade ago. It asked to keep my faith in a country where Filipinos often abandoned theirs. I was never deeply religious, and our home was a fairly progressive one founded on science, personal spirituality, and independent thinking. But my mother kept her devotions. In her letter, she said that God would always be a source of strength.
I've kept that letter but have not followed its orders, at least not in the traditional sense. My wife and I have attended our share of Masses during days of obligation, weddings, and funerals. I'd like to think we've kept our own version of faith – one that is inclusive to all and focuses on one's personal growth rather than following rules and human leaders.
So when I am reminded of Catholic traditions, I can't help but reminisce about the one I was immersed in back home. From the palaspas on Palm Sunday to the neighborhood processions and the flagellants we used to watch as children in my father's hometown, I understand now that I've been uprooted from all of that – how much of religion is actually tradition and expectation.
A religious minority
Being part of a minority instead of a majority means that one must assimilate and adapt to survive, and this is especially true in matters of faith. It is not the norm in these parts to say "God bless" the way we say "ingat (take care)" back home.
Attending a Palm Sunday procession is not a matter of joining it when it passes your house, but a planned event that sometimes even involves municipal permits for a congregation's limited attendance. Speaking about one's religious affiliation is considered strange in this country, and most of the time it is even frowned upon.
Being away from a predominantly Catholic country is a humbling lesson in being a minority. Many Catholics back home act like the Philippines is a theocracy just because people around them are Catholics too. They believe it is normal to assume that everyone follows Catholic doctrine. Many present their religion as a badge and say things like, "Hindi ako sinungaling ha, Katoliko ako. (I'm not a liar, I'm Catholic)" as if Catholic faith is equal to virtue.
Many believe that people from other religions must adjust to the majority and not the other way around. We still like voting for politicians we see attending Mass, as if we haven't realized that religiosity has nothing to do with honesty or a genuine desire to serve.
I've found it to be an excellent lesson to be displaced and thrown into a place where one is the odd one out, where a story about nailing men to crosses would be met with scowls.
A palm in my palm
Midway through my run, I passed by a church in a more humble part of my neighborhood. A couple of people were handing out palms. I wondered if I should get one, remembering that my wife keeps one every year, folds it into a cross and puts it on her bedside table. I worried: Would they talk to me about going to church? Would they question me about not being religious?
Before I could change my mind, a boy casually handed me a palm leaf, and asked me if I wanted one. "Yes please," I said, and then after a pause I followed with, "bless you," feeling strange about those words coming out of my mouth. Everyone around him blessed me too, and the words made me warm on that cold day.
As I jogged away, I thought about whether I should be embarrassed to carry a palm in my gloved hand or if I should just keep it inside my jacket and risk its breakage so I wouldn't look out of place. In the end I decided to run home a little faster, careful not to crumple or break my palm leaf so I could hand it to my wife when I arrived.
It whizzed through the wind for the last leg of my run, making its own solitary rustling sound in my hand. I could smell its faint yet unmistakable odor that reminded me of home – suman wrappers, palm grasshoppers, woven banigs and place mats. After a while I forgot about everything I was worried about – how I looked, what that leaf signified, or whether I was worthy of carrying it in my hand.
It was Palm Sunday, and I had my very own palaspas for the first time since childhood. Though I was by myself, I waved it in the air and thought about the loud rustling of palm leaves arranged in various configurations back home, and the shock of being drizzled with Holy Water as the priest and the sakristans passed.
At that moment I was simply a Filipina celebrating tradition, and that's all that mattered. It made me so glad I accepted that palm, that I was out that particular cold day, and that I was displaced enough in this country to experience that moment of clarity.
Bless that boy and all who blessed me back with him. I hope everyone enjoys a peaceful Lenten celebration this week. – Rappler.com