Saturday, March 24, 2012

No Sanctuary

. . . .
Power of some sort will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognisable each week,
A purpose more obscure. . . .

-from Philip Larkin, "Church Going"

Last summer, I did something that would probably astonish some of my friends. I went to church for five consecutive Sundays. I didn't do it out of any resuscitated faith in God, and certainly not out of nostalgia. Try and persuade a former slave to put on his chains again, for old time's sake.

It was the first time I had set foot inside a church since I attended a midnight mass on Christmas Eve, 1996 with my mother, sister, and ex-wife. On that occasion, I was there at my mother's request, who was 78 years old.

Last summer I went with the woman who lives with me and her 9 year old daughter. I did it more out of boredom than out of a misplaced sense of duty to the fractured family that has lived with me these past few years - a family that has had to go, as so many poor families do, without a father ever since the deadbeat decided to abscond from his duties six years before.

I must admit that an ulterior motive was to save the little girl from the clutches of her born-again brother. I think that I needn't have worried and that the girl was sufficiently well-adjusted (unlike her brother) to decide for herself not to join such a group of obvious nincompoops.

That was my hope, since I gave up going to church on the fifth Sunday into my counter-reformation. My reasons for deciding to quit will be familiar to expats but perhaps a little surprising to everyone else. It was due to this incident that took place inside the church. The three of us arrived a short time before the start of the service and took our places in a pew a few rows from the door. An old woman sat down behind us and immediately started asking my companion alot of questions about me and about our living arrangements. I paid no attention to the conversation, conducted in the Visayan dialect, until I noticed that my companion was getting agitated in her responses to the old woman's questions. When the service commenced, the old woman went on chattering as we all stood up.

Without saying a word to me, my companion then walked to the outside aisle and walked out the back of the church. I stayed with her daughter, who began asking me where her mother had gone. I turned around to look at the old woman, and she just smiled dumbly at me. The mass proceeded and several minutes passed without my companion returning. Finally, with her little girl continuing to ask me where she had gone, I took her by the hand and headed straight out the door.

Outside in the morning sunshine, there was no sign of my companion. Since we lived a few hundred yards away, I figured that she must've gone back home to use the "comfort room". So I walked the short distance and found her sitting alone on the porch outside of our house. As her daughter ran off to play, I approached her and asked her if she was okay. She was staring sadly at the ground and didn't answer me at first. I sat down next to her on a low wall. When she finally told me what had happened, I was shocked, as always when I learn something new about these poor people that I could never have imagined.

The old woman behind us in church had asked her what sort of "porriner" I was - a 'Cano, Australian, German, what? She then wanted to know where we were living. When she learned that I was renting a house in the barangay, she was surprised and wanted to know why I didn't just buy the house. (Poor people are terrified by monthly bills since their income from one month to the next is never certain.) My companion told her more than she needed - or had any right - to know, that as a matter of fact I can't afford to buy a house because I am in fact a poor foreigner.

The old woman was floored and wondered how a poor foreigner could have got himself all the way to the Philippines. Upon being assured that I was, by the standards of foreigners, indeed poor, the old woman wanted to know why on earth my companion was living with me, why she hadn't found a rich foreigner instead of me. At which point my companion told her to mind her own business - just as the mass was getting started. And the old woman chattered away in Visayan, casting scurrilous aspersions at my back.

When I heard all this, I decided to end my church going once and for all. Thanks to that old woman and her snobbery - the astonishing snobbery of a poor woman who looks down on anyone who is poorer than she - I will never darken another church door again. There's a scene in the movie The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (the Charles Laughton version) in which Esmeralda, the Gypsy girl whom Quasimodo loves, is about to be hanged for attempted murder. A gallows is constructed in front of the cathedral and, in the nick of time, Quasimodo swoops down on a bell-rope, frees Esmeralda and swings back to the cathedral with her, screaming "sanctuary! sanctuary!" as the crowd goes berserk.

That was in the Middle Ages, when a church was legally outside the jurisdiction of the law. Criminals could find "right of asylum" within a church, as long as the priests permitted him entry. And when foreigners in the Philippines might be forgiven for presuming to seek refuge from the prying queries of an old busybody.

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