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Honoring Our Ancestors

I visited museum exhibits where fragments of babaylan ritual porcelain had been salvaged. It was a little like chasing ghosts. Seemingly, only traces remained.

In my dreams the crocodile came, the buwaya of old, the one precolonial Filipinos called Grandfather Crocodile. The triangular ridges that lined his back and tail, jagged green mountains, moved silently through the rich, brown river. His liquid, amber eyes shone with intelligence and saw everything. This buwaya appeared, unbidden, as I wrote scenes of an ancient babaylan and a warrior, feasts, and healings, and mariners lost at sea. I quieted myself to listen for the Story that unfolded in my writing studio each day, and the vision of the buwaya came – interrupting, intrusive, and refusing to leave. On my spiraled spiritual path, writing is a waking dream and the dream has called me forward. . . .

Off and on for nearly twenty years I had been independently researching babaylan and sixteenth-century Philippine history, culture, and ecology. From the stacks of Manila’s University of Santo Tomas to UCLA’s compendium of Blair and Robertson to digitized historic maps on the internet, I kept a keen eye out for writing and records about babaylan by Spanish friars, chroniclers, anthropologists, archaeologists. I visited museum exhibits where fragments of babaylan ritual porcelain had been salvaged. It was a little like chasing ghosts. Seemingly, only traces remained.

The prospect of attending the First International Babaylan Conference at Sonoma State University was thrilling and daunting all at once. You see, when I arrived, my head was full of articles and maps, population charts, ethnographic description, feminist analysis, and colonial chronicler’s observations. But the living experience of being in Filipino community engaged in the indigenous tradition of respect for nature…feeling the energies of ancient Filipino spirituality unleashed…that was something else altogether…

Inside Sonoma State’s Plenary Hall, the stage had been transformed into a large altar. Dried bullwhip seaweed undulated like organic sculptures. Banana fronds, gabi leaves as large as three-hands, earthenware jars spilling with flower leis, candles, offerings of incense and mangoes graced the space. Vibrant indigenous woven skirts, malongs, scarves, and jackets patterned in purple diamonds, orange zigzags, red and white stripes flanked the altar. The clothes, empty of wearers, floated an inch above the floor. They reminded me, again, of ghosts, of ancestors, of stories lost and beckoning for tellers. The presence of the altar seemed to sanctify and make the hall communal.

How much have we Filipinos lost? We could be living this way still. Simply. Loving nature. Singing our prayers and telling our stories.

In this milieu the opening ceremony began, the Araraw iti Mannakabalin-Amin, a prayer to the Most High. I don’t clearly remember the sequence of the procession. But this I do recall: A rhythmic drumming or perhaps it was bells. Two men, strong in bearing. A procession of proud women dressed in indigenous malongs, wraps, and turbans carried baskets of flowers. One of the men, Ablon healer Virgil Apostol who led the ritual, spoke and prayed in Iluko, a beautiful, rounded staccato of syllables. The feeling of this language, the sanctity of the sound resonated in my bones. As he walked, he made warsi—he burned cloth incense and strewed rice and salt around the hall to bless and purify the space. Tattooed legs, women donning native weave, the call of the music, the rhythms and deep intonations of prayer—the beauty, joy, and solemnity of the opening ceremony struck me the way an arrow hits a bull’s eye. It was all familiar. Suddenly, I felt a tremendous lamentation that made me catch my breath: How much have we Filipinos lost? We could be living this way still. Simply. Loving nature. Singing our prayers and telling our stories.

Perhaps it was in that moment at the conference when the sheaves of papers I’d read over the years, the pages of books, the digitized data began to recede from the foreground of my awareness. I’d come to the conference open to experience. And here it was the past walking gloriously, unapologetically into the present.

-o-

In the foyer to Plenary Hall, a long table had been draped with cloth, framed sepia photos of relatives placed around. In front of the photos lay the uncooked offerings, a flat plate of red rice and whole eggs still in their shells nestled upright in the rice mounds. This was the Ancestors’ Table. A tall, brown, close-lipped basket had been placed on the Ancestors’ Table with slips of paper for us to write our prayers. Unlike the grand altar inside the Plenary Hall, this one was smaller, more intimate. It had a sense of quiet, a charged energy about it, as other Pinays and Pinoys closed their eyes, wrote, and slipped their intentions into the basket. I approached this table cautiously, from a distance, with intellectual curiosity and wondered what my own prayer would be.

