Out of Paragraphs, You Built Cathedrals 2/2

Previously, on The Codex of Poesy: a beach trip.

The following entry may contain triggering material, and doesn’t really go anywhere.

The drive to and from can’t have been longer than Metro Manila to Tagaytay, but there’s more variety on the way. Cecilia, Linguistic Anthropologist Extraordinaire, had a better ear for how the language changed from Hiligaynon to Hiligaynon-accented Cebuano to Central Standard Cebuano to Waray-accented Cebuano. I don’t remember hearing any Waray spoken, though.

We packed rice cakes to eat on the way, a particularly fluffy kind that we both called bibingka—except that isn’t what it is, even when it is. A mutual corporeal friend, Anjie (who had been Cecilia’s neighbor here while they were growing up,) bit into a Luzon bibingka once, and thought it was Just So Wrong that she couldn’t swallow it. Visayan bibingka is gray-tan, porous at the surface, sweeter and grainier—but smooth, even, simple and honest. It hit the spot on the long ride, and I liked it, and could definitely understand why Anjie had been so shocked. Luzon bibingka takes the colors of scrambled egg, has a gloss at the top, squirts melted butter from mysterious pockets as it’s devoured, haphazard in texture between cake and pudding, the sugary coconut milk and rice flour bastardized by shavings of edam or cheddar cheese and chunks of salted duck egg. That’s the kind I’m used to calling bibingka.

Due to lack of demand, it appears that neither version is available anywhere but where they are available. Cultural exchange is strangely selective like that.

We weren’t so far south that Catholicism had eased up any. I suppose that I was excited enough about the trip that I didn’t just go to church with the whole family—I joined the procession. It’s like a parade, except that anyone who wants to walk can join in and no one will glower at em (unless ey’re really doing it wrong on purpose.) The parade leaders included the bearers of a sequined oil painting of the Mother Mary, candle-bearing altar boys, rosary-bearing nuns in heels that would be sensible if we would be walking around a room instead of around several blocks, a brass band with drummers and a car with a megaphone on it from which the priest led the prayers of the rosary. Those last two might not sound like they work together, and they probably didn’t, but I was in line somewhere in the middle so it worked from where I was.

After about an hour and a half of walking around the city, we sat in for Catholic Mass. It also involves standing, kneeling, talking, and songs. I’ll get back to this.

Cecilia’s mother let me have an interesting prayer card for the occasion of my first procession and then parted with Cecilia’s dad and their age peers. On the back of the card were directions for praying on what sounded like a five-beaded rosary. This was interesting because I thought rosaries had 59 beads (or sixty, counting the thing that links the decades to the dangly bit, if the crucifix doesn’t count as a bead.) Then I joined Cecilia and Cecilia’s siblings and Cecilia’s siblings’ significant others, who laughed about hearing mass from inside the air-conditioned car after the procession instead of in church—like we fools had.

When they caught my puzzlement with the prayer card, they asked what my religion was, and I gave my standard testing-the-waters response: “Agnostic.” Everyone in that car declared themselves Agnostic, too. What ensued was an exuberant celebration of incorrigible indecisiveness such as I never thought possible, but I definitely appreciated.

My uncle would give me three-hour lectures about how wrong I was to be “agnostic”, lectures which never really required my participation, despite that much talking at me…and then he’d get angry that I kept looking at the clock. One uncomfortably close alternative to this was homelessness, although being part of a real family for once was proposed this way, authentic citizenship, authentic ancestry. The only problem being, of course, that it was proposed this way. Nah, the only problem was that it was proposed at me. If I’d been open about being anything like a pagan, it’s not unimaginable that some physical assault would be in order by way of improvised exorcism. Although, people aren’t supposed to improvise the Exorcism of Demonic Bad Influence, there’s all sorts of seminary training and permits and paperwork before that’s supposed to happen…the truly zealous make do what they have to anyway.

That was three years ago. After the beach trip earlier this week, Cecilia’s mother gave me a medallion of Saint Benedict, which I keep safe in my tarot card pouch along with the prayer card for my first procession. I appreciate it.

