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Entries in Philippines (1)


My Life with the Saints (continued)


                     Sailing out                                                                      ©Jennifer M. Carrasco

When I was 15, I lost my faith. After reading too much Dostoyevsky and agonizing over impure thoughts (what else do you think about in your early teens), I decided being a good Catholic was too exhausting and just went through the motions to keep my familly off my back. In time I was able to achieve the really important aspects of teen life.  Namely cute clothes and boyfriends.

Later, I added my feminist objections, a hardheaded suspicion of dogma and a general bloody mindedness to the list.  Now my impure thoughts have faded (somewhat) and I stay away from "Crime and Punishment".

But the Catholic upbringing shaped and sustained me in many positive ways as a person and an artist.  Discipline and deadlines. "No excuses!" snapped Sr. Mary Eugenia, as I whined about my long division homework. If I stole or copied or cheated and and didn't make recompense, I would go to hell. (Create your own stuff or Mother Superior will lurch into your line of vision and shame you in front of the class).  Long hours of sitting still in pews taught me to be patient in traffic jams and committee meetings.  Giving up candy and movies during Lent taught me (mostly) to avoid temptation and keep plugging toward a goal. Eating fish on Friday taught me to despise certain colors, i.e. the particular brown and puce of salmon loaf.

And,  I genuinely respect those who support the religious community and seek spiritual guidance and comfort.  There's something out there.  It's just that I'm not sure what it is.

In the esthetic arena, there are many I can count many Catholic influences.  I like the flash of gold...the crowns on the Virgin, the monstrance on the altar and the golden chalice.......

                                                                Crown by Carrasco

 The poetry of the liturgy of the Mass, the spare elgance of the Gregorian chant I sang as a child, and the litany to Mary, "Rose of Sharon, Tower of Ivory, House of David" still resonate. Drama and mysticism makes the hair on my head stand straight up. I wanted to have visions like Bernadette at Lourdes when I was a child. Now I often try to express the idea of spiritual ecstasy in some of my paintings.

Woman Singing Gregorian Chant (Detail)                                                               © Jennifer M. Carrasco   

When I went to the Philippines as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I encountered another brand of Catholicism; a potent mixture of Spanish and animistic Malay/Chinese beliefs, and this too affected my art. As a naive country girl, I was fascinated to see believers lining up in Quiapo church to kiss the feet of the black crucified Christ, or to note that one could buy charms and herbs insuring both abortion and fertility for sale in the churchyard. I would sit on the balcony of rectories and chat with provincial priests and their "housekeepers" ( and his children.) I was enchanted and repelled by the life sized statues of Mary and Christ staring out of glass enclosures in the living rooms of prominent families. 

(the following images are sketches scanned from my 1981 sketchbook journal)

The statues of the Saints were not only life sized, but elaborately dressed and given real crowns and sceptres, and placed on elaborate palaquins hoisted up and paraded by men on feast day processions around the barrios and cities. I was fortunate to see a very elaborate  procession of  Virgins in the old Walled City of Intramuros in Manila in l981.

 Joan Orendain had told me about it, and we took our little boys over to stand on the top of the parapets to watch the statues of the Virgins emerge on their thrones from the darkened cathedral ..all brilliant in the lights of their thrones and jewels.

  There were about 15 of them, all dressed and displayed as displays of a Manila family's religious devotion, and followed by crowds of women in black dresses and mantillas, children dressed as angels, young girls in their traditional butterfly sleeved dresses accompanied by men in their best embroidered barongs. Priests and acolytes were swathed in incense and the smell of burning beeswax, and a company of  dogs and cats trotted along as well.

We looked down on the Virgins as they slowly paraded between the old stone walls. Generators surging as the lights glowed and dimmed. Exquisite details like hiding a statue with a jeweled painting, with all but her face peeking out of an opening in the canvas, or the long blond hair of one  Holy Maiden held down by glittering silver clasps and chains. And several statues were almost eclipsed by huge sun haloes of gold surrounding their faces.

When the procession finally circled back to the cathedral yard, the statues were gathered in a line facing out at the crowds. All was dark and quiet except for the radiant statues on their glowing sedans. Then, all of a sudden, the bells of St. Augustine's cathedral rang out, and churches all over Manila began ringing as well. Fireworks and firecrackers began to sizzle and pop.  And the Virgins remained in the middle of the noise and dazzle,tranquil, assured and glowing.


And of course, being the Philippines, there had to be a note of humor at the end.  We followed a red Fiera Ford pickup as it jiggled it's Virgin and her minder all the way home to her glass cage in the family sala.

Procession of Virgins

The statues lurch from somber gates

on the backs of sweating men.

Feast of the Assumption,

Tonight,  Manila frees

God’s mothers

from their glassy cages 

in the family salas.

Ave, Maria de Santa Rosa, the Virgin of Sampoloc.

Oh, Queen of Sorrows from Binondo,

you and your sisters show pale faces

like the tilted eye of God,

ivory ovals in a radiance of crinkled hair and diadems.


My childhood saints were plain.

My church , a part

Of pleasant neighborhoods.

Mary was our patron saint

of varnished pews.

Sexless, she and Jesus smiled

on farmers and their women;

the mothers soothing babies,

crying in the back.

A flash of gold along a hem.

A crown of flowers from the yard

Were our Mary’s only ornament.


Where you, Maria, your Spanish shimmer casts

 a retinue of comets in the dark.

The generators surge, electric candles

urge light across moire, along your goitered neck,

and snag on jeweled ears, the lace at breasts and cuff.


 Your light slaps facets on the sweating walls,

spins glamour out of filthy ground

and clothes the beggars squatting by canals.

You scatter glitter in the streets

where day shows only garbage,

circling dogs,

and slinking rats.

                      ©Jennifer Carrasco