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Nailed to a Cross


By David Haldane


March 24, 2024



I vividly remember the first time I ever set foot in a Catholic Church.

I must have been 9 or 10 and had been invited there by a friend. It was dark inside, so my eyes had to adjust. But when they did, my soul could barely take in what the eyes clearly saw: the bigger-than-life statue of a man wearing thorns and nailed to a cross.

Oh my God, I thought, he must have done something terrible. It didn’t help when my friend reassuringly mentioned that the crucified man was a Jew, just like me. Suffice it to say that I studiously avoided Catholics and their churches for many decades after.

Until the day I married one. And moved to her home country where people annually nail themselves to crosses with joy. You’ve probably surmised by now that I’m talking about the Philippines and its sacred Holy Week, soon to be upon us.

I can’t recall when I first heard that some Filipinos spend part of that week nailed to crosses after experiencing painful whippings. Nor can I say that I’ve ever actually witnessed it, or really ever want to. And yet something about that seemingly primitive ritual has captured imaginations throughout the ages, including mine.

They say the earliest documented ritualistic whippings—or flagellations—occurred in 4th-century Spain, where the Bishop of Barcelona, San Paciano, urged his parishioners to engage in public self-mortification and flogging as penance for their sins. Later, Italian Catholics organized the first “flagellant processions,” which quickly spread to France, Germany, Austria, and much of Europe. So when Spain expanded its dominion to Latin America and the Pacific in the 16th century, it’s not surprising that Spanish missionaries introduced the gruesome Easter beatings that would eventually become Holy Week staples here in the Philippines.

Ah, but it took the creative genius of Filipinos themselves to invent what today is considered the Rolls Royce of self-mortification, the actual nailing of grimacing supplicants to wooden crosses in tribute to their Savior’s final day on earth. And it is the Philippines which, to date, holds what is believed to be the exclusive franchise of that awesome spectacle.

The first to engage in it was one Arsenio Anoza, an employee of the Bureau of Public Highways and reputed faith healer, who, in 1961, had himself crucified on Good Friday as mortified onlookers looked on. “With one crucifixion,” he reportedly declared, “I consider my sins to have been washed away.”

Not to be outdone, another Filipino—construction worker Ruben Enaje—set a world’s record by undergoing crucifixion in San Pedro Cutud 34 times! It all started back in 1985 when he gave thanks for surviving a three-story fall from an unfinished building by having himself nailed to a cross with four-inch spikes driven into both hands and feet. Since then, Enaje has suffered crucifixion every year, except for a few during the COVID pandemic. Besides thanking God for his own good fortune, the carpenter has painfully petitioned for the healing of his daughter from asthma, the good health of his wife, and relief for the people of Belgium who were attacked by terrorists.

Filipinos certainly aren’t the only ones who see miracles where others don’t. Almost two decades ago, the Los Angeles Times sent me out to cover an intriguing story. A worker arriving at a candy factory in Southern California, it seemed, had peered into the spout of a mixing vat to find a glob of chocolate that, to his amazement, looked exactly like the Virgin Mary standing in prayer.

“It’s absolutely a miracle!” the then-26-year-old devout Roman Catholic told me excitedly. “I can’t describe the feelings; the emotions make me cry.”

And, indeed, as word of the miracle spread, the tiny shop was deluged with hundreds of the faithful standing in line, sometimes for hours, just to glimpse the holy chocolate, say a prayer, cross themselves in awe, and kneel in veneration.

Psychologists have even given such behaviors a name; pareidolia or seeing patterns where one wouldn’t expect them to be.

In researching that story, I came across dozens of other examples. Holy images have been perceived in bricks, wooden logs, the gritty underpass of a Chicago expressway, a Tennessee coffee shop called Bongo Java, and a tiny gold nugget found in the Arizona desert. One woman making burritos in New Mexico saw the face of Jesus in the pattern of skillet burns on a tortilla. She built a shrine for the Jesus tortilla, had a priest bless it, and thousands of people came from all over to gaze and pray for its divine help in healing their ailments.

Sometimes these “miracles” prove highly profitable. A 10-year-old grilled cheese sandwich with a pattern said to resemble the Virgin Mary sold on eBay for $28,000 US; a pretzel in the shape of Mary cradling the infant Jesus fetched $10,600; and a water-stained piece of plaster cut from a shower wall bearing what some saw as the face of the Lord fetched nearly $2,000.

A cinnamon bun bearing the likeness of Mother Teresa got so much notice worldwide that its discoverer parlayed “the miracle nun bun” into a profitable commercial venture featuring nun-bun T-shirts and coffee mugs. And after finding that holy Jesus tortilla one morning while making her husband’s breakfast, Maria Rubio quit her job as a maid to become the full-time attendant of the shrine she had built which, in its first two years, attracted more than 35,000 visitors.

