rudy v.

(I gave a talk last Sunday (Aug. 15) in San Carlos Seminary College as part of the Special Lecture Series on Literature in celebration of Year of Madrid, on the occasion of the 70th birthday of Renato E. Madrid. Excerpts are published here in three parts–LPN)

This whole idea of paying tribute to an artist who is still very much alive may actually be a joke in itself, an exercise in black humor only priests and seminarians are capable of doing.

Outside, we don’t honor the living. We honor the dead. We extol the virtues of great men and women who are no longer around to enjoy the attention. Paying tribute to somebody who still has plenty of air to breathe is sending the message that we cannot wait to see him go. And that person will have his revenge: he will outlive us all.

But this is not outside. This is inside. This is the seminary, where young men are trained to laugh at themselves as a matter of survival, where humor can sometimes be the only way to make sense of one’s insane spiritual itinerary. That’s why if there’s one person who wouldn’t mind being made the butt of this kind of joke, it is the man whose work we are celebrating tonight, Msgr. Rudy Villanueva, a.k.a. Renato Madrid.  Am I right or am I right?

“Am I right or am I right” is one expression disciples of Fr. Rudy remember most about him. Rightly so, because it sums up his brand of humor. Because when the man asks us if he’s right or if he’s right, he is not actually giving us a choice, is he? And yet he is not trying to be funny. Instead, he’s making fun of our inability to argue with him. That’s the joke. And while he is enjoying the moment, we suppress an uncomfortable laughter because we know we are laughing at ourselves.

That’s why I can relate to the haciendero in “Southern Harvest,” one of the earliest short stories of Renato Madrid. Consumed with hatred for God after the death of his wife, the haciendero allows a missionary priest into his hacienda. But the haciendero makes sure the priest fails by prohibiting his obreros from attending his masses. The haciendero intends to reduce the priest and the mission and the whole idea of God into one big joke.

The haciendero snarls at the priest: “Don’t you understand? The greatest tribute I can give Him is hate! I honor Him with it! You’d do well to hate Him too, you would! And you are on His side! You are for Him and you suffer! And what does He do? Tell me, what does He do? He does nothing! He just loves it, watching you suffer, as He did me!”

Then one night, the haciendero delivered his coup de grace: He sent his young mistress to the priest’s room. There was noise of struggle inside the room, of laughing, of furniture run into. Then the priest was seen running down the stairs toward the door, followed by the woman. Then the light of the doorway shone full upon her. She had no clothes on.

In the context of seminary formation and the spread of faith, there’s something comical about priests being chased by naked women, especially by one as young and sinful as the haciendero’s mistress.

Struggling with my own doubts about my faith the first time I read the story, I cheered for the haciendero and found the spectacle of naked women running after terrified priests a delightful sight to behold, only to find out deep into the story, and much later in life, that I was laughing at myself. Renato Madrid pulled a fast one on me.

When humor floats in the realm of metaphysical experience, like the scene I mentioned above, it becomes not an end in itself but a means to an end-–we laugh our way to spiritual conversion.

(SUN.STAR CEBU, AUG. 17, 2010)