Each session I attended drew me deeper…toward what? Something beyond the pages of ethnography and history. For the purposes of the novel, for the Story that beckoned to me, I wanted to understand the spirituality of the babaylan, indigenous spirituality, and our ancient barangays who were nourished by this. I didn’t want to understand it with only my head, not from the analyzing mind, because my analyzing mind could not empathize with my people. How many times during the course of my earning a Master’s degree in cultural anthropology had we scholars been warned in many ways and forms, “Do not go native. Study them, but do not become one.”?

During a morning presentation, Lane Wilcken, author of Filipino Tattoos, Ancient to Modern, talked about how Filipino tattoos actually become part of the wearer’s soul. They connect you to your family, your village, your ancestors. He showed the panyat, or the mata, which to me looked like a row of XXXXX’s and represented rice bundles. They also symbolized the “eyes of the ancestors.” Lane asked us: “Do you think our Ancestors care about you? How often do you give them time to speak to you? Do you take the time to listen?” The sincerity of his question spoke to me. It was a matter of spiritual connection, something beyond a mere intellectual ‘understanding’ of our traditions.
Later that afternoon, I went to another session that drew me closer towards a more intimate experience of Filipino spirituality. Venus Herbito presented her story, “Re-igniting the Soul Light of the Ancestors: Healing, Video, and the Whole Mind.”  Frances Santiago did a healing dance for her presentation “Indigenous Mind, Sacred Body: Healing through Dance, Ritual, and Story.” Central to both young women’s stories was the place of their lolas, their grandmothers, in their lives – the desire to keep close to them even while becoming independent women.

. . . one moment I was in the room on the banig. . . then my Being contracted, expanded, winked into a shadow land. I felt a sense of darkness and closeness.

I sat with others curious about the dance that would unfold. Banigs and woven blankets were placed across the floor, and in the center sat a small reed raft which carried coconut shell bowls filled with rice and water, a lit candle, and the Black Madonna of Antipolo, revered as Our Lady of Good Voyage. Beside the raft stood a carved crocodile. Many of us sat around this center. Frances opened her healing dance by burning sage incense, leaves dried on the stem, to purify the space. The candle seemed to recreate the tribal fire of the Aeta that first beckoned her to indigenous dance. Dance became the moment, the movement, the F L O W of prayer. Frances moved like Philippine sea grass swaying in the current, slow, intentional, eyes closed, feeling her way through some interior space we participants on the banig could not see, but which we were invited to join. Her humility and the openness of her invitation for us to pray with her created a safe and creative space.

As she swayed and twisted gracefully to the ground, bent sideways, reached out through her fingertips, she brushed upon people in the circle lightly. She approached me, I reared away, slightly panicked, thinking I was too close, had not given her enough room on the banig to complete her dance. I moved back. She danced forward. I moved backward again. She moved forward again towards me. On my third retreat, she determinedly leaned into me, pulling me irrevocably into her healing dance.
Guitar music played . . . one moment I was in the room on the banig. . . then my Being contracted, expanded, winked into a shadow land. I felt a sense of darkness and closeness. Inside me welled something. . . of memory . . . and time beyond time. . . and try as I might, I could not stem the tears from falling. . .

          My cousins and I had played guitar and keyboard,
                   serenaded Lola Rasing on her deathbed.
                             She, thin and dry as onion skin
                                      reclined, pallid in her armchair.
                                                “Kay ganda-ganda mo sa amin,” we sang.

                                                          Nothing. Nothingness. A safe blackness.

                                                My Being cried out to the darkness
                                      which would answer the way fertile soil
                             brings seeds food, embraces life, transforms it.
                   Is she all right? How is she? How is my lola?
          I felt a year’s worth of pain and grief
the loss of a pillar of happiness in my life
          the sadness that began when she died
                   and forced me to question all that we do here on Earth
                             for our time is short
                                      and every Being, two-legged and four
                                                will cross over to the Other Side of the River
                                                         soon enough.

