Religion spreads itself over many areas. Up to now, even as the progress of science and technology rapidly continues, religion remains to be sensed in the background of culture, belief, and tradition. Undeniably, religion has also influenced current literary trends.

The intricate relationship between religion and other areas of human life inspired the University Week Forum “Religion and Literature” held last Jan. 30 at the UST Center for Creative Writing and Studies (UST-CCWS).

Catholicism and Catholic writing

In the first talk, UST-CCWS senior associate Dr. Cirilo Bautista noted that Catholicism was one of the most popular subjects in universities even before the ‘60s. Catholic literature was offered as a course in most schools, unlike today. According to Bautista, globalization might have brought this turmoil.

“We write about practically everything except religion; by religion I mean the formal structure of worship that we know that comes under the names of Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, and so on. I haven’t heard of a Filipino poet claim that he is a Catholic poet, or a Catholic novelist, or a Catholic dramatist¯ as if it were some kind of a negative characteristic,” he said.

It may also be that literature has become godless, or else man-centered, according to Bautista. He said that with several people writing about man’s independence and abilities, it appears that man has attained “some kind of transcendent quality to be now himself¯ or herself¯ god.”

Bautista said that being Catholic and Thomasian, he had always considered himself a Catholic writer. But he also stressed that it is very difficult to be a Catholic writer in a world that is no longer Catholic, or no longer religious.

“Or perhaps it is simply that all writers from UST, La Salle and Ateneo are really Catholic writers, but they only take it for granted, and that ultimately all the Catholicism that we have learned in school and at home permeates our writing, only we are unaware of it,” he said.

Modern Catholics

Bautista said Roman Catholicism is a wonderful and contradictory religion. He added that it is wonderful because it is contradictory, and its appeal is that of the unattainable which can be attained.

Yet those under this religion have become engrossed with materialism that they may set aside God.

“Devotion flows out the window when riches or misfortune walks in through the door¯ that is the sad reality in this gustatory world,” he said.

He added that our brand of Catholicism searches for a painless way to get through ordeals, preferring an obstacle that requires the least effort.

“A Christless Catholicism is a crucifixion without a cross. It is no wonder that our faith is a form of extreme faithlessness, substituting mystification for mystery, and removing all vestiges of wonder from our worship,” he said.

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For Bautista, the modern Catholic has difficulty in acquiring faith. “To be faithful to a god who has no trade franchise and does not perform on MTV is abhorrent to the modern mind which accepts only empirical evidences,” Bautista said.

“Since the light of faith is not the light of reason, but the light outside reason, we are repulsed by its reality.”

Have faith

“True writers do not avoid the theological or the moral aspect of life,” Bautista said. “They assert the transformative power of literature¯ its ability to change human attitudes towards things in the universe¯ by refracting and reflecting in their fiction and poetry the inevitability of suffering and grace. Dying in God through dying in literature is a sufficient metaphor for the infusion of this power into art.”

Bautista also mentioned that if martyrdom is dying for the sake of others, devotion is living for the sake of others, thus a charitable way of living.

Bautista cited the works of Miguel Cervantes de Saavedra, William Butler Yeats, Francis Thompson, G.K. Chesterton, Graham Greene, Nick Joaquin, and Gregorio C. Brillantes, to fall under this.

“As Graham Greene says, there is always the counterpoint of those who were good servants of Christ, the ordinary people, who, even without priests continued their faith and devotion. Such is what is demanded of us by Catholicism, and such is one of the things that make that kind of devotion very difficult,” Bautista said.

Bautista also added that a good Catholic writer does not show his leanings in his writing. “You are an artist, then you should try to do something with the Catholicism that does not impede the art, the technique, the choice of words, diction, and the beauty that you want to give your story.”

He explained that one must forget there is such a thing as Catholicism, and enjoy the piece as a work of art.

“It’s never a conscious manner of putting it there and showing ‘Hey, this is a Catholic story, better take note of that.’ No. There are good writers; you never see that kind of imposition of the religion into the work.”

Bautista also stated St. Francis de Sales’ belief on faith: that it must be an active component of a Catholic’s life; it must be the engine to reconcile his physical world with all its sensible allurements and his spiritual world with all its mysteries.

“The joy we get from the grace of faith enables us to see the true meaning of living in this modern, materialistic world. And, if we are writers, this tempering grace must reflect its light in the way we construct and verbalize our fictive universe. We cannot do anything less.”

