By faith alone: The rub and rituals of natural healing
(First of two parts)
Six out of 10 Filipinos die without ever being attended to by a physician, a public health officer, or any other medical professional, according to 2016 data from the Philippine Statistics Authority.
But for many people, including the folks in my hometown of Lian in Batangas, healing is not the monopoly of medical practitioners.
The sun is setting when I, along with my mother, my aunt, and her friend, enter the house of “Grace,” one among the many manggagamot (healers) in Lian.
Sitting by the altar and scribbling on onionskin, she greets us—her focus unbroken—in a piping voice so high-pitched it is almost like the whistling of a tea kettle.
I sit and watch as someone approaches her and complains about pain in her left breast.
Grace checks the patient’s pulse and administers hilot, or massage on the aching body part. Then, holding a pen between her ring and middle finger, she scribbles on onionskin, dips the paper in oil and plasters it on the patient’s breast.
“This is the medicine,” she says in Filipino, indicating the scribbles on the paper.
Shortly I tell her I have come for an interview. Her initial reluctance soon gives way to agreement, but she warns that her voice will not register on the recorder. If I want to record her story, she offers, she can “get out of the body” so I can talk to its owner.
Before I can reply, Grace rises from her chair and, as though holding an invisible rope, puts both her fists near her chest, one atop the other, and makes a pulling gesture. Then, weakly, she sits on the chair.
She speaks seconds later, her voice in a notably lower pitch, softly asking what has happened.
I am confronted with the incredulity that the person I was talking to earlier is possibly not the same middle-aged woman I am now looking at.
But there’s also this: The others present, except for my mother and my aunt, appear nonchalant, as though quite used to what has just transpired.
“She knows if you are only here to test whether her ability to heal is real or not,” someone tells me. “She knows what she is doing.”
Despite my astonishment, I am with kindred spirits. I grew up in a family that subscribes to and practices what can be called natural healing.
My late grandfather was known to banish pain from burns or a decaying tooth by whispering Latin incantations. My grandmother was sought to heal ailments like nausea caused by bati (an unsolicited greeting, compliment or ill wish) through buga (forceful spit) of masticated ginger.
Both, however, have stopped their “practice.”
When I was in high school, a natural healer helped me get rid of red spots that covered my legs. The spots suddenly appeared without pain or other symptoms, and my family and I did not know what they were, even after consulting with doctors and going through blood tests.
Until my mother and I went to a healer in Cavite. Like Grace, the healer checked my pulse, administered hilot on my lower abdomen, and gave me a list of plant-based concoctions to drink. Three days later, the spots were gone.
I learn from Grace that she was a sickly child. In college, she was a near-cripple, suffering from a heart disease and one day afflicted with a headache so terrible she was pounding her head on the hospital wall in an attempt to ease the pain.
Her doctor advised her parents to take her to an albularyo (faith healer), who, after examining Grace, told them that a dwarf and a fairy both wanted to enter her body and heal people through her.
Bright like the sun
Grace says she acquiesced but that it was she herself who suffered the most, always with her life in danger.
Here is the rest of her story, told in Filipino: When she banished the creatures from her body, she was rendered comatose. Her husband, now deceased, prayed for the creatures to come back and heal her, but this time it was Our Lady of Lourdes—“Mama Lourdes”—who came.
“It was Mama Lourdes who possessed me. I saw her figure appear—it was bright like the sun. I was in a coma then, but my family said I was able to get on my feet,” she says, adding:
“Mama Lourdes asked me if I could resume healing, but this time, it will be under her guidance and that of St. John the Baptist (Lian’s patron saint).”
Grace has since been helping sick people get better. But she says she has no recollection of these sessions and in fact has never learned how to heal.
“Faith healing is something that has been done by many religious and spiritual groups based on the idea that there’s a healing power that can effect cure the same way Jesus healed people in Galilee and in the Holy Land. It’s a long tradition in different cultures of people looking at mystical or supernatural powers to effect healing,” says Dr. Gideon Lasco, a medical anthropologist and a professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman.
But independent of whether faith healing can actually cure disease, it has a “social efficacy,” says Lasco, who also writes a weekly column in Inquirer Opinion.
“If people are already believing in a particular supernatural power, then the idea of faith healing can make them feel good,” he says.
Faith healing can be analogous to the “placebo effect” in the sense that it makes people feel that “help is on the way” and is measurable in their belief that they are “taking something they believe will work,” according to Lasco.
A placebo is “anything that seems to be a ‘real’ medical treatment, but isn’t,” according to WebMD. Responses to it are known as the placebo effect.
But in a placebo effect, people believe there’s a treatment in the form of taking a physical substance, while in faith healing, it is the very thought that healing is coming that constitutes the outcome, Lasco points out.
Moreover, he says, ritualism in faith healing may “have very powerful effects on the human mind and body” as it provides patients a “multisensory experience” through the use of incense, candles, and music and chants.
Then it can also be “very tactile” through the use of massage, he says.
Lasco says the dissatisfaction in the biomedical system, which can be “too expensive,” and the “distrust in western medicine” can also lead to Filipinos’ belief in faith or natural healing.
Regardless, he says, a people’s belief in faith healing should be respected, but there should also be education and information on the choice of treatment and the value of early consultation.
(To be concluded)
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