He cradled his son with his right arm, while he wrapped his left fist around a sledgehammer. The grilles surrounding them were full of padlocks with names written on them.
A spotlight focused on the father and son, their figures unnoticed by the passing throng.
The sky was properly blanketed, that not even a single star could be seen. The moon sailed the night sky alone.
Night hit Baclaran while people continued to walk through an abyss of cheap products sold outside the church in flimsy stalls. You can see those stalls hawking masks, belts, fruit, flowers, and every possible thing, imaginable and unimaginable.
I am not a Catholic, so going to church is not part of my routine. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in God. The church I was pertaining to refers to the structures with curved images of saints and religious figures, like this one I am looking at now. I was uncertain of my reason for coming out here tonight, but I followed a feeling that there was a force calling me to visit this house of worship.
The smell of candles and flowers welcomed me at the gate. There was also a beggar there, an old lady. I looked at her as I entered this sacred place. She reminded me of my grandmother, who still works though she’s already retired. I remember asking her one time why she’s still working. Her answer: “I don’t want to just stay home and wait for the twilight of life.” Those words hit me hard. I didn’t know if she was just answering my question, or if she was already contemplating her death.
There was around 100 meters or so of distance between the gate and the church itself, where mass is celebrated. Something caught my attention on the right, a garden, but it looked bizarre to me. So, I approached it to see what there was in that patch of plants.
It was a bit dark in the garden, despite the lights in the area. I walked around the place and noticed that there were padlocks. Every possible space was occupied by padlocks. Names were written on them, like that promise binding a couple together in known tourist areas for couples in a relationship.
A man wearing a white polo, black pants, black shoes, and an ID approached me. His name was Kuya Arnold, one of the security guards of the church. He asked me why I was there, explaining that they strictly impose a rule that people are not allowed to loiter in the church garden at night. He said this rule was made is to prevent untoward incidents in the dark there.
I told Kuya Arnold I was just taking photos. He smiled and said: “Okay, sir! Just take photos, but don’t stay too long here because the other guard might see you.” I agreed with a nod.
Knowing that he worked for that church, I asked him about the padlocks. “You know, sir. Those are called love locks,” Kuya Arnold said. “Normally, people leave those here to symbolize promises to their loved ones or better halves. The locks used to be placed in the wishing well beside the church, but after that accumulated so many, people started to put the locks here. Now, most of the grilles here are covered in padlocks.”
“Look at that one, sir!” He was pointing in the direction of the statue of the man with a sledgehammer in his hand. We walked toward it, then continued: “The grilles around here, sir, if you will see, have no space for new padlocks. People got creative enough to put their locks in any space that would fit the padlocks here in the garden. Even here, in front of the sculpture.”
The sculpture seemed incongruous to the place, so I asked Kuya Arnold about it, and his response was: “I do not know much about this statue, sir, but it is still new. Do you remember tokhang, sir? That project of the government where the police were supposed to knock on the doors of suspected drug users to ask them to surrender so they can have a new life, but instead resulted in a bloody drug war? This sculpture was placed here in memory of those people who were killed because of the war on drugs. It was patterned on that famous La Pieta.”
Those words gave me goosebumps. Those dead bodies shown in the daily news replayed in my mind, especially the photos of Kian Delos Santos, a 17-year old student who had become a victim of Oplan Tokhang. I wondered how many more children would be sacrificed to attain the political promises of this administration, especially lately, after that proposal to lower the age of criminal liability hit the news.
Kuya Arnold left me after we reached the middle of the garden. He said he would need to check and see if there were people wandering in the garden. I thanked him for the information and he replied with a smile.
As I walked around the garden, I saw more padlocks. Some of them were already rusty. Time might not have been too kind on those symbols of love. I even pondered whether I would leave a padlock here someday if were to bring my special someone in this place. Only time would provide the answer to my question.
I continued walking to the votive candle area, where people lit candles as they prayed for their intentions. From a distance, I saw people putting all their trust in God as they lit a candle and made their prayers in silence. How many of them would be praying for loved ones, careers, dreams, aspirations, desires, and sentiments they hoped would be answered as the fire consumes the wax?
I looked for the entrance to the candle lighting area and found that it was inside the church itself. If one wishes to enter, he would need to pass the main entrance, walk through the nave, and turn to the left where a relic of St. Rita stood. Few steps from there, one would feel the heat of the candles burning, ostensibly sending messages to The One Above.
At the entrance to the votive candle area, I saw scattered rose petals on the floor. I picked one up and brought it to my nose: It was still fresh, and reminded me of the flowers that bloom in the province.
I took one candle and silently wrestled with myself whether I’d light it or not. This is not how I pray. I don’t practice any traditional way of praying, if there is such a thing. If I were praying the traditional way—by whatever tradition—I am not aware of doing it.
Many people were in the room. I even saw a woman who looked familiar to me, but I did not bother to take a closer look. I went straight to the last row of the lit candles, borrowed a flame from on and used it to light the candle I held. That done, I placed my candle along with the others.
Staring blankly at the candle I’d set down, I did not know what to do next. Perhaps pray? So I prayed. After some time, I decided to leave.
While walking, that familiar woman I’d seen was right in front of me. She was walking while texting, so her pace was slower than usual. I was about to overtake her from the left, but maybe because she was so engrossed with her phone, she did not notice that she was not walking straight anymore. So, we bumped into each other.
I was right. I knew who she was: Our neighbor in the province who exhibits her paintings in town whenever there’s a fiesta. We caught each other staring on our faces, trying to recall her name: “Rosario.” G