Thursday, November 2, 2006

Limbo un-rocked

Today, Nov. 2, is All Souls Day, the day for our dear departed. But feast-loving Filipinos always do the feasting and remembering in advance as if there might be no more tomorrow. And so Nov. 1, All Saints Day, is what Filipinos consider araw ng mga patay.

We Filipinos have a way of advancing the calendar to suit our festive mood. Well, All Souls Day is the harbinger of the Christmas season. Tomorrow the Christmas season “officially” begins in these islands. It will last for two months.

But hold on awhile to the 11th month. We all have our early memories of this November feast that sends Filipino families in droves to their old hometowns. Celebrations in the provinces are so much more folksy and Pinoy, unlike those in Metro Manila where the feast has taken on an American macabre flavor that I find corny and TH.

On the solemn side of memory lane, some melodies refuse to die. I can still sing the first and last lines of the Latin Gregorian chant that the Benedictine sisters chanted during the Mass for the Dead in the beautiful neo-Romanesque chapel in school. “Dies irae, dies illa, solvet saeclum in favilla…” Translated as, “Nigher still, and still more nigh, Draws the day of prophecy…”

It ends with the soaring, “Lacrymosa dies illa, Qua resurget ex favilla…” “Full of tears and full of dread, is the day that wakes the dead…”

Oh, it soaked my soul and shook the ramparts of my young heart.

This being the season that makes us ponder life after death, there is now no reason to wonder where limbo is. The vacuous place has been erased from the afterlife. The Roman Catholic Church had created that place during the Middle Ages, last year the magisterium decided to delete it. (Will so-called plenary indulgences be the next to go?)

Blame the creation of the limbo hypothesis on the concept of the stamp of original sin and the outdated way that it was taught.

Last year Pope Benedict XVI abolished the concept of limbo, the place where, Catholics were made to believe, the souls of un-baptized children went. The year before he died, Pope John Paul II had created a commission to come up with a “more coherent and illuminating” doctrine on this neither-here-nor-there place in the Great Beyond.

Pope Benedict XVI (Cardinal Josep Ratzinger then) had presided over the first sessions before he became Pope. A report said that he is on record as saying that limbo has no place in modern Catholicism. In 1984 he was already quoted as saying that limbo had “never been a definitive truth of the faith”.

Limbo has been scrapped.

Limbo comes from the Latin word limbus that means edge or boundary. It was supposed to be the transit area for the souls of the people who lived good lives but died before the resurrection of Jesus two millennia ago. Only on the Last Judgment will they all move on to heaven. Neat arrangement.

Limbo was also supposed to be the permanent home of the babies who died in infancy (and the fetuses too) that didn’t get freed from original sin through baptism. There they were supposed to live in a state of natural happiness, whatever that means.

Here’s something I read: “In the Divine Comedy, Dante depicts limbo as the first circle of hell, located beyond the river of Acheron but before the judgment seat of Minos. The virtuous pagans of classical history and mythology inhabit a brightly lit and beautiful—but somber—castle which is seemingly a medievalized version of Elysium. (A) semi-infernal region, above limbo or the other side of Acheron, but inside the gate of Hell also exists—it is the vestibule of hell and houses so-called ‘neutralists’ or ‘opportunists’ who devoted their lives neither to good nor to evil…” A place for fence sitters and opportunists!

Now that limbo has been demolished, where did its occupants proceed? Or where were they all the time? In heaven, I presume.

Nowhere in the Bible is limbo mentioned, but it is supposed to be the “bosom of Abraham” which is twice mentioned in the Bible. This bosom is supposed to be a blissful state where the good and the righteous of the pre-Jesus era await their eternal reward. It is neither heaven nor hell, it is a transit lounge before entering paradise.

I read somewhere that the gospel story about the “good thief” who was crucified and died beside Jesus is a case that should tweak this limbo theory. Jesus promised him that they would be together “this day” in paradise. Right away?

Well the answer, some say, is in the punctuation mark, the comma. (The celebrated writer Pico Iyer has a great essay on the comma and what it can do.) Did Jesus say, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with me in paradise” or “Truly I say to you today, you shall be with me in paradise”? The latter means that the thief had to wait in limbo until the resurrection made it possible for him to enter the Pearly Gates.

This is grist for biblical nitpickers. I bring this up only to say it is good that limbo has been deleted from the file folders, it has been erased from the landscape of the afterlife. But the word limbo will stay in colloquial lingo. It means neither here nor there.

The limbo of the afterlife had nothing to do with the limbo dance that originated in the Caribbean. Limbo rock comes from Jamaican English limba or to bend (from the English limber). Limbo rock we all know. It uses a stick below which dancers must bend backwards as they proceed. Limbo dancing is believed to have started from cramped and smelly slave ships that brought Africans to the Americas.

That was not limbo, that was hell. But the real hell is where slave traders—the modern-day ones, specially--should go.