Then again…I thought I appreciated going to mass every week with the extended family, too, but my uncle considered it hypocrisy and I thought that implied he didn’t want me there, so I stopped going and then he told me that I had better damn well join them but to just quit being a hypocrite about it and just believe already. I can’t just turn that on and off, though.

I believe in the customs. I can learn the theology, but I believe in disbelief more than any belief. And I can’t seem to bring myself to say I’m Catholic, even if my actual life (let alone quality of life) depended on it…and was it, because of the customs.


I grew up in a three-block pocket of suburbia among skyscrapers. On the first night of October, most of the neighbors would go over to whichever house hosted this plaster statue of the Virgin Mary (since the last day of October, the year before.) If we came too early, the grown-ups made chit-chat, and the kids would play as long as it wasn’t too noisy or broke anything. At the right time, we would gather into the area designated by our host, and pass around thin binders to guide the prayers. We’d take out our rosary beads, and start to chorus.

I’d been particularly proud of memorizing the Apostle’s Creed, which had been the longest one, and started off the rosary with some importance (that I might not have understood, but it felt very grand all the same.) The other three most important prayers, two stanzas without rhyme or meter each, became a jumble of repetition over the next hour or so:

(breathe) GivesThisDayOurDailyBreadAndForgiveUsOurSinsAsWeForgiveThoseWhoSinAgainstUsDoNotLeadUsToTheTestButDeliverUsVanillaMen

(breathe, repeat from the first stanza ten times) (yes, TEN! they’re called decades.)


Those aren’t the exact prayers, but the sound of the words tended to jumble. I can’t entirely believe it’s hypocrisy to only say the words and not know the meaning, firstly because I was a kid and didn’t know how we can pray for the world without end while still looking forward to the Apocalypse, but I’d said it anyway…and secondly because the cadences still hypnotize me.

The binders helped most in remembering which Divine Mysteries went with which day. I forgot this one occasion of impromptu rosary prayer, years after we’d moved out of there, and my mother not only knew which group of Mysteries went with that day, but which specific Mysteries were in that group of Mysteries. I’d stared in admiration and started the Hail/Holy Mary prayer a beat late.

The binders on neighborhood rosary nights helped guide me through less familiar prayers, too. “To thee do we cry out, poor banished children of Eve! To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears!” I’m aware that life is difficult for everybody eventually, but to make this poetry part of a prayer routine comes off to me now as inappropriate. Five-year-old me, whose valley of tears was quite small, would say this prayer because that’s what everyone said, read aloud from the binder fillers. But even at five years old, I sent up my sighs to my guardian angel rather than Mary, and kept my tears to my own damn self as much as I could. It was a poetic way to phrase it, but it’s not where everyone is at or how everyone deals with it? I’m pretty sure this was the prayer that came after the remembrance of ever Mystery, too. Even the Joyful or Glorious mysteries.

My mother had gone to Catholic school, whereas I’d gone to a school where I learned the prayers as an elective. Apart from the syllables, I hadn’t learned a thing. The lessons were supposed to get us prepared for the day we’d dress up nicely and take our first communion. I only remember the teacher telling me that the sins were private, between yourself the priest. While we’d learned the commandments, it hadn’t sunk in that doing the opposite was the definition of a sin. Now that I think about it, my family never kept the Sabbath Day holy, despite all the October participation. I couldn’t conceive of any other gods but this One at that age, and ate soap whenever I swore, which was only one time until my late teens, because dishwashing paste is spicy and because it’s wrong. (Nobody physically forced me to eat soap, I washed my own mouth out in tear-filled penitence. I could have poisoned myself. Anyway, by then I was seven, so it wasn’t included in first confession.) I couldn’t remember any theft, adultery, murder, even coveting I can say to have accomplished by almost-six years of age. I had guessed that “sin” was anything you do bad, so the only thing I had to say to confess to the priest was (after the rote memory introduction) that I’d told my mother that I already brushed my teeth when I hadn’t—which was the closest I could have gotten to bearing false witness against a neighbor.