All of which serves to numb my surprise that the voluntary crucifixions in the Philippines are drawing so much attention. The thing that makes them stand out, of course, is that they are also drawing blood. Indeed, organizers say, the enthusiastic crowds have increasingly included foreigners willing, not only to buy souvenirs, but, for a while anyway, to undergo the experience themselves.

“It’s a personal matter between me and God,” Danish filmmaker Lasse Spang Olsen said several years ago when asked why he wanted to be nailed to a cross. And how did he feel about the experience afterwards? “Fantastic,” he said with a nod. “You should try it.”

Eventually, authorities banned foreign participation in the annual event to prevent it from becoming, in the words of one official, “a circus.” And yet the Church, while discouraging participation in these seemingly ghastly rites, has never actually forbidden it. “If what you do makes you love others more,” Archbishop Socrates Villegas, former president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, is reported to have said, “then it is pleasing to God. But if you do it for photographs, just to be famous, that is spiritual vanity.”

Spiritual vanity or not, both foreigners and Philippine nationals continue to show up in droves. And yet, to this foreigner—let me just say it—these bloody rites don’t seem like circuses at all.

In fact, forgive me, but I see voluntary crucifixion as reflective of a certain aspect of Filipino character I have come to admire. I first glimpsed it several years ago during the annual Banok-Banok street-dancing fiesta right here in Surigao City.

“Last week I saw God in a parade,” I later wrote.

What I was talking about was the intense gleam of joy, reverence, and yes, even ecstasy emanating from the bright eyes of young Filipinos in colorful native garb dancing their hearts out to the rhythmic beat of drums while swooning over tiny statues of a Catholic saint.

“Gazing upon those smiling youthful faces,” I wrote, “stirred something deep inside. Is it the presence of God? Who knows? All I can say is that it is like the feeling I sometimes get while watching a beautiful sunset or admiring a placid blue sea.”

A childhood friend visiting from California—a retired English professor long skeptical of anything religious—had a similar reaction. “What an epic event!” he remarked after the parade had passed. “It brought tears to my eyes, and I don’t often cry. It was like an epiphany; I may have to rethink my position on organized religion.”

The thing both of us saw, I think, was the intensity of the moment, the utter joy and rapture permeating, not only the faces of those young dancers, but their very souls; how completely they were in and of the moment we had shared. It is a tendency I have observed in many Filipinos and one I have even come to envy. It is also, I suspect, the energizing force behind these famous crucifixions.

There is something else behind them too, and it has to do with sacrifice.

My Filipino wife, Ivy, recently reminded me of a story I had long forgotten. Years ago, when she was studying for the board exam to become a certified clinical laboratory scientist in California, she made a personal promise to God. If she passed, Ivy vowed, she would cut off her long black hair and donate it to a program for children with cancer. And if she didn’t pass, well, she would cut it off anyway in anticipation of the next time she took the exam.

She passed the first time and, sure enough, all that beautiful long hair disappeared the very next day. “What happened?” I asked incredulously, on the brink of despair.

Her answer was simple and to-the-point. “Filipinos are like that,” my wife gently explained. “You work hard, you pray hard, and then you sacrifice.”

Sacrifice is a way of life in the tiny Siargao Island barangay where Ivy was born. Every year, in fact, Caridad stages its own version of the famous flagellation and crucifixion rites attracting attention up north. Like those other rites, Caridad’s features a volunteer Jesus who gets flogged while carrying a cross to his place of “execution.” Later, he must endure another punishment; being tied (but not nailed, thank God) to the cross for the two hours it takes a priest to celebrate Mass.

More than 20 years ago, a distant cousin of Ivy’s spent his 21st birthday on that cross. “I wanted to serve the Lord,” explained Romy Minguita, now 45 and a law enforcement officer for the Land Transportation Office. “I felt like I needed to let go of my sins,”

“Was it painful?” I wondered.

“Yes, it hurt,” he said. “The flogging was OK, but the two hours on the cross were excruciating.”

“Would you do it again?” I couldn’t help but ask.

“Sure,” he said, without skipping a beat. “Afterwards, I felt spiritually fulfilled.”

“Well then,” I went on, “in retrospect, how important was that experience for you?”

Minguita paused for two seconds before answering the question. “It was a very big deal,” he said at last. “It felt like my debut.”

Hm, sounds to me like a kind of rebirth.



David Haldane is an award-winning author, journalist, and columnist for the Manila Times. This story first appeared on the cover of the Manila Times Sunday Magazine.






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