Spiritual behaviour

The Philippines is a Catholic country but it is bound by superstitious beliefs

Twenty years ago, I was making excursions into the backwoods of a province in the Philippines. These were a direct consequence of the "People Power" uprising in 1986 that bloodlessly brought the Marcos era to an end and sent Ferdinand and Imelda into exile in Hawaii. That crisis had been spread over several tense days, and in some ways many Filipinos considered it as much a spiritual as a political catharsis. In Manila, nuns sat down in the paths of tanks. Children gave flowers to soldiers. People saw visions of the Virgin. Imelda took comfort from her favourite image, the Santo Niño. Ferdinand's political rival, Cory Aquino, drew spiritual guidance from the nuns known to her as the "Pink Sisters". The late Cardinal Sin made stirring spiritual broadcasts.

In the remote village where I was living, I had long noticed the peculiar intersection of politics and religion - no, better call it spirituality. Established religion such as the predominant Roman Catholic Church could still sway the faithful, and the home-grown Iglesia ni Kristo could also count on block votes, as could various populist evangelical and charismatic sects. But these nationwide alliances were often muddied at village level by all sorts of private loyalties to lesser movements, to local shamans or strange healers with devoted followers.

Some of these quasi-mystics came into special prominence in Passion Week. A friend of mine spent 51 weeks of the year being a farmer, ploughing paddies with his carabao (water buffalo). In the 52nd week, it was claimed, he could heal the sick, fry eggs on his T-shirt and take photographs of goblins. That I never saw proof of these miracles was irrelevant; delicacy and affection always restrained me from pursuing the matter with my crashing scientific materialism from northern climes. I simply marvelled at the consequences of a colonial past: of 400-odd years of Spanish Catholic dogma through which ancient animist beliefs still percolated irrepressibly like weeds through concrete.

Gradually I discovered that a good many villagers discreetly lamented Marcos's downfall. Some were also baffled that this had happened, despite his having been an accomplished numerologist who had taken regular advice from an astrologer, and who as a young man had allegedly had a talismanic splinter of wood inserted into his back by Bishop Aglipay, the founder of the Philippine Independent Church. Suddenly I realised that it was impossible to write about his career without understanding the culture's semi-mystical, superstitious aspects.

After Marcos's death in exile, a sect swiftly formed around someone who had had a vision on the sacred Mount Banahaw of Ferdinand walking and talking with Jesus Christ. Such things took me along muddy trails to visit bamboo chapels where faith healers gave realistically mimed imaginary injections and performed wholly unconvincing psychic surgery. On other trails I met a man who, when in a trance, was possessed by the spirits of the biblical Three Kings, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, and had an entirely different voice and persona for each. I saw candles mysteriously extinguish themselves and burst into flames. And one alarming night, while bivouacked on a low ridge above a coconut forest stretching to the coast, I was awoken by the sounds of a non-existent party complete with distant chatter, the clatter of plates and the sound of a violin. "Don't be scared," said my companion, who could evidently hear it too. "It's only mumu. Sometimes they like to play tricks." Mumu are spirits that typically live in trees. At first light, as we walked along the forest trail, it was obvious there could have been no such gathering the night before.

Such experiences, easily ridiculed from 7,000 miles away as travellers' tales of hysterical peasants, often presented my rationalist self with an uncomfortable challenge. Many of the people involved were friends, and I was loath to patronise them. Much of what I saw - like the psychic "surgery" - was obvious sleight of hand; but it demonstrably brought comfort to forest dwellers who hadn't the money to catch a Jeep to town and buy conventional western medicines.

Gradually I understood that these Filipinos' cheerfully eclectic, mix'n'match approach to religion (a bit of Catholicism here, a pinch of happy-clappy evangelism there, a dash of Mormonism or Seventh-Day Adventism, a lingering belief in mumu and ghosts and vengeful spirits) constituted a spirituality that was proof against almost anything the world could throw at them. Nonetheless, being enfolded in this mesh of beliefs for months at a stretch occasionally made it hard even for my vigilant scepticism to tear itself completely free. That was surely why I was woken by the non-existent party which my companion had heard.

Those dappled journeys along forest trails to sometimes puzzling experiences made it unthinkable, when I came to write America's Boy, to assess Marcos and his country from the purely western viewpoint of the usual political biography. There were deep cultural currents and implications underlying Filipino politics that hard-nosed foreign journalists misread or simply did not pick up on (such as Marcos's continuing char isma for Filipinos long after the US had ditched him). They forgot or were repressing the knowledge that Ronald Reagan was even then taking political decisions based on astrological advice, as was that dedicated socialist, François Mitterrand. But now we know that God himself guides George Bush's and Tony Blair's policies, we wonder why we ever snorted derisively at such things.

In Sri Lanka 20 years ago, I learnt that politicians sometimes don't leave home in the morning if the auguries for that day are wrong, no matter how vital their presence in parliament. It is a hard lesson for a materialist to learn, that rational analyses of essentially irrational humans have only limited value. It is a rueful insight that I owe to a frisky mumu far away in a coconut grove.

James Hamilton-Paterson's new novel "Amazing Disgrace" is published by Faber & Faber (£12.99)