As she combats bipolar disorder, Essayist RAYJI DE GUIA writes about her strong connection to three old churches in Metro Manila despite her shaky faith in the doctrine responsible for their existence. (With Images by LEAH DE LEON)
The first time I visited Baclaran Church, it was because I was instructed to pray my depression away. Nuestra Señora del Perpetuo Socorro, I was told, held the power.
On a Monday morning, I got off a Saulog bus in Baclaran and marched past little wooden stalls of cigarettes and candies, mp3s and leggings, until I arrived at the wide gate of the church. I walked up to the building, trying to find the place where I could light a candle for some coins. I was hesitant, careful with my steps, as if the ground was fragile. I have not gone near a church in years.
The candle-lighting area was closed off with grills, allowing the breeze to pass through. Despite this, warmth enveloped my body as I approached. Hundreds of candles burned with desperate intensity, all of them overseen by an image that I assumed to be the Señora. I got my candle, lit it up, and whispered a small request. I wanted to get it over with.
My mother was friends with the faith healer who told me to go to Baclaran—instead of Quiapo, where my sister prayed for a job, and I was thankful for the convenience. This one was just in the way of my commute from Maragondon to Quezon City. Additionally, this Mary, he said, had higher position than the one in Quiapo, and thus was more powerful. I was an atheist, and, at that time, I took it in with humor, because making sense of it would compromise my lack of belief.
A year after I self-diagnosed with depression (now diagnosed as bipolar I disorder,) I struggled with my faith. I had decided to quit architecture, wanting to pursue a career in writing instead. Becoming an atheist, I felt free from questions of whys about my mental illness.
But there was something about churches that drew me in.
In 2012, I visited Intramuros, the walled city built by the very group of people the Spaniards wanted to keep out—the natives and the Chinese, whose works were very much evident in San Agustin church. There was a long history of trade between the Filipinos and Chinese even before the arrival of the Spaniards, and some Chinese immigrants have settled in the coastal areas of the country, mostly up north. Chinese influence had been pervasive in the style of the churches, as can be seen in San Agustin. The façade had four granite lions of Chinese style. The Baroque doors were made with Asian delicacy, lightness, and proportion, as contrasted by the European Baroque. The pulpit, just like the pulpit in most churches, had an inverted pineapple which meant good luck in Chinese.
San Agustin church, being the oldest church in Manila, was representative of the history of most churches in the country: ravaged by fire, rebuilt, eroded by an earthquake, rebuilt. In fact, it was almost comical how San Agustin church had survived. The first buildings had been destroyed when a Chinese merchant and pirate Limahong terrorized Manila and burned down the church made of wood. The second set of buildings were again burned down in 1583 during the funeral rites of Governor Ronquillo de Peñalosa when the draperies of the church caught fire, and for the third time in 30 March 1586, a Palm Sunday. It was then when the Augustinians decided to rebuild the church with stone.
The friars, given that they were not at all artisans, had to make do with what the country had to offer. They acted as the architects and designers and used their vague recollections of the Baroque churches they had seen before leaving Spain and Mexico to lead the laborers. As per ordered by the King in the royal decree of 1579, the natives were to contribute in the church-building with labor. The influence brought by the friars was not strictly Spanish. Most have stayed in Mexico for a long time, and some have been born there. The travel from Spain to the Philippines required crossing the Atlantic Ocean and an overland journey to Acapulco in Mexico, so very much of the remaining Spanish colonial churches were Mexican too. San Agustin church’s monastery wall had been painted over many times, but it was discovered that the original wall was plastered with gesso and terracotta painting after the Mexican tradition. Covering the monastery staircase was a brick dome architecture whose technique had been learned from Mexico.
Last year, before taking a test, my brother was taken to the faith healer. He was told to pray to a saint in Baclaran church as well. The same saint could be found in a church two towns over from Maragondon, but the foot position, the faith healer said, indicated that a demon inhabited it.
