The beauty of fasting

My late Lola Carmen was so religious she could have told me she was once a nun and I would have believed her. Well, almost, if not for the mischief and wicked sense of humor she was rarely without. Mirth and faith (in God) — she had that in extremely large doses and these two wonderful assets joyfully got her through the many hills and valleys of her life in one piece, with dignity intact. I remember her especially now because it is the Season of Lent, and most of what I know about God and religion, prayer and religious practices I learned from Mommy, who in turn learned it from her own mother, Lola Carmen.

Time spent in Martinez Compound in Cebu was all about sun and play with our cousins, titos and titas. A study in contrasts, Lola Carmen was very lenient about certain things — for instance, sleeping hours and sleeping time (everyone had the license to stay up as late as they wanted, and could sleep as long as they wanted, too), eating junk food and dessert (eat as much of whatever makes you happy). There were hardly any rules; we were allowed to play pranks on the unsuspecting house help, most of whom, because of their many years with us, already felt like family anyway.

I am pointing that out because, in hindsight, that fact alone probably explains why they were very tolerant and forgiving of the fact that we would successfully scare the wits out of them on any given day. My favorite would be when Tito Gabby and Tito Rico would dress up our cousin Johanna (the youngest of the cousins then) as a ghost so she could freak out whoever was new and/or had not been victimized just yet. It was an initiation rite of sorts, but all in the spirit of good fun. Of course while it was happening the poor victim hardly thought it was funny. The only sure sign that they had already moved on from the scare is when they were more than willing to be in on the next prank when a new victim came along.

There were probably only two things Lola would be very strict about: the first, boys and love affairs (she was a prude, for lack of a better word, and was very old-fashioned about everything that fell into that category) and secondly, prayer as part of our lifestyle, although not necessarily in that order. The first is many kilometric chapters all by itself so for now I will just tell you about the second one.

She wanted us to develop a friendship with God, the same way she did. It was normal for us to hear her singing and praying out loud when we would pass by her room. She would be in front of the altar, novenas and prayer books before her. Sometimes we would catch her seemingly lost in a different world, eyes closed, chin up, a beautiful smile on her lips. She made us all believe that if we just knew how to pray, if we made God our friend, we would be just fine. Prayer was all we needed to have a beautiful life.

The whole year round, each first Saturday of the month was sacred in her singular page of rules. We had to participate in what we always called “Aurora” — a dawn procession around the park of the compound where we had to recite fully the three mysteries of the rosary. The houseboy or any other strong male would be assigned to carry the image of the Virgin Mary. We would be a motley group — some tenants from the some of the houses dotting the park would join, a few neighbors living just outside the gates of the compound, families of Lola’s household staff, too. Attendance was hodgepodge in that sense; but members of the family absolutely had to go. No ifs, ands or buts. If any of us dared to miss it, either by choice or circumstance, he/she would have to quietly come to terms with Lola’s limpid disappointment. She would make it clearly known, over lunch that same day, that the devil himself had succeeded in snatching that person away from the grace of such a beautiful opportunity to offer love to Papa Jesus by way of His mother, Mama Mary. We all feared the thought, adults included.

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Through the years, we all learned to cope. It was the smart thing to do and it made everyone happy, it kept the peace. The most foolproof way would be for those who chose to stay out or up late the Friday night before the Aurora to simply forego sleep; anyway, Lola Carmen would never take it against anyone who would decide to spend the whole day sleeping. The sleepy person could get right into that after partaking of the delicious breakfast that was always served. Those who opted to still grab even just a few minutes of sleep before the dawn procession started did so only after everyone else around him/her had promised that, come what may, he/she would be notified once the Aurora was about to start, even if he/she had to be forcibly dragged from bed, roused with cold water, shaken and tickled on the toes.

Another “rule” of hers was to observe solemnity, especially during Good Friday. We were not allowed any physical activity, most especially before 3 p.m., the time when Jesus died on the cross. Doing anything before that was laa (prone to disaster/danger), as she always said. The whole week leading to Easter Sunday fasting and abstinence was to be strictly observed. On Good Friday we would have binignit (which is called guinataan here) and bread only, although after 3 p.m. we could eat a regular meal. Naughty Tita Liclic would choose to just eat bread the whole day but the catch was she would eat as much of it as she wanted. She would forever have beside her a brown bag of pandesal and I still have a vivid picture in my mind of her ruby-red nails dipping into the brown bag.

Many years later, Lola Carmen broke that rule. Even on the Fridays of the Lenten Season she would still eat meat, and we all surmised it was because she was not feeling so well already (she was diabetic) and very little outside the dessert she was no longer allowed could excite her taste buds. By then the Aurora was no longer held around the park down the hill but just around the garden and inside the big house. She could no longer walk long distances.

No one else followed her example, though; only Lola Carmen was allowed to break the Friday abstinence. Over the years, subconsciously inspired perhaps by what she had started, Tita Liclic, her daughter and our cousin Johanna, my sister Caren and I took it upon ourselves to stretch the sacrifice some more. We would give up eating meat for 40 days, and the next year sweets were even included in the fasting. It starts on Ash Wednesday and we resume friendship with bacon and lechon, ice cream and cookies on Easter Sunday. We still do it to this day. It does not exactly get easier by the year, although I must admit we have gotten more creative with our food choices as a matter of course.

This year, I have been satisfying my sweet cravings (and they happen after every meal) with fresh mango and Del Monte unsweetened pineapple juice when I am at home and when I am out, the biggest serving of chai latte from Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. I bought Martha Stewart’s cookie book and I spend my nights going through the pages, with the beautiful pictures and the yummy recipes, planning which cookie Juliana and I will bake first come Easter Sunday. Until then, the dreaming should be enough.

No, we don’t do it to feel good about ourselves. More and more, it is about giving back to God, no matter how little it all may seem in His eyes. What is 40 days of deprivation anyway, compared to a full year of His abiding grace and presence?

For now, and as I do around this time of every year, I lovingly remember Lola Carmen and thank her for all that she has taught me and my sister and cousins, about God and the beautiful life that is possible only through Him and with Him. Wherever she is and whatever she is doing, I hope she knows that none of what she told/taught us has ever gone to waste, and that we carry the lessons of her life like precious jewels around our necks.

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