On not faking it

The Filipino tradition of doing actual crucifixions to mark the pascal weekend has resumed. From the news:

“To be honest, I always feel nervous because I could end up dead on the cross,” he told the Associated Press before Friday’s nailing.

“When I’m laid down on the cross, my body begins to feel cold,” he said. “When my hands are tied, I just close my eyes and tell myself, ‘I can do this. I can do this.’”

Ahead of their crucifixion on a dusty hill, Enaje and the other devotees, wearing thorny crowns of twigs, carried heavy wooden crosses on their backs for more than a half a mile in the scorching heat. Village actors dressed as Roman centurions later hammered 4-inch stainless steel nails through his palms and feet, then set him aloft on a cross under the sun for about 10 minutes.

Other penitents walked barefoot through village streets and beat their bare backs with sharp bamboo sticks and pieces of wood. Some participants in the past opened cuts in the penitents’ backs using broken glass to ensure the ritual was sufficiently bloody.

Contrast this with the official reaction of the Catholic Church, likely from a cleric sitting in a comfortable chair in his air-conditioned office:

Church leaders in the Philippines have frowned on the crucifixions and self-flagellations, saying Filipinos can show their deep faith and religious devotion without hurting themselves and by doing charity work instead, such as donating blood.

Robert Reyes, a prominent Catholic priest and human rights activist in the country, said the bloody rites reflect the church’s failure to fully educate many Filipinos on Christian tenets, leaving them on their own to explore personal ways of seeking divine help for all sorts of maladies.

There’s an obvious parallel to the Shia celebration of Ashura, but even more so to the Sufi practicing of piercing (Here’s a video showing the basic idea). As far as I can tell, the practitioner induces something of a trance, and in this deep state of spiritual joy not even extreme physical pain can disrupt the euphoria of devotion.

There’s no faking this. If you aren’t completely in your trance, in a deeply altered state of consciousness, this entire ritual will be excruciating, and quite possibly fatal in the case of crucification.

Compare this unshakable faith with the self-satisfied clerics, both in mainstream Catholicism and Sunni Islam, denouncing these practices. I keep trying to come up with a term for this latter group, something akin to protestanized1, Suburban Safe religion. It’s entirely text-based, politically correct, orthodox, and mirthless.

I have no particular interest in pushing skewers through my face or being crucified, but there’s a tie in to Buddhism. Largely a result of the colonial legacy, the prevailing orthodoxy in Southern Buddhism became a protestantized, mirthless affair. And chances are, the “mindfulness” you’ve been exposed to is from this colonial creation rather than the older strands of Therevāda Buddhism, which emphasize deep states of concentration, ecstatic joy, and devotional practices with a lot of Pali chanting. Kate Crosby has done some great research on this tradition, here’s a short interview.

It’s obvious why the authorities don’t like these movements. They tend to be lay led, even if they’re inclusive of clerics. They’re had to control, since it’s a matter of direct, personal religious experience instead of a text-based orthodoxy.

  1. I’m reluctant to use this though as some Protestant groups, especially the Society of Friends, stand in direct opposition to what I’m calling “protestantized”. George Fox is as much a mystic as anybody. Hence I prefer Suburban Safe, as this captures the point of defending middle class values against direct spiritual experience.