I suppose it would come as a surprise to people I’ve known a few years ago that I’ve turned to paganism and the occult. I’ve never considered myself spiritual. Not even now, despite being into astrology and tarot. When I’d asked the tarot cards where I was in my spiritual journey, they gave me the Fool, alongside the Magician. My moon in the eighth house indicated I should be more than spiritual and instead immersed in spirituality, but I couldn’t feel it yet.
There was a something calming, however, in allowing myself to settle into this confusion in belief, unlike before when I’d questioned everything into monolithic categories. When I discovered that there were ghosts haunting our eighty-year-old ancestral house, when visitors shared experiences with us about their night’s attempt at sleeping, I could not reconcile it with my atheism. What helped me understand what was happening was reading Nick Joaquin’s “The Summer Solstice.”
The short story presented many binaries (feminine/masculine, private/public, night/day, pre-colonial/present, moon/sun, and pagan/catholic), and suggested the total inversion of the current state. While, ultimately, I disagreed with the short story—seeking the purely pre-colonial was not my intention—it was my disagreement that provided clarity.
With this, I understood: The architecture of San Agustin church, Philippine Catholicism, and the saints within the churches were not purely catholic. I’d like to believe that whatever currently inhabited the images and statues in the churches all over the country, they had existed before Catholicism arrived with the Spaniards, and they merged with Catholicism not just for survival, but for defiance of the imposition of the foreign. There was no binary of pre-colonial and present belief, I realized.
In a letter to his brothers George and Thomas in 1817, poet John Keats coined the term Negative Capability. Keats defined it as such: “that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” The film Bright Star elaborated on this: “The point of diving into a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore but to be in. You do not work the lake out, it is an experience beyond thought.” The hodgepodge of belief I subscribed to, confusing as they were, provided peace.
The first church I really fell in love with was the Basilica of San Sebastian. Later on in a group report, I’d refer to it as “the sexiest piece of architecture in the Philippines.” It was the first and only all-steel temple construction in Asia. It had multi-foiled arches molded in the steel walls. Finialled arches, soaring verticals, and steeples reached up high to the sky. The stained-glass windows were reminiscent of the Medieval Gothic interior. Along the nave were fluted columns supporting the ribbed vaulting ceiling. The walls and ceiling were painted to imitate stone and frescoed with images of Carmelite saints, apostles, and Mary. The wooden pulpit strayed from the traditional Baroque and was Gothicized, as well the confessionals in the side aisles.
But its most attractive feature, for me, was its rusting surfaces. Located in a tropical country, the basilica was vulnerable to corrosion, as it was exposed to high humidity, heat, and annual monsoon rains. The deterioration was appalling, but interesting. I thought my mental state was the same. There was deterioration, but there was also survival. I wouldn’t want to romanticize resilience; I’d like to think the battle scars, so to speak, invoked resistance instead. Of course, it meant that every now and then, restoration was a necessity.
I had often resented myself for having bipolar I disorder. I used to view taking medication as weakness, and I hated how self-harm scars remained on my skin over the years. I would go off on medication to prove my strength to myself. Predictably, it went badly.
Now, I’m constantly medicated, a continuous restoration. My scars are still visible, but I’ve come to accept them. Being well does not equate to not being medicated. I can be medicated and be well. One could make a case of resilience, but another way of looking at it would be resistance. Like in architecture, there is a constant resistance against disappearance and death.
Architecture, despite showing resilience, that no matter the imposition of colonization, the Filipino shines through; more than that, it serves as a reminder of our colonial past. There is no point looking back and thinking the damage was beautiful. It was a desperate survival.
Over the years, I’ve had to think what exactly about churches that drew me in. Was it the resilience of design? The Filipino shone through the European sensibilities. So, yes, in a way, I do think they are beautiful despite the bad. But beyond that, there, it is a reminder of the pain, of survival, and how we must fight.