                                                                   In the darkness, a bright half-crescent
                                                          a sense of pressure descended
                                                grew larger, red, a mouth, a  S M I L E.                   
                                       She had come to greet me in my grief,

                             My Lola.
                   There was no message but her smile
          which seemed to calmly intuit,
I am fine. I am happy. Live your life.
The message radiated across the cosmos
          and I was overcome with joy knowing she was well.
                   The Being who had come to me in greeting
                             did not look the way I remembered.
                                      It was not the image of my lola,
                                                the one my eyes knew,
                                                          but the Beingness of her soul.

                                                                    At a certain moment,
                                                                           she decided she had to leave.
                                                                               Being to Being
                                                                                       we embraced
                                                                                              one final time.

                                                                                      Stay! I cried out.
                                                                             She only smiled distractedly.
                                                                   A little longer. I need you still,
                                                          came the cry of a child to her lola.
                                                She lingered…

                                      Then with a flash of white and red
                             She gave me to understand
                   it was time for her to go.
          There were many others to visit.
The Universe was Dancing.

I felt a sense of flight, like air created by the rush of wings. Slowly, a sense of pressure in my head, which I had not fully registered before, was easing away. I still tried to cling to my lola, but I knew she was gone and that I had been blessed by her presence. The encounter was brief; the encounter was Timeless. It is the state of human condition, reaching out across the River for Those who had Gone Before.

I had not noticed I was crying until someone handed me a tissue. When I looked up, I saw that the Kleenex box made its way from me around to others. Many of us had wept.

My family calls these encounters with our Ancestors “nadalaw”to be visited by relatives who’ve gone “sa kabila,” to the Other Side. It’s when you suddenly smell the scent of your loved one’s perfume, when they come to speak to you in dreams, or tickle your feet in their passing, or when a coffin suddenly gets heavier in the pall-bearers’ hands. Outside of my family, I don’t speak about this reality.

-o-

After prayer, I happened to run into Lane and told him about my encounter with my lola. He said simply, “The Ancestors love us so much. It makes them happy to be remembered.”

On the last morning of the conference, after a beautiful closing ceremony in which we thanked the Sun and the Elements for all they gave, I found myself at the Ancestors’ Table where I had seen so many others place their prayers and intentions in the basket. I still didn’t know what I would pray for, but I knew what I felt. Gratitude. And it was this prayer that I added:

Thank you, Lola Rasing and Lolo Picio for your love and sacrifice and for shaping our lives and the lives of generations that came afterwards.

Thank you N.V.M. Gonzalez. Your teachings and presence sustain me when writing is hard and the publishing industry embattling.

Thank you Lolo Pepin, Lola Saning, Uncle Delfin, Lola Paong for your love and sacrifice.

Thank you to Grandma Rita for taking me under your wing and welcoming me into your beautiful family.

After prayer, I happened to run into Lane and told him about my encounter with my lola. He said simply, “The Ancestors love us so much. It makes them happy to be remembered.”

-o-

The Babaylan Conference had an effect that reached below the surface of my analytical mind, to the deeper places of my spirit. At home, I have installed in my front room, a small space to remember my Ancestors. Natural light filters in through a glass-brick window and I have arranged the photos of my lola and lolo and those who have crossed over in a place of honor. I offer flowers in a vase every week so they will know they are remembered. It is not what I expected to find at this first and ground-breaking conference. I’d gone in with my head hoping to deepen my novel. And that, too, is happening in time. My personal re-connection with the Ancestors, cultivating an awareness of their continued existence nourishes me, and the Story, too.

As for the crocodile that still haunts my dreams, he swims territorially in waking visions as the scenes come to me, determined to become guardian to the Story that is unfolding. These buwaya, powerful beings, muscle and jaw, potent tail, and eyes which see everything were once plentiful in the rivers of our Philippines. Now, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Redlist, Philippine crocodiles are critically endangered and the rivers themselves are dying. Long ago, our people feared crocodiles, loved them, respected them, made offerings to them. Sacred crocodiles blessed our everyday art. When I asked Virgil the healer about crocodiles, who they are, and what it could mean to have visions of them, he said, “Buwaya? They are our Ancestors.”

© Mary Grace Bertulfo

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