Surviving Crucifixion: An Interview with Ruben Enaje

Professor Amtul Razzaq Carmichael, UK

Ruben Enaje, a carpenter from the Philippines has volunteered for devotional, non-fatal crucifixion more often than anyone else in this world. [1] By 2019, Ruben had been nailed to the cross 33 times on Good Friday; if the Covid-19 global epidemic had not put everyone’s plans in disarray, then Ruben Enaje would have experienced his 34th crucifixion in 2020. The Review of Religions was most fortunate to have an opportunity to interview Ruben at his home via a video link and talk about his incredible experiences. It was astounding to listen to the personal account of a survivor of many re-enactments of crucifixion. We are privileged to share this first-hand knowledge about the gruelling experience of the devotional crucifixion with the readers of The Review of Religions.

It was an honour to see Ruben sitting in the modest surroundings of his home in San Padro Cutud, province Pampanga. The blue skies and bright sunshine of the late morning sun appeared almost surreal on the video link. Though Ruben spoke great English, it was lovely to have sister Maria Nida, a Filipino Ahmadi, to help translate some of the key terms into English. Imam Talha Ali played a crucial role to coordinate this rendezvous. May Allah the Exalted bless them immensely for this support. I started by asking the opening question.

ARC: What inspired you to embark on this journey of devotional crucifixion?

RE: ‘It all started in 1985, when I fell from the third floor of a building and miraculously escaped death. At that moment, I made a vow to God that I will make a sacrifice to pay for my second life; I wanted to do that by re-enacting the act of the crucifixion as thanksgiving. One year after my accident, I joined the Senakulo (re-enactment of crucifixion), where I carried the cross to the Burol (Hill of Crucifixion).’

Senakulo, in the Philippines, is a nationwide celebration named after the Upper Room (Cenacle), which is thought to be the place where the Last Supper was held. [2] Given the gruesome nature of the process of the crucifixion and the historical accounts that people rarely survived this ordeal [3], it is amazing that Ruben made this vow. Senakulo is the Filipino version of the worldwide Catholic tradition known as Passion Play; a religious drama of medieval origin dealing with the suffering, death, and Resurrection of Christ. [4] The most famous of the Passion Play to survive into the 20th century is that performed at Oberammergau, in the Bavarian Alps. According to tradition, the play has been presented every 10 years since 1634. [5]

In the‘The Cradle of Twin Giants’ – Science and History, a really interesting historical account is given regarding how devout Christians pay homage to the incident of the crucifixion by voluntarily enduring devotional, non-lethal crucifixion. [6] In the memoirs of Baron Grimm, the eyewitness account of devout nuns volunteering to be put on the cross for three hours has been recorded by M deCondamine and M deGustel. Therein, it states, ‘Sister Rachel and Sister Felicite both between thirty and forty years of age, being moved in spirit to offer the lively image of the passion of our Saviour suffered themselves to be nailed through their hands and feet to two wooden crosses, and remained thus for more than three hours. It was apparent that they endured great agony especially when the nails were driven in and again when they were taken out, with occasional shrinking of the muscles and writhing though every indication of torture over which the mind had control, was suppressed with Indian fortitude. …When they were taken down, the wounds, which bled profusely, were washed and bandaged, and that done the Sisters Rachel and Felicite sat down quietly to eat in the midst of those assembled there.’

This is followed by the description of a second exhibition of voluntary devotional crucifixion, ‘In this also two women were crucified, named Sister Francoise and Marie. The nails were examined by M. deCondamine, both when driven in and taken out; these were rough and square, more than three inches long, and entered the wood of the cross at least half an inch. Sister Marie could not hide the excruciating pain she felt when the nails were driven in, and within an hour cried out to be taken down, for she could no longer endure it; being unfastened, they carried her away senseless, to the great confusion of those associated with her. Sister Francoise being more strongly constituted, remained attached to the cross for more than three hours, though its position was frequently changed.’

This historical evidence clearly documents a long tradition of devout Christian nuns volunteering to be put on the cross for hours and survived the ordeal.

ARC: How did you progress on this journey of devotion?

RE: ‘The re-enactment is like a stage play with the director and some actors acting as centurions while others as spectators and a selected few as Jesus Christ.  I had to walk 1.7 km, along with the others who will be crucified as well, but I did not have the title ‘the Christ’ when I started. This honour is given to devotee by seniority and experience. In the earlier days, I was placed on the cross, but only my hands were nailed and not my feet. It went on like that for 15 years. Then in 2001, I got the main character role as ‘Christ’, when both my hands and feet were nailed to the cross during the act of the devotional crucifixion.’

ARC: So how did the tradition of Senakulo start in the Philippines?

RE: From what I have heard from my grandfather, the re-enactment rituals have been carried out in the Philippines since 1945 or the 1950s (basically after the Japanese left after WWII).’

According to the historical accounts, Senakulo started in the Philippines back in 1904 in Barrio Dayap, when Filipinos set up a cross on a vacant lot for their belief that it can drive away evil spirits. [7] It was said that one day there was an unfamiliar, yet powerful scent, that was believed to have emanated from the cross. From that moment, they read the Seven Last Words of Christ or the Passion in every Lenten season. With the passage of time, Senakulo has progressed into an organised and elaborate event in which many devotees from Rizal take part. [8]

ARC: Were you involved in the ceremonies before that; what are your earliest recollections about this?

RE: I have been watching the re-enactment since I was a small boy. As a child, I used to watch penitence during lent season with my father. I used to follow those people carrying the cross. I never thought that one day I will be doing the same. My father was part of the ritual and would self-flagellate and I would watch other people do the same. I started carrying the cross when I was 20 years old, and I have been re-enacting the crucifixion by nailing myself to the cross since I was 26 years old.

ARC: How many people take part in the re-enactment ceremony?

RE: In the beginning, when I started, there were 17 people who would be doing the same thing as me but now there are only 9.

ARC: Tell us about your feelings when you are getting ready for the act of devotional crucifixion?

RE: When I am re-enacting, I feel nervous but happy that I am fulfilling my vow. I am so nervous that I do not sleep at all the night before. Sleeping is scarce and I toss and turn in bed the night before the big day. I have mixed emotions, nervous and excited.

ARC: How do you prepare yourself for the big day?

RE: I start the day as normal, have a shower and breakfast as usual. I do not take any pain killers before the re-enactment. I only drink water