You know you just have to go on a pilgrimage when people catch you sighing every five minutes. What do you know, the relic of St. Therese comes to town just in time.
St. Therese of Lisieux, France, is called the "Millennium Saint," "Jesus' 'Little Flower'," the 33rd Doctor of the Church as declared by the Pope, so far the youngest and one among only three women doctors, the other two being St. Catherine of Siena and St. Teresa of Avila. To those who recite a novena for her, she is known to answer petitions with a flower, specifically, rose or rose petals.
St. Therese was kind of controversial in her time or, more accurately, after she died, when her diary entries were published. She discovered that one could be great in God's eyes (i.e. in terms of sanctity) even if one leads an ordinary life, as long as it is lived with extraordinary love. She also unwittingly revolutionized man's image of God - from that of a stern-faced policeman who keeps an account of our crimes to that of a tender-loving, merciful Father who wants to be loved back and who understands our frail humanity.
The pilgrimage site happens to be a Jubilee Shrine, the National Shrine of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Dao St., San Antonio Village, Makati. St. Therese was known to be a devotee of the Sacred Heart, thus the choice of the venue, which is too small for a national shrine. But the shrine is just about 20 blocks away from our workplace. Or one jeepney ride away. Hopes for and dreams of a journey to France are dashed, but we don't mind.
The trouble is, everybody seems to know about it, everybody's heading to the same direction at the strike of 5 PM. Needless to say, all roads leading to Dao St. are clogged and my companions and I couldn't help sighing. I changed my sigh, which I utter in the vernacular, to "Oh, brother!" for variety's sake.
At King's Court in Pasong Tamo aka Chino Roces Ave, the jeep is virtually at a standstill, so I have to suggest to A. and M. the possibility of...hiking. Upon which A. in particular threatened to wail like an ambulance or a police car siren. It's just one ride away, yes, but the thought of doing it on foot is unthinkable. Think about expensive Italian shoes beating a variable terrain that is typical of Metro Manila sidewalks. A pilgrimage like this can actually do a host of non-wonders to your feet.
Fighting off a giant smirk on her face, A. trudges on while M. ambles almost thoughtlessly. "Look guys," I say. "Think of this as a pilgrimage. It's part of the whole thing, the sacrifice, the travel on foot."
No reaction there. But I can feel A. muttering under her fuming breath, smoky fires shooting off her ears.
At the site, we are greeted by a mile-long queue of people who are apparently eager just like us for a miracle, carrying their one million petitions inside of them. The population of the entire parish plus visitors from all over seem to be there.
We law-abidingly line up. Only for someone to tell us to, "Rush! No need to line up. She's about to leave. Now." Naturally, he might as well have said, "People, now it's time to go on a stampede."
The Sacred Heart National Shrine turns out to be too cramped a venue for such a huge occasion and the huge turnout. We enter through the exit. Somebody tells us not to. Others echo his plea. They are completely ignored. "Oh God, help us." The crowd mentality should have been clear to them: "It's St. Therese or bust." I see an acquaintance. We exchange faces that say, "I'll get crushed to death here." A man stands on top of a monoblock chair and distributes pamphlets on St. Therese and Marian messages, which the throng eagerly takes.
After surviving the purifying furnace of being crushed within an inch of our life, we gloriously reach the steps of the church. "We're getting there, St. Therese, we're getting there." This is absurd it's actually funny. I laugh as fellow pilgrims near me laugh. As we make it to the door, what would welcome us but an impregnable barricade of a church pew with young men standing on top telling us to take it easy. Cordon sanitaire.
I can imagine our ancestors doing the same to a much-revered anito. I know that, to a believer, this is different but the parallelism is uncanny. There must be something ancient here, something animist, only Catholic.
Inside the church, lo and behold, it's not even half-full. There are people praying silently, paying homage to a famously interred then exhumed - I suppose - visitor whose bones, we assume, now lay inside a glass-encased - what's that again? - reliquary. The reliquary is made of a gilded, intricately carved dark-brown wood and looks much like a baroque coffin.
The event is practically a wake! We pilgrims are led gently and we file one by one in obedience, as though we are to receive holy communion.
I guess we've come because, we are hoping, we believe in miracles. We believe in blessings being channeled to us through the saints. We believe in healing and deliverance from the ills of this cruel day and age. All we need is just one touch and just one gaze.
We get what we came here for, if only for a brief moment in time. It's like a dream, a split-second dream. But where are the bones? We don't see any bones.
Well, there's no need to see any. I'm glad to see just the coffin of St. Therese. I make an act of faith that it's the genuine article we came lining up for. I'm not so sure which prayer request to say, too.
It's enough that St. Therese is there with us physically, glad that we all came. But what do you know, a man catches my right hand just when I am about to leave and places two rose petals on my palm. The guy barely hears my word of thanks. But I get this feeling that the 'answer' to my prayer has been forced on me.
We ease out of the crowd and there, outside the church, are many of my other friends from other circles huddled in post-contact conversations. I bid them hello and goodbye, saying I have to go, I came with my officemates.
My pilgrim companions and I are so tired and hungry that we have to find a place somewhere to repair. We find that the only one available is a dingy place. We're abck to sighing as when we started.
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