Fiction / July 2018 (Issue 40: Writing the Philippines)

Salvation History

by Julian dela Cerna

Raymund's mother preferred the religious TV programs. But because they could not afford a cable subscription and, therefore, had no access to channels solely dedicated to God, the telenovelas and talk shows on the local channels would do. Still, she never let any mention of God on those shows go unnoticed. When an actor in a showbiz-news program would say, "I thank our God Almighty for all the projects from Star Cinema," or when an episode in a drama series would have one of the characters say, set against a background of orchestral music, "I don't mind losing everything, because God is putting me through a test," or when a contestant on a noontime variety show would say, after losing in the million-peso jackpot round, "I still thank God for this opportunity," Raymund's mother would respond, "Amen!"

But it was not her to sit on the couch and watch TV with him. Instead, on Saturdays when she stayed home, she would work around the house, sweeping the floor, rearranging the furniture or doing the dishes or the laundry at the back. She had bought the TV for him, on instalment, because he was turning eight in the coming summer. It was a black, twenty-inch GoldStar, perched on a low table in the living room, with rabbit ears that extended to the ceiling. She had instructed him to always replace the cover when the TV was not in use, because that would keep the dust off the vents, but Raymund seldom left the couch, anyway. Maybe because he wanted to justify being glued to the couch almost the entire day, whenever she was home, he wanted nothing more than to catch a dialogue that mentioned God in a good light, hoping she happened to be within earshot and would approve of what he was watching. 

What pleased her most was Salvation History, a cartoon series that depicted scenes from the Bible. Imported from Japan, the show had blue-eyed and blond characters whose dialogue was dubbed in Tagalog. It aired on Saturday mornings, the time when he could sit in front of the TV without having to worry about a homework assignment or a quiz the next day. Unfortunately, each episode ran for only thirty minutes and was followed by the show of the televangelist Pastor Apollo Quiboloy, broadcasting live from his congregation in Davao City. 

At the stroke of nine, the regional TV network took over to insert his show. It came on in between commercials, preceded by grey snow that momentarily filled the screen before shifting to the title: Jesus Christ: The Name above Every Name

"Turn it up a bit, will you?" his mother called from the back of the house, where she was doing the laundry. 

Raymund picked up the remote and turned up the volume. He watched the pastor in his expensive suit romp around the stage, cordless mic in hand, and exhort the people to surrender everything to the Lord, because in Him, there was no cross that one could not bear.

"Amen!" Raymund's mother shouted. 

It was two hours too long: the pastor screaming and preaching. Yet he felt wrong to despise the show. And besides, it was something his mother truly preferred. She had told him countless times about the history of her faith. When his father had finally confessed to a previous marriage and therefore could not even give Raymund his last name, she refused to have anything to do with him from then on and turned to God instead. That was when she found true healing, she had said. 

Raymund had never met his father. When he asked about the man, his mother would say, "God is your father." She had told him that if he ever felt the urge to talk to his father, he should start by making the sign of the cross. 

That was hard to believe, but he had occasionally taken comfort in the idea, especially when he heard his classmates claim to have the greatest father in the world. His had created the world. 


Having his mother around on a Saturday all day also meant watching, in her presence, the TV shows he wouldn't have wanted her to know about. 

Xena: Warrior Princess, about an amazon in the time of ancient gods, aired every Saturday afternoon. Xena wore a studded leather corset and skirt, wielded a broad sword and rode a white horse. She was on a quest to protect the weak. And the men who dared oppose her got their lessons the hard way. Even the gods could not stop her, as they spoke to her in a language Raymund surmised to be Latin, which, as his mother had told him, was the language of Heaven. 

It only made sense that the Olympian gods also spoke like his Father.

When Xena negotiated with an angry god to stop a war, the god, who frequently appeared in the series, would answer in that heavenly language, aided by a subtitle for common mortals like Raymund. Once, Raymund had written down what the god was saying and, deepening his voice, recited it after: "Vamino domini serum pater mortus esde patintin racumin." Hearing him, his mother had said: "Why are you talking like the Devil?"

He had been wanting to tell her about Xena, about how his idol could defeat three or four men in a battle simultaneously, but the violence, which his mother had cautioned him against, would be hard to justify.  

She was taking her siesta one Saturday when he crept into the living room and switched the TV on, his finger ready at the volume in case the machine screamed in the afternoon silence. It was unfortunate that the hour-long show was at 2 pm, so before the final battle had even started, his mother was already up to light the votive candles and prepare the altar for the Three O'clock Prayer. 

"What is she doing?" she said, as Xena strapped on her boots, looking stern and determined to exact her justice. 

"She is about to punish those men," he said, trying not to look at her reaction. "They were stealing from those helpless women and children, and she is their protector." 

His mother stood beside him and watched Xena get on her horse and give a battle cry. Watching the breath-taking scene, Raymund thought, "Please ask God for guidance. Please call His name." When Xena raised her sword, he wished she would yell, "In the name of God!" Instead she grunted and mercilessly struck her enemy.

"It's three," his mother said. "Time to pray." 