The standards of dishonoring a parent were a big foggy. Was waking my mother up when I wanted her to read to me, and she’d nodded off in the middle of the storybook because she was so tired, necessarily dishonor? Really, I’d dishonored my mother by the nature of my fatherless birth. One girl at school taunted me for being the child of Satan, as I didn’t have a dad, and it would be blasphemous to proclaim that God was my father instead (although she’d do the same thing.) She’d get bored and pick on someone else, then we’d be friends again, because for some reason I never blamed or begrudged her but honored it as her very valid opinion instead and hated myself.

Two Hindu girls—sisters, one in my grade and another a year younger, had someone else refuse to speak with them because Hindus worshipped demonic idols. Agnes tried to get more people to stop speaking with them, but most classmates considered this too awkward to keep up. Excessive shows of friendship—actively seeking them out, spending too much time with them, looking too happy when you did—might have been silently, collectively discouraged…but it wasn’t the embittered freeze of having done something truly horrible, like putting a bullclip on people’s collars for a prank. (We were seven-year-olds.) Then again, I hadn’t heard exactly what Agnes said to Padma and Nadia (who was six), and if Hinduism had been a part of these sisters’ lives even as much as Catholicism had been a part of mine, or…like…being something other than demonkin had been part of my life? Being told you are demonkin when you’re not feeling it just sucks, and it’s rude, no matter how high-ranking the demon.

There was also the Muslim kid in my grade, but in boy-world where I hadn’t been allowed. I would say that sucks, too, but the other boys threw rocks at him until the teacher gathered us around to sit, and said it was wrong. I think a week after, a particularly stubborn boy or two had to be taken aside for private talks about essentially the same thing being wrong, and the Muslim kid had to be watched a lot more by the grown-ups.

I think I got off easy, being Catholic enough for accusations of Satanic kinship to mean something, but no more than that by way of ostracization or vulnerability to violence.

Back to neighborhood rosaries on October nights, which approached their end with a call-and-response sort of thing.

Lord have mercy on us. Christ, hear us.

Christ, graciously hear us.

God the Father of Heaven?

Have mercy on us!

God the Son, Redeemer of the world?

Have mercy on us!

God the Holy Ghost?

Have mercy on us!

Holy Trinity, one God?

Have mercy on us!

Holy Mary?

Have mer—gyarghh, wrong—Pray for us!

Holy Mother of God?

Pray for us!

Holy Virgin of Virgins?

Pray for us!

Mother of Christ?

Pray for us!

Mother of the Church?

Pray for us!

Mother of Divine Grace?

Pray for us!

Mother most pure?

Pray for us!

Mother most chaste?

Pray for us!

Mother inviolate?

I’d only seen her wear white or blue, so this confused five-year-old me.

Mother undefiled?

It goes on like this for a while, but eventually we end the prayer and start the dinner party, then end the dinner party and put fresh garlands of jasmine blossoms on the plaster statue. Then someone would carry the statue to the house of the one who would host the group rosary’s next meeting. We would follow, some bearing candles into the evening. After getting Plaster Mary settled, we’d all go home.

Hearing a Catholic Mass goes on for a while, too. The homily after my first procession was a strong reminder that, although we walked around several city blocks after a portrait of the Mother Mary, it was important to remember that women shouldn’t have power: only God the Father and God the Son can make decisions and do the thing. Mary merely transmits the prayers, so the priest told us. Then sometime after something about praying for the converts to Protestantism in Latin America who are seduced by the false celebration of a god who provides wealth when poverty is holier, that they all get back on the right path, which is Catholicism.

Sometimes there would be a cue for the choir to sing. The singers were talented and/or trained, but I had never been in a church this size that also had a sound system compatible with the space. The music by itself is ploddingly awful, an awfulness surpassed only by the composition of the words forced into the melody, or maybe by the spectacularly unimaginative arrangement.

