TARLAC CITY: Seventy-seven year old Hipolito Cabrera, of barangay Central here, is busy fixing his burilyo a few days before he takes to the road and under the scorching heat of the sun, perform a Lenten ritual he started six decades ago.
A burilyo is a bunch of bamboo sticks tied to a rope that flagellants use to lash their back along incur with the constant pounding of a panabad, a wooden pad encrusted with broken glass shards.
Cabrera, known as Apung Pol, took on this panata or vow as a teenager when he was always taken ill for reasons he couldn’t fathom. His family was poor and they didn’t have the luxury of seeing doctors or specialists who could tell them what was wrong. He simply had the suspicion that he was frail and sickly because he didn’t perspire at all no matter how hot the days were in summer.
At 17, he decided it was time to do something in the way he knew how and believed in – penitensiya or to make penance especially during the Holy Week when most folks believed that their supplication will be granted if they take on a vow at Lent.
He related, “From the time I started my panata, sweat oozed out of every pore. I hardly felt the sting of my wounds even as I kept hitting my back with the burilyo. I did not feel any pain and in spite of the heat, felt relief each time and my body felt so strong, just like a machine that undergoes a tune up.”
Today, 60 years after Apung Pol took on his penitensiya, he has not thought of putting down his burilyo. Sometimes, he admits that retirement has crossed his mind but something stops him – he hasn’t found someone to whom he can hand over his burilyo.
He has two sons: Nelson, who shows no signs of following in his footsteps and Bernan, who has a personality disorder.
“I am still looking for somebody who would continue my vow. I don’t see my sons doing it and most of the youth today are not interested in a tradition like this,” he said in the vernacular.
There are, however, young men who would do penitence but Apung Pol says the difference lies in the purpose.
“Unlike us old people who do it with our heart, penitents today do it to boast or trip lang nila. They are ruining the essence of the tradition.” He noted, for example, that for him and his comtemporaries, covering the face while flagellating themselves is part of the sacredness of the ritual. In recent years, younger people have no qualms about showing their faces, baring their identity. The focus of the sacrifice is lost, he added.
Asked what has sustained his vow year after year, Apung Pol cited three reasons: a personal need, a son’s debt of gratitude to his parents, and a father’s love for his son.
As a young man, Pol wanted to pay back his parents by including them in his prayers as he takes up his burilyo every lenten season – that they live longer and enjoy good health always. He happily recalled that both his parents lived long enough and enjoyed many of life’s gifts.
“I knew they died happy and without a heavy burden in life. That alone, I suppose, was an answer to my prayers for them,” he said.
He also talked about Bernan who was born with a mental disorder which Apung Pol thought was the greatest trial he had to face.
Now that he is in his twilight years, Apung Pol remains strong and even If he hasn’t found anyone to hand over his burilyo and continue his vow, he keeps hope alive for the healing of his son.
“Giving up is not an option for me. I’ve been blessed and my prayers have been answered since I started this panata and I know the Almighty has His own way of putting things in their proper places,” he said.
And even if he dies without seeing Bernan cured, Apung Pol believes that his burilyo, which will one day be taken up by another penitent, will keep hope alive and the power of prayer will be felt by the one who takes up the vow.