Communist regimes tried to stamp it out of subject peoples but after half a century of suppression, religion is alive again in Eastern Europe, Russia and China. The religious impulse is as strong a psychological force in humans as any other, perhaps the most universal and powerful civilizing force in the human psyche.
Smithsonian magazine announced in November 2008 the discovery of 11,000-year-old stones in Gobekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey that archaeologists believe to be the world’s oldest temple. They predate Stonehenge in Salisbury, England by 6,000 years.
Before Gobekli Tepe, of course, there were the Upper Paleolithic cave paintings in Lascaux in southwestern France that some anthropologists and art historians believed were done as part of mystical rituals 17,300 years ago. Not quite as old were the gorgeous Upper Paleolithic rock paintings in Altamira near Santillana, Spain reproductions of which we saw when we visited in 2009. Photography was not allowed so all I have are photos taken outside the cave museum.
What is it in human beings that made them spend so much of their often scarcely survival-level lives on theorizing about supernatural powers and evolving rituals around these beliefs? I can write a book about this because religion has occupied me as far back as I can remember. As a child I played with pencil and paper and drew images from church. If I had given rein to my inner calling, come college time I would have gone into the priesthood.
That was not to be and unlike my contemporaries born and raised in the Philippines, I’ve traveled a long way from those childhood, child-like beliefs that now has the feel and smell to me of a claustrophobic, tiny prison cell from which daily I celebrate my liberation. Be that it may, religion continues to hold sway over much of my day-to-day life. More relevant to my present-day circumstances and endeavors are the links between religious experience and creativity. These links are what I plan to explore here and in future essays.
Colm Tóibín, interviewing Sevillans during semana santa (Holy Week) celebrations in southern Spain, noted how peopled generally described their response to the heavily decorated floats as mysterious and irrational. When the floats (caros we called them in the Philippines) stopped as they often did in the course of the hours-long processions, both men and women would break out into hauntingly sweet songs, songs of indescribable longing and beauty, from their apartment windows above. Floats carrying centuries-old statues of the mater dolorosa, the mother of Christ grieving at his crucifixion and death elicited the most affecting lyrical response.
Jueves and Viernes Santo (Maundy Thursday and Good Friday) were for me too the highlights of the church liturgical calendar. My grandmother owned the statue of Mary whose caro on both days was the last float in the procession. Behind the float were gathered the diaconesas in their white dresses, Lourdes-blue sashes and black veils, singing hymns that resonate through me even today as the saddest melodies I have ever heard. A small band, often just drum, trombone and violinist, accompanied the women and behind them walked the parish priest and his sacristan. The spectacle was over, until next year.
When the women paused their singing, the band played ponderous, rhythmic music like to my own heartbeats, more mournful than even the hymns for the heart supplied the words. Religion is about the heart and what people call soul, both central elements of what constitutes the noblest part of humanity.