On Sundays, she hosted prayer meetings for lay men and women from different parishes. They held it in the living room. They were renting the first floor of a single-bedroom duplex a block away from the Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish. Rent in Barrio Obrero, a posh residential enclave in the heart of Davao City, was steep, but the area was close to his school and her clients. She worked in real estate, and closing a transaction on a prime lot earned for her a commission high enough to start a new life with. They had moved from the boarding house and bought furniture—the necessities, at least. As her way of giving thanks for the blessings, she had organised the prayer group, composed of Catholics needing a community that would not judge its members. Only God was the true judge of everyone. She had refused to join the Gagmayng Kristohanong Katilingban, or the GKK, and the Catholic Women's League. "Do you know what CWL stands for?" his mother had said to him. "It's Chismis Wa'y Limit."  

Her prayer group, though unnamed and without official sanction by the Church, was purer, unsullied by gossipmongers whose sole idea of fellowship was to solicit donations for food in every meeting and talk about an absent parishioner's private life. 

That did not mean she no longer attended Mass. In fact, she and Raymund heard Mass every day at the parish. She would pick him up from school, as soon as the last bell rang and arrived at Sacred Heart an hour early, so they could first drop by the Blessed Sacrament. Raymund especially liked the air-conditioned alcove off the chapel's right wing. With their shoes off, they would kneel on the white cushions laid out on the parquet floor. The Holy Eucharist, like a singular clouded eye, looked on from the small altar before them. This was home: he and his mother, under the cold stare of the Father. 

The prayer meeting had many participants at first: single parents like his mother, some families with their children, other real estate brokers who wished to get acquainted with her more, potential clients who were getting close to her and even their nosy neighbours on the second floor. The two electric fans could not dispel the infernal heat as they joined hands in prayer. Each meeting lasted for four hours and left the prayerful starving and ready for the merienda she served them. Food was important, like God's mercy. They started with the rosary, then broke into songs of praise, followed by a round of testimonies from participants who had either recently undergone trials from God or been blessed by Him. Finally, as they held hands to sing one final hymn of praise for being alive, a member or two would start speaking in tongues. The language sounded like a babble in a busy wet market, incomprehensible and important. Raymund prided himself for being able to speak in four languages: English, Tagalog, Binisaya and even the ancient tongue from Xena, but nothing in his polyglot brain registered a word of what they were saying. 

"The Holy Spirit has visited us again today," his mother said, after the meeting. 

It was Sister Francine who started the streak. She was not a nun, but everybody in the group called each other "sister" or "brother." His mother said Sister Francine lived in a dingy residential area in Bankerohan, near the big river that cleaved the city in two. She was chatty and optimistic and always wore a pleated, ankle-length skirt and a t-shirt with the Sacred Heart of Jesus printed on it. 

Raymund had had the shivers when he first heard her speak in tongues. Everybody had their eyes closed, humming above her speech, as though nothing was wrong. It must be the Devil, he had thought, as she prattled on in a language that couldn't have been Latin. Had somebody raised the alarm, he would have grabbed the bottle of Holy Water and sprinkled her with it. But the other members were whispering their thanks as tears flowed, like from the heart of Jesus. Some bounced on their heels as they held their hands up. Even his mother had been in raptures. 

"It was a fruitful meeting with the Lord," Sister Francine would say. 

A visit from the Holy Spirit, of course, meant better days to come, especially to those who had spoken in tongues. And each Sunday, someone was always bound to get possessed—at times two or more of them being simultaneously possessed, and Raymund wondered whether the Holy Spirit had multiplied itself. He wondered if he, too, would ever get to have his turn. He had tried several ways to conjure it. He concentrated on an image of a white dove, flapping its glowing wings in slow motion, as he recited the Hail Mary. One Sunday, he tried keeping his eyes closed throughout the prayer meeting. After four hours, he opened them and could almost hear God saying, "Let there be light." On another day, he tried observing Sister Francine the entire time and caught only the fixed expression of sorrow on her face. That should be easy, he thought. His mother used to have that look all the time. And so he imagined himself suffering the same way Jesus Christ had on the cross, approximating the sorrow that every true Christian must have felt. 

In the end, nothing worked. Even his mother spoke only in Binisaya, as she served everyone their post-prayer refreshments. Perhaps that's why the Holy Spirit would not possess her either, he thought. She was too preoccupied with feeding everyone.

Toward the end of the school year, she fed them less, and sometimes gave them only Sky Flakes. The Coco-Cola bottles were replaced by plastic pitchers of bland powder-juice. The members dwindled. His mother said that those who had stopped attending had already been blessed and therefore found the stuffy living room unbearable. Only a few remained and that included Sister Francine. Raymund surmised that by now the Holy Spirit should no longer get confused on whom to possess, given the few options left. Yet his mother still did not speak in tongues. 

"Ma, when will the Holy Spirit possess you?" Raymund finally asked. 

"In God's perfect time," she said. 


"You're turning eight this month," Sister Francine told him. "Are you going to have your First Communion in May?" 

Raymund nodded, shyly. 

"He's been preparing for it," his mother said. 

"Will you have friends join you in your First Communion?" Sister Francine said. 

He shook his head. He could not name any friend who would be at the event. Jesus was, but He didn't count.  

