Monday, October 29, 2007

ave maria.

It was close to midnight, but the number of people easing their way along the front-row pews is nowhere near dwindling. Each time a row of healed, enlightened parishioners stood up to leave their seats, hastily making signs of the cross as they strode out, another batch – equally eager, equally hopeful – would arrive to take their place, brimming with anticipation for the touch of an elderly woman clad in white, as immaculate as that radiant, glowing image magnificently enthroned on the altar, a halo on her head and cherubs at her feet, her arms outstretched towards the faithful, a contented smile reflecting pure adoration of her children.

A decade before, I had seen myself in a similar scenario: the same pious crowd, the same kindly woman in white but perhaps younger, the same beautiful image overlooking the vast multitude from her place atop the altar. My most vivid memories, however, were composed of figments in the realm of the extraordinary. Clusters of blooming rose petals were wondrously transformed into hosts, some forming religious caricatures as if carved into existence by an invisible hand. A huge container of water poured out fresh oil, and in many instances people suddenly collapsed on the floor, hysterically screaming “Jesus! Jesus!” And of course, there were certain individuals, including my family, who identified themselves with “Our Mother of the Eucharist and Grace.”

In his stirring homily, parish chaplain Fr. Edwin Castillo called it a name above any other name. “No other woman can achieve the same title as Mary, for she is truly Mother of Christ and the source of all Grace.” Such a title, he pointed out, is as intriguing and as mysterious as the woman who rightfully holds it. For someone to be Mother of God and serve as wellspring of Grace at the same time, there had to be an unseen connection bridging faith and understanding, to some extent even defying the most sophisticated tenets of human logic.

Tracing back time sheds a hint of light on this little semantic riddle. On August 15, 1991, an apparition of our Lady appeared to one Puring Fruto in Quezon City, a rosary dangling from her right hand and a scapular on her left. She was dressed in a robe of pristine white, and on her chest was an unmistakable image of the Eucharist and the Sacred Heart of Christ – which she explained symbolized her body as the sole source of Christ’s human nature. Her purpose was clear: She was beseeching humans to pray for the salvation of souls in purgatory, urging people to harness the tremendous power of the rosary as a weapon to achieve world peace.

It was the first of a series of manifestations that eventually came to include the archangel Baraquiel and an additional appeal to pray for the beatification of Mother Ignacia del Espiritu Santo as the first Filipina saint. Armed with conviction, Sister Puring promptly started her mission. There was no stopping the message Mary wanted to propagate, and a core group of staunch devotees was formed. Miracle after miracle took place – some right under the noses of doubting ecclesiastics – and the movement traveled to far-flung places as Cebu, Iloilo, Tacloban and Pangasinan. These, plus the media giving Mary her own share of the limelight – what with the exclusive interviews and extensive news coverage provided by ABS-CBN and similar news channels – had more people flocking to witness our Mother’s saving Grace, some firmly believing, others inspired beyond words, most going home with a newfound sense of hope.

Of course, pomp and circumstance had no measure on my nine year-old self back then. The first time the beloved Mother visited Iloilo City, deigning in our humble home, Sister Puring had asked my little sister and I to close our eyes and state our most fervent request. Then she gently laid her hands on our heads and muttered a little prayer. What took place thereafter was a surreal experience. All at once a light warmth began to envelop my insides, and I was filled with a force steadily pushing me towards a different level of consciousness. After a few seconds, she asked us to open our eyes and out of curiosity, inquired about our wishes.

“Perfect scores in all exams.”

“A third eye!”

It made her smile; clearly amused. Mary intercedes all our heartfelt yearnings to her Son, both the spoken and the unsaid, however childishly ridiculous they may be. But eleven years and much contemplation later, I realized we still had a lot to learn.

One of the things I discovered, incidentally, was how faith can be so immensely phenomenal, standing up against the ravages of time to remain as one of the last few great equalizers of men. Devotion to our Mother is no different. Her heart has found the well-off converging with the poorest of the poor, devout women hobnobbing with the newly baptized, the crippled elderly on wheelchairs alongside feisty toddlers on trams. As I learned years before, “True faith will find a way to survive.” Perhaps it is precisely because of the devotion’s divine nature that it has become what it is today: a genuine faith devoted to a genuine source.

And so when our Lady visited Iloilo the second time around – right smack in the middle of semestral break – I felt that she was drawing me directly into her fold, to be more than a mere spectator of this joyous occasion. During the evenings that followed her long-awaited arrival, I was able to serve as commentator, lector, rosary leader, choir member, distributor and assistant, in no particular order. The night I unwittingly found myself doing a round of Josh Groban’s You Raise Me Up, marveling at the thought of having hit all the high notes in the right places, Tita Myrna had told me: “Sing like you are singing for her alone. Sing like you are singing for no one else.” And I remember telling myself: For my Lady, everything. Because you have already done everything.

In 1994, my formerly hard-drinking father was diagnosed to have liver cirrhosis with esophageal varices, a grave complication of the disease. However, it was two years after when the dreaded event materialized: the varices ruptured and he began to bleed profusely, losing so much blood he had to be airlifted to Manila for emergency management. The prospect was extremely poor, had it not been for a family friend who advised us to visit Sister Puring, where the true healing began. My father recovered in no time and was hailed by doctors as a miracle, though deep inside we knew Mary was the true miracle, the source of all Grace.

The following year, my father started his annual pilgrimage to our Lady’s feast every September, and has never missed it since. In return, she continued to bring us a sheer abundance of Grace, her shining rays of love penetrating every aspect of our multifaceted lives. Both my grandparents met their timely deaths without much suffering, while my aunt was given a second lease on life after being struck with pulmonary embolism. Our family business surmounted many a crisis, and my siblings and I enjoyed a clean academic record. Other families who have experienced being uplifted by the same comforting arms of our Lady thanked Sister Puring for bringing her into their homes. Some even hailed her as a living saint, a label she is quick to refute. “I am just an instrument,” she corrected. All of us are instruments.

How do you explain the old woman who, despite aching knees and brittle legs, managed to hobble to Church for the nightly mass? Or the stores that closed down early on purpose, just so workers could experience our Mother’s healing touch? Or the simple rural folk who left their fields in the sun, trekking miles to reach the parish, unmindful of sweat and dust? We are her children, after all, and a child’s universal instinct is to cry out for its mother.

Thus when time finally came for our Lady to depart, my emotions were decidedly ambivalent. It’s a feeling that stemmed from not having had enough of her presence, at the same time acknowledging the fact that thousands more yearned for her, desperately needing her as much as we do. Amid the throng of devotees singing praise to the highest heavens, kneeling before her in awe, I looked up and saw that her smile was the sweetest one yet. And it somehow occurred to me that this might just be the real essence of devotion – a journey for truth, for salvation, for words hidden beneath those fitted lips, for answers waiting to be unearthed by someone who wanted perfect scores and third eyes and who may have finally found the meaning of Grace, at last.