^ There hasn’t been more of this, why??

In some particular order that I’m sure I’ve gotten wrong, the Mass goes: Sit, somebody’s talking. Stand, somebody’s talking. Sit, somebody’s talking. Kneel, somebody’s talking. Stand, somebody’s talking. Choir sings a song. Sit, somebody’s talking. This was the first time I’d actually smelled the incense, sometimes. Stand, somebody’s talking. Choir sings a song. Remain standing, somebody’s talking (reading from the holy scripture instead of the homily?) Sit, somebody’s talking. Kneel, somebody’s talking. Stand, call and response—a different, shorter one than the Litany of Loretto or something? Say “Peace be with you” to everyone nearby.

The Lord be with you.

And with your spirit.

Lift up your hearts.

We lift them up to the Lord. This bit is never said lightheartedly or happily, by anyone. Why the f—

Let us give thanks to the Lord, our God

It is right and just.

Some particular song cue where everyone either joins hands or cups their hands, somewhere in there. Then, communion! I haven’t lined up to eat the wafer since I was eleven, but nobody gives me the stinkeye probably because it’s usually a long line. In the stories there’s red wine to go with the wafers, to represent the blood and body of the son of god, but I don’t know if wine also goes to people standing in line or if only the priest takes a sip.

Every time I’ve gone to hear Mass, I’ve started out open to catching what the priest is actually talking about, and how the readings from the scripture support it, and hearing good new music from somewhere other than the Night Vale weather report. Eventually, though, I simply begin to despair that this will ever be over. I remind myself that this is the way to spend time with family, because no one knows how many of these sessions we still have in life, standing/sitting/kneeling/listening/hearing/despairing all in the same physical space. The thing might be a chore now, but if some convenience store microwave fatally malfunctions and explodes into shrapnel, one’s final thought might be, oh no, I missed out on standing in Mass with my loved ones more often. Which would be awful.

When I’m not listening, and not despairing that this will ever be over, I go to some magical place in my mind that manages to have nothing at all to do my spiritual life ever. Captain America and Iron man wrestling in lime gelatine, and they’re not wearing very much. I don’t even usually want to think stuff like that, because it’s probably rude to bring gay thoughts into Catholic churches, and I’m a Stucky shipper the rest of the time anyway. (Seriously, where does Iron Man without any iron on the man, even come from? Subconscious, what’s going on in there?)

Actually, I can multitask thinking about that, and despairing that this will ever be over. The church was a grand building with arched ceilings that must be hell to dust off, they were so high, but certainly nobody would bump their head against if that’s what so many church architects are worried about. Sometimes, half a bowl is built into the wall, or into a pillar, and it’s filled with sacramental water. People entering the churches are supposed to dip their fingers in and smear a bit of water on their own forehead, heart, and shoulders in that order. I wonder how they stop algae from growing in it, because the containers are usually the size and depth to look most difficult to clean. Is there a market for bottled holy algae?

Then the priest says, “This mass is now concluded, go in peace—” and all the devotion, ecstasy, and zeal I was supposed to have all along bubbles up in a spontaneous THANK GOD IT’S OVER THANK YOU GOD and I wonder how fast I can get out of the giant incense hotbox and into the fresh air without being suspected of witchcraft.

(It might help allay potential suspicion if I didn’t blog about trying to invent new kinds of witchcraft…)

Catholic Mass might be an endurance trial, but whenever there’s the opportunity to go (that is, with people who don’t despise and glower at me like my uncle tended to do, as though they can see all the gay porn I accidentally brought in my mind—maybe I should apply for an exorcism) I go like a Catholic Massochist.

It was toxic and oppressive to me for a good long while. It might still be—a classmate of Cecilia’s who’s from South Korea described the culture shock, mostly how scarily religious Metro Manila was, so my jokes about living in a theocracy have now been validated as not actually funny, because it’s scary-true—but I think I’m on a better emotional wavelength now. It’s part of my personal history, and part of the nation I live in. If this is what it takes to function, I can actually do this.


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