Out on a Limb

Today I’m ill, low chills and tired. And its one of those days when things are breaking down and work is hard to get done. No printer toner, computer glitches galore, and my own low biorhythms. A great sense of resistance has seemed to thwart my plans for the day to be productive. Sometimes, when I’m being thwarted, I explore if maybe I’m meant to  wander in a different direction. So, I find myself time traveling, wondering about those early women in the Philippines before it was ever called the Philippines, home of my ancestors…

Back in the day, and by this I mean of course my obsession with the sixteenth century, there were Filipinas who were found resting on the limbs of trees, on thick branches of the balete trees. These trees were massive, roots stuck in the ground at estuaries, where the salt sea meets freshwater and boughs stretched forward in complicated intertwinings as the tree reached for sunlight. These women were found overcome by visions. They were in the process of being called to serve as healers of their communities; they had undergone trials in the spirit world and, if they survived, they had the ability to go back and forth between the mundane world and the realms beyond to guide their people. In various Philippine dialects, these women were called babaylanes, bailanes. But my favorite term for them is Visayan: Daitan, the Befriended Ones.

If you, like me, were raised in a largely Judeo-Christian environment, you might find indigenous spirituality shocking at first. So we’ll have to peel back the layers of time, take off the Western lenses through which we see things, and try and uncover, accept an older kind of spirituality. Two things amaze me about my ancestors’ indigenous Philippine religions back in the day: * The leaders were women. * And living nature figured prominently in their rituals and ceremonies.

Certain trees were revered as dwellings of gods. You did not simply chop a tree down and sell it for lumber. There were forest spirits from whom they asked permission and gave offerings, special times of harvest and rest. Nature provided herbs for healing. The balete trees which cradled the priestesses were part of their rite of passage in becoming healers and, from the time they were found having visions in their boughs, the daitan had a special relationship with their particular tree (but they did not “own” the tree as property).

Recently, in my small corner of Chicagoland, I’ve noticed that congregations have been finding ways to incorporate nature into their prayer life. One Jewish synagogue holds seasonal prayers in the prairies. There are Buddhist mindful meditation walks. Some Christian-based churches do forest and river clean-ups taking up stewardship of the Earth as another way to practice their faith. Certain relatives of my own generation, who are jaded by their experiences within organized religion, talk to me about their awe of Nature (with a capital N), of being swept up by its tides and swells or amazed at the beautiful mechanics and physics and improbability of life on this planet. Democrat or Republican, Libertarian or Green Party, my friends of all political persuasions seem to really find something in nature to connect with.

And so, today, in my thwarted state, I’m wondering about the connection between nature and spirituality. When the forests and the rivers are thought to be the home of the gods and goddesses, why would we mistreat such sacred places? If the trees and animals are part of the same Cosmos, if we manifest the same mysticism as other sentient Beings, then it is a joy and delight to take care of them.

We people, we two-legged seem to have a really hard time finding common-ground. And yet perhaps the ancient Filipina babaylanes knew the answers all along — our common-ground is literal. It is the Earth.

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