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The Gathering of Heroes

When we eat our potatoes at dinnertime, we don’t usually think about the farmer who supplied them, and the toil & effort involved, from planting to harvesting – I suppose because the process nowadays is largely mechanical. But when I eat either of the staple foods in the Philippines, rice or corn, I have a real sense of the arduous process, because here there is very little of the mechanical, and much more of the manual. Arduous and tiring to be sure, but at the same time satisfying and a burden shared – largely due to the Philippine equivalent of the Irish meitheal: in the Filipino language bayanihan (pron: bai-an-E-han): a group activity, at planting or harvest time, or indeed other occasions.

Allow me to describe two farming processes: of the two, corn is far easier to produce (and, in fact, needs far less neighbourly help than rice); in fact I played a minor part in such planting when here as I student in 1987 in a remote part of the country: one simply makes a hole in the soil with the heel of the foot, drops in three corn grains (in case one or even two might fail), then covers them with another deft heel movement, and proceeds along the line. Later on, the corn needs fertiliser and is eventually harvested. Nowadays the corn is taken to the mill at the nearest town, but you can occasionally find the millstone in the house and hear the tell-tale sound of the two stones being rotated, and the powdered corn falling into a container.

The production of rice, however, is another matter entirely. I think of the words of Psalm 126, “they go out full of tears, carrying seed for the sowing (actually, in the Philippines, not really tears, but more perspiration and mud up to the knees), they come back full of song, carrying their sheaves”.


Pounding rice to open the grains 

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The rice seedlings are nurtured in a separate area of the paddy field, then, when they are ready to be transplanted, a crowd arrives, and each takes his/her place – this is bayanihan. Each person takes a few bunches of the seedlings and begins to plant each one separately, a few inches apart, in a very soggy, muddy rice field. No wonder the school children here have a ditty that runs as follows: “planting rice is never fun, bent from morn till the set of sun”. You can hardly imagine the tiredness of being bent over continually in the tropical sun, planting one after another of the nearly endless rice stalks. After this is finished, the rice needs to be carefully monitored, so that the conditions alternate between dry and moist. Fertiliser is applied at exact times, then harvest time arrives. Harvesting the rice is done with sickle in hand (as in the parable of the wheat & the weeds), yet there still remain two stages before the rice is ready for cooking. First the grains have to be separated from the stalk; In the urban centres, the rice is taken to the mill; in the rural areas, sometimes a mobile thresher is available; in the remote areas, the job is done manually:  a sort of screen is set up (using any type of netting, like mosquito netting, so that the grains don’t disperse), then the rice stalks are beaten down on a hard surface, so as to dislodge the grains.

The final task is to separate the rice from its husk: again, in the towns this is done by machine; in the rural areas there still survives (very seldom) the method of putting the husks into a large mortar and two people in tandem pounding them with a pestle until the rice is separated. The mixture, husks and rice grains, still has to be “purified”. In the countryside the mixture is held in a tray of native fibres, and is carefully thrown upwards and the heavier rice grains return to the tray, the husks (chaff) are taken by the breeze. And only after all these intricate steps have been followed, from planting in the muddy field in the scorching heat of day to separating the rice from the chaff, is the rice ready to be boiled. All this would have been far more difficult without the presence of the bayanihan. Interestingly the word comes from “bayani” which means “hero” – so the bayanihan is a gathering of heroes: entirely apt.


The most picturesque and memorable example of bayanihan (and maybe unique to the Philippines) is when a house needs to be moved to a different location; maybe the original foundations became unstable or became damaged due to flooding. Whatever the reason, the “gathering of heroes” prepares to lift the entire house. The house will be entirely wood or bamboo, the roof will be either thatch or galvanized sheeting, but still quite a weight! The men, perhaps 20 or 25, plan carefully so that no group is over-burdened, therefore their coordination has to be precise. At the signal, they lift the house and walk in coordinated movement, not without some funny comments to offset the burden. It really is an amazing sight.

During my missions I have an experience of bayanihan called “The Living Rosary”. I had never heard of it until I arrived in the country; it is the essence of simplicity, but confers many benefits: it involves 70 adults forming the “living rosary”, the youth dramatizing each mystery and we finish with a light meal. The Living Rosary simply means that a different person represents each bead of the rosary, plus the crucifix at the beginning (five people), and the introductory prayers., hence the total of 70. Even the preparation involves quite a group: 70 candles are glued individually onto a cardboard base the size of a saucer, then different coloured plastic paper, stapled to the base, surrounds the candle. And of course the food has to be prepared beforehand, then distributed after the event.

We always celebrate the Joyful mysteries as they are the easiest to dramatize. We gather in an open space and the candles are distributed to pre-arranged groups (e.g., members of a townland, an extended family, and so forth), and they wait their turn, as we proceed decade by decade. We follow the usual structure of the rosary, so the first 10 people take their places and light their candles while someone recites the Creed and the other introductory prayers. They then place their candles on the ground, retire to the side, look for a seat, and we proceed to the first mystery. The routine is the same for each decade: the youth present a simple drama, the 12 volunteers come to the microphone, say their individual piece (Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory be); at the end of the mystery they hold their 12 candles aloft while we sing a Marian hymn, then they too place their candles on the ground and retire for the moment. At the end of the 5th mystery, I invite all to return to the centre, regain their candles (70) and hold them all aloft while the Hail Holy Queen is recited, a truly beautiful, mesmerizing sight in the gathering Philippine dusk.


On occasion, I have tried to connect the rosary with contemporary events, and to achieve this I either interview a couple or family for a short interview, or somebody will give a brief testimony, depending on the particular decade of the rosary: so to Mary’s agitation at the angel’s message (Annunciation) I look for some current, local example of any kind of anxiety. For the Visitation, some example of bringing comfort and relief to somebody in distress. For the third mystery (Nativity), we celebrate the joy of new life; for the fourth (Presentation) we focus on hardships that people have endured, as Simeon predicted suffering for Mary; and for the fifth (the Finding of Jesus in the temple), the consolation we can find in the face of worry and anguish.

And, of course, we have our highlights, the most memorable of which is the fourth mystery, the presentation in the temple. Where possible, I insist on a “live” baby Jesus (gender doesn’t matter as the infant has a nappy!) and so during the dramatic enactment of this decade the youth playing the role of Simeon has to be entirely dependable and responsible. Following the gospel script, as Mary & Joseph approach, Simeon takes the babe in his arms and utters a prediction and a blessing. So Simeon is there on the stage and the couple approach; then he takes the infant in his arms! Gasps from the crowd; the concerned mother looks on somewhat aghast, a mixture of maternal pride and a nagging sense that things could go horribly wrong! But nothing goes wrong: Simeon has been told to hold the baby aloft and he duly does. More gasps (will he let the babe slip from his arms?), but then he returns the baby safely to Mary’s arms, and all ends well. It’s a talking point in the village for days!

Taking corn to the mill; the animal is called a carabao (water buffalo)

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