Thursday, February 3, 2011

Happy Birthday, Tomas!

Happy Birthday, Tomas!*

Made in commemoration of the 400 years of the University of Santo Tomas, Manila
via the "Varsitarian"

By Lourd Ernest C. De Veyra

What birthday? Birthdays are for six-year-olds whose parents feel a happy obligation to bring sweet spaghetti and ice cream to the whole class. The 400th birthday is a lame phrase. The number beams with tectonic magnificence, conjuring images of monumental cliffs, mountain peaks vanishing in feathery clouds, the sun, the slow-dance to the rhythms of the geological clock. “Birthday” smacks of silly party hats and parlor games.

We never use “birthday” when referring to manifestations of nature’s might. The Rock of Gibraltar, the cliffs of Dover, the Arctic glaciers. For me, it is much easier to imagine the sounds and smells of the Pleistocene era than to imagine UST being born, being constructed. Don’t ask me why. Perhaps it is because the university feels older than the earth itself—even with the presence of a McDonald’s and a KFC. There’s just something in the air, the trees, the bricks, even if the brick had been laid just last week. For me, the university has been there for as long as the stars and the sky have been there. For grace unending is grace without beginning.Of course, I am aware that behind each stone, each brick, each nail—ancient or otherwise—lies the mark of human toil. But like Beethoven’s fifth and ninth symphonies, the “Toccata” of J.S. Bach, Picasso’s “Guernica,” the Sistine Chapel, Citizen Kane, Joyce’s Ulysses, the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” the Christo Redentor in Brazil, the Great Wall of China, Machu Pichu, the Taj Mahal,Michael Jordan’s final jumpshot against Utah, these go beyond human provenance and enters the realm of the divine.

Divine, yes, even if sometimes we see the occasional teen idols from ASAP dancing here every now and then. Even if a lot of students taking on the choreography of noontime-show harlots replete with thumping pelvises and jiggling mammaries. Even if it has charlatans and traitors equaling the number of heroes and geniuses on its list of alumni. The University transcends all these, just as the earth is beyond the middling and the trifle. But then again, I understand the value of commemoration and history, so by all means, uncork the champagne, roll out the red carpet, launch the fireworks, ribbon-cut the exhibits, gather the intellectuals for the endless string of symposia, unveil the new, expensive pieces of sculpture. But a force of nature, both human and celestial, like the school deserves a much more solemn, more pagan celebration, like worshipping stones, chanting, ritual sacrifice on the football field—oh, wait. Sorry. This is a Catholic institution.

The University has been there for 400 years and will be there for another 400—assuming that the ancient Mayan astrologers are wrong about the world ending in 2012.

So stop this “birthday-birthday” business already. The word does not do justice to the sheer grandeur of the number. So pardon, if you will, this absence of sentimentality and gushing expressions of cheer and felicitation. You’re 400 years old. You’re a big boy now.

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