BOOK REVIEW: Karl Gaspar's 'The Masses are Messiah: Contemplating the Filipino Soul'

By Marilen Abesamis

(MindaNews/10 Dec) – It also helps that Karl is himself a Wounded Healer (to borrow the term from the Dutch mystic Fr. Henri Nouwen), one who exercises compassion out of a heart that has experienced deep suffering. The author had been imprisoned and tortured during martial law and would probably have disappeared but for his firm faith and the swift response of people who cared for him the world over.

Having come from a social and political movement whose mainstream often sidestepped discussions of spirituality and took for granted the cravings of the soul, Karl fills the gap for those of us in the “martial law generation” who continue to work for justice and social change, but who aspire for the numinous especially now that we have grown much wiser. It is a generation who, having laid down their lives and sacrificed all, have wondered where the militant project has taken us, or whether the fruits had ripened and whether the desired harvests of our “revolution” were indeed brought in.

It is a rare book because it gathers together, in its massive field work, voices of men and women who lived through some of the most trying and exhilarating times of our history. Here are poignant voices agents who share their doubts and discoveries, their most intimate experiences and encounters with the Transcendent, and how they grappled with mysteries in their lives.

In a way, this book can be read as a diary of many a respondent’s soul, in its journey towards healing and completeness. I found some passages moving, with precious stories such as these:

I became blind for a month. I disposed myself to those who looked after me. It was most difficult as I was used to have a hectic pace with my medical work. But during this one month, I found myself – most of the time – alone with God. I could really concentrate on being with God. I was brought to the hospital and the doctors did not know what was wrong with me. But I was not sad because while I was blind, it was not darkness but brightness – there was light at the center emanating outwards with pink rays – and my body felt light. I knew that eventually my sight will return. I said goodbye to the Blessed Mother saying I better go home … After that I knew that all that I would do would be God’s work. This is why I cannot just play around …

And here’s another sharing, bordering on the mystical:

I listen to a voice from within me which has only lately happened. It wasn’t there before in my life as a religious. Especially when I am faced with a crisis situation, I can hear this voice very clearly…. I believe it is a gift God has given me. I need to be really silent to be able to hear the voice. I cannot tell when and where the voice will manifest itself. It comes when I am in a relaxed mood or when I am in the thick of a very busy schedule. It comes at any time of day, when I am walking, cooking, doing work at any place e.g. the office, the garden or even while I am in the CR. But it is only when I am alone, when I can get into a deep silence. I need to stay quiet and maintain an inner silence and just wait and the voice comes…. I cannot fully understand this phenomenon, my understanding of this is very limited. But I embrace it…

It is a tribute to the researcher’s careful handling of interviews that the many respondents felt safe to share their innermost selves, thoughts and emotions that are often entangled and so difficult to express. And because local language is at risk when translated, Karl wisely retains the respondent’s expressions in the dialect (both Bisayan and Tagalog) for us to get their texture and full flavour.

Which leads me to the next point of why this book is rare.

Karl has solidly built on previous scholarship and done for the Bisayan speaking communities what highly respected Filipino scholars Rey Ileto (Pasyon) and Vince Rafael have done for mostly Tagalog-speaking regions – disabused the audience of the persistent and colonial discourses that viewed the Filipino as subservient, passive, and fatalistic.

He has also done immense service to students of the culture of babaylans (the spiritual leaders, especially women, in pre-Hispanic times who engaged the communities in social transformation and resistance movements) by acquainting readers on past and current literature, tapping their imagination on what still needs to be done.

Remarkably, almost all scholarly work that pertains to Filipino spirituality and faith, culture and identity, are cited and if one needs to read only one book to know where else to look, The Masses are Messiah is the book to buy or borrow. Karl does a wonderful job of pulling together the existing strands of Filipino scholarship on these subjects and where they intersect.

Finally, this book is rare because it is an affirmation. It affirms what many of us have sensed all along but did not have evidence to show for it.

That a large part of being Filipino is being deeply spiritual – recognizing the power of the Transcendent and expressing this spirituality in love and compassion, a reaching out to an embattled nature and the afflicted masses. Here, the “masses” (as I understand it) refers not to a dogmatic notion of the triumvirate (working class, peasants, and urban poor) but has been significantly expanded to include all who have been marginalized in our society: those Others discriminated by virtue not only of social class, but also by their age, disability, tribal origins, gender, faith, color, sexual orientation, cultural affiliation.

Because Karl onstage is a performer and an articulate speaker, effortlessly expounding on any topic thrown at him, the book is friendly and accessible. It even takes the reader on quirky sidetrips (he includes the world champion boxer Manny Pacquiao’s devotional habits and love for the Nazarene in Quiapo Church, for example.)

And because as a participant observer, Karl is faithful to the research process, he wants to give us people’s reflections in a straightforward and undiluted form. This has its weak spots, of course, and sometimes the text repeats itself. But all great things have its flaws, and one can imagine these reflections taking a life of its own in another book and another creative project by Karl.

The important thing is that The Masses are Messiah is as striking and relevant to us ordinary Filipinos as to the church clerics, whom Karl presumably has in mind, as they try to live out a Gospel for a riven society. For Karl as a Redemptorist, the church is again at a crossroads, when memories of People Power and its failed promises are strongly evoked and embodied in its current president, P-noy Aquino, and when issues of social justice sound more urgent than ever.

Definitely, the book calls us out of our pessimism, fear, hopelessness. It asks us to rediscover the transformative ways of our ancestors of old, and listen to the impulses of a rich outward-oriented Filipino spirituality to which we are heir.

I learned a lot about the Filipino soul from this book. The analysis is sharp and the road to be taken is clear. It is up to us to make the journey together, working with the amazing material we were given while embracing the deep mystery that works within.

(Marilen Abesamis received her Masters in Women in Development at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague and used to work as workshop facilitator, researcher, and editor of the MSPCS publications in the late 1970s.)