A few weeks ago I embarked on a road trip to a holy mountain. I drove south into the lush forested mountains of Calabarzon, not on a pilgrimage so much as seeking deliverance from the insanity of Manila. I'd read about the “cults” of Mount Banahaw - rural communities who believe that Jose Rizal, the unofficial Filipino national hero, was the reincarnation of Christ, the second son of God.The Philippines is a deeply religious country, unique in Asia for having a largely Catholic population thanks to the Spanish conquest which lasted nearly 400 years. But, as often happens where mountainous often impassable terrain can isolate communities, a new religion had formed and the “Rizalistas” had risen.
Before understanding their beliefs you need to understand the man they revere as a divine being. Jose Rizal was an opthlamologist by trade but wrote a number of books, poems and essays in the late 19th Century, which came at a critical time. The young population was restless and Rizal's words acted as a call to arms for Filipinos to rise up against their Spanish colonisers. A sort of accidental hero, Rizal took no “active” role in the battle for independence itself (and it's debatable whether he intended for his writing to have the effect that it did). But his words were the catalyst the revolution needed and he died a martyr for the cause when he was executed by the Spanish for his “crimes of rebellion”. There's no denying Rizal is extremely well loved by modern Filipinos – his name is found everywhere from roads to buildings and public parks. The progression from man to God is a surprising one, but the esteem in which he is held does lend him a sort of Godly quality.
Mount Banahaw isn't a stranger to otherworldly forces either. Holy “healing” water is said to run through its rivers and caves and pilgrims make the journey here year round, especially during Holy Week, to bathe in its curative waters. The mysticism turned up to 11 when I finally arrived at the impressive Suprema de la Iglesia del Ciudad Mistica de Dios (known as Ciudad Mistica).The church has a Spanish air about it, white and imposing, built in a compound behind iron gates adorned with flags from all over the World, topped by two swords with flames carved into stone on each side.
The church was empty save for a huge shrine against the back wall, complete with wings on either side and adorned with flowers. An all seeing “evil eye” stood high above a wooden cross under which three miniature coffins were placed. To one side a large embroidery had been hung depicting a page of holy scripture I couldn't read, and on the opposite side another of the Catholic symbol of the Sacred Heart. But perhaps most telling was an image depicting Christ in Heaven beaming a direct line of power into the heart of a male figure below. I assume this represented Jose Rizal though I couldn't be sure. A flag hung along one wall featuring a whole host of divine figures from Moses to Christ and two Filipino women wearing a crown with a cross upon their heads. Jose Rizal appears amongst them all.
I was curious about the two women on the flag. I learned that the church and this particular group of Rizalistas (there are many all over Luzon) was founded by a woman named Maria Bernarda Balitaan back in 1873. Balitaan was known for her “miraculous” birth and for performing near miracles from a very young age, and it was believed she was sent by Jesus to prepare for his second coming.
Since her death the group has always been led by women and today Isabel Suarez holds the position, known as the Suprema. At age 22, Isabel was chosen for the job. She initially resisted and, while still pursing her dream of becoming a doctor in Manila, was struck down with a mysterious illness for 20 days. Her father told her to travel to the mountain, so she did and immediately began to recover - so she took that as a big, glaring sign. The Suprema is responsible for mediating when needed in local conflicts and leads followers in prayer, reading lessons from letters written by the original Suprema. The main teachings are that followers should lead moral, good lives and do their best to live peacefully within their communities and families. That, as far as I could tell, was mostly it - which I found refreshingly simple and useful as far as religions go.
That's not to say that all Rizalista movements are as relaxed as this. They resent the term but have been referred to as “cults” due to leaders of certain sects proclaiming that they themselves are divine beings, reincarnations of Rizal or the Virgin Mary on earth. They claim that the apocalypse will come to those who don't believe and salvation can only come to those who join them, and that one day Rizal will return to save the Rizalistas from oppression and violence.
But my, albeit very brief, visit with the Rizalistas felt far from cultish. I wandered around the large, quiet compound which housed possibly a couple of hundred people and was struck by how peaceful it was surrounded by forest high on the mountain. Prayers are held five times a day and I mostly saw women and children working and playing. It was a fascinating insight into how folk religions can come about from an amalgamation of colonising forces and traditional belief systems.
If you're less into religious cults and more into hiking, Mount Banahaw is a great spot for that too. After my visit to the Rizalistas I spent a few nights hiking the lower areas of the mountain (most of the mountain is off limits due to damage caused by too many visitors in the past). There are rivers and caves to explore and plenty of tiny shrines within the forest, lit by candles with Virgin Mary figurines to remind you of the mountain's holy power.
I didn't notice any of Jose Rizal, but maybe I was looking in the wrong places.