Creative writer vs. theologian

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Meanwhile, Danilo Reyes, poet and professor of the Ateneo Filipino Department, stated that religious literature is not the illustration of dogma. According to him, it is unfair for the writer if, for example, an anthologist will attempt to constitute the Canon of religious literature from selected pieces that more or less illustrate the dogma of the Catholic Church.

“If we are looking for dogma, it is the Apostle’s Creed which stands as the perfect document expressing all that we believe in. The writer is not a theologian; it is unfair to demand that the creative writer assume the role of the theologian.”

His second point focused on religious literature as “the perspective and measured depiction of human experience, particularly in the belief of some unseen force that inspires people to dedicate themselves to a selfless undertaking and to an insightful regard for the world.”

“When we focus on the creative writer in relation to religious writing, the perception conveyed by the writer is primarily an aesthetic perception,” Reyes said. He also added that the experience of beauty is the awareness of “agape.”

“Agape is God’s love, and this eloquent awareness of our perception of God’s love allows us to see God recreating the world constantly. When we talk about the beautiful in relation to religious writing, we find that it is necessarily limited and even all the more deepened by the perception of both agape and faith,” he said.

He also mentioned the idea of telos. Because the awareness which we experience in religious writing is a teleological awareness, we become conscious and we begin to assert our origin, he added.

“We also accept our end and find joy in it. There is a certain grief that permeates the coming to terms with death; however, there is also joy and acceptance in the fact that that is not quite the end, that there is the indestructible presence of the soul,” Reyes added.

Dialogue

Further, Reyes said that in religious literature, faith engages a dialogue with art.

“We would like to believe that writing is also an experience of God’s love. Therefore, writing takes on a deeper significance, a figural importance before the writer, so that writing is perceived as an act of poesis,” he said. By this, the writer participates in the act of creation, Reyes added.

He also added that in the awareness of writing as poesis, the artist recognizes the inescapable majesty of God.

“In the act of writing, it is not only the labor, the participation in the ongoing work of creation that the writer realizes. He also comes to terms with a certain measure of humility that says after everything has been expressed, there is still much that has been left unexpressed,” he said.

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Reyes recited the lines of the church song Tanging Yaman, which is based on the Psalms, to illustrate his point: “Ikaw ang aking tanging yaman/ Na di lubusang masumpungan/ Ang nilikha mong kariktan/ Sulyap ng iyong kagandahan.”

“The word sulyap is very important. Our sense of admiration for the beauty and majesty of creation is a product but of the glance of God. He did not even have to look deep and long, because if he were to do so we would be overwhelmed by that majesty.”

Theology of hope

For Reyes, faith that seeks understanding probes the realm of the verbal cuts. He pointed out that encounters with the Divine are affirmed by everyday things. Writers are more concerned with practical theology, centered on the contemplation of the second person of the Trinity—Christ, as the word made flesh, he added.

Reyes traced this fascination for the Divinity with the fact that it has gained a human face. God became man and lived among us.

“The theology that comes out of religious literature is a theology of hope as well, one that entertains the possibility of being holy in the world,” Reyes said.

He also believed that the secular access to religious experience lends writers the forms by which the covenant with the Divine gains artistic shape and substance¯prayer, an intimate dialogue with God, songs where we find a harmonic translation of our feelings, and the Bible, which is a central document of our faith.

According to Reyes, in the Bible we find parables and their allegorical significance.

One of the important denotations of the word “Catholic” does not only constitute orthodoxy, but universality.

Value of reading

Finally, Reyes stressed that religious literature is not only a writing strategy, but also a reading strategy.

“Reading is a lonely activity. We and we alone can fulfill the joy of reading for ourselves. That is why there are people who weep after reading a wonderful book, because the loneliness is recognized and finally confronted with a sense of reward. So if we believe that in all things it is possible to glorify God, we say that reading also participates in the quest to discover God’s love,” he said.

Reyes also believed that it is possible to utilize certain tenets of our religion, education, and training in the faith to engage in the mission of molding writers who want to be in contact with the world.

“It is a methodology that will perhaps be less politicized, less ideologically assertive in its orientation, but just as valid because in the end it comes to a reckoning of God’s love and infinite mercy as present even in the humble work of writing,” he ended.

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