Since there were only three members left, Sister Francine suggested that Raymund get more active in the prayer meeting. As a start, he was asked to give his testimonies. 

"I don't think I have any," he said. His voice was feeble under the attention. 

"It could be anything. Maybe how you reacted when a friend said something that offended you, or what you thought of your Bible readings?" she said. 

Being honest was next to godliness, he thought. He turned to his mother, who looked encouragingly at him. Summer meant spending more time inside the house, and he could not have offended his Father for watching TV all day. Almost on a whim, he told them instead about the latest episode of Salvation History, which depicted tongue-fires descending upon the people on Pentecost and enabling them to speak in various languages—that scene, predominantly dubbed in Tagalog, involved a cacophony that included Binisaya, which his sharp ear picked up—so they could start spreading the good news about His mercy. 

"What do you think of that episode?" Sister Francine said.

He racked his brains for an answer. After an interminable time, he said, "I think that for all our differences … God also knows Binisaya." 


"Amen?" Pastor Quiboloy said. He was sweating on TV again. 

His mother, with the crowd on the screen, responded, "Amen!" 

The night before, Raymund had learnt that Xena: Warrior Princess would have a whole-day marathon-special on Sunday. His mother had also told him, without explaining why, that the appliance men were coming to repossess the TV. "Maybe Monday," she had said. "Hopefully, Tuesday." He had been praying to his Father that the day when he would lose the TV would not come, and yet it was happening anyway. The TV was going to get repossessed even before his eighth birthday. Raymund's mother had reminded him that true Christians would always have new crosses to bear. He had wondered whether receiving his First Communion later that month, as an official welcome to the faith, was for the better or worse. 

She sat on the couch with him that Saturday morning, and he did not ask for his breakfast. This was perhaps the first and last time she would be sitting down to watch TV with him.

On the TV Pastor Quiboloy roared about the wonder of God. "You will all be blessed in time!" he said. "In the mercy! Of God!" His eyes wide as though telling a horrible tale. "Do not ever doubt!" he added. "For nothing! Is impossible! In Him!" 

The crowd cheered, clapping, and with them his mother, her applause ringing solitarily in the living room. 

"To all the televiewers," the pastor said, "put your hands on your TV screen, so that you, too, will receive God's blessings."

His mother went to kneel in front of the TV and placed both hands on the glowing screen. She bowed her head, as though diving into the box of screaming light. 


She was still sleeping when he carefully slid off their bed and crept into the living room for the Xena marathon. The TV was waiting for him, like a friend. The blank screen mirrored his tiny image in its convex, parallel world. With a finger ready to turn down the volume, he switched the TV on using his other hand, and there was that momentary vacuum of the glass sucking the hair on his skin before the light flooded him. 

Everything else around him was quiet. There was only Xena emerging victorious at the end of each episode. The recurring god spoke the lines that Raymund had memorised. He muttered them under his breath, believing them to be some powerful prayer not unlike the rosary. When his mother woke up and found him sitting on the floor, she turned up the volume and instructed him to sit on the couch, else he ruin his eyes. He watched TV until Sister Francine and the other two remaining attendees of the prayer meeting arrived. 

"My niece is a fan of that show," Sister Francine said.

He switched off the TV and covered it with the cloth to keep the dust off. 

"Do you want to lead the rosary this time, Raymund?" Sister Francine said. 

Reluctantly, he went to the altar for the prayer booklet and his rosary beads, made of plastic and coiled inside a hard, transparent casing. It was a gift from his mother, something he had always wanted for its smallness. He opened the booklet and turned to the Glorious Mystery.

He began with the Lord's Prayer, his voice small in the chorus of the adult's voices. They had all their eyes closed, their fingers treading the beads, as though they had taken a life of their own. He was hoping they could finish sooner, so that he could catch more episodes of Xena. He reminded himself to concentrate and let the chant lull him into God's grace. The TV, under the white cloth, seemed a veiled woman in mourning.

That was when he realised he was lost. He could not find his place among the ten beads in between Mysteries. He looked at the hands of the prayer-meeting members. Sister Francine's had her own rosary almost hidden with her thick fingers. His mother had both hands pressed to her chest. The other two stood too far from him, and he would have to turn his head to see their hands. 

Silence came over the living room. They were all looking at him. Sister Francine said, "Go on." 

His mother did not say anything. She did not smile at him, but she did not frown either. And yet Raymund recognised the deep disappointment in her face, as she continued clasping her hands in prayer.

"I'm not sure where we are," Raymund said. 

"We're on the second Mystery, sixth Hail Mary," Sister Francine said while his mother crucified him with disappointed eyes. 

"Hail Mary, full of grace," Raymund started. Although he knew the prayer by heart, he tried to stay focused, to be keenly aware of the words he uttered. His eyes followed each line, each paragraph in the booklet, until he lost track of time. 

He thought again of Xena and how she negotiated with that god. How everything turned out well at the end. As he recited the rosary, he felt something take over him. It was neither a glowing dove nor a tongue of fire, but some determination in nondescript warmth, and he opened his mouth and from it escaped diction both familiar and foreign, in what could only be the language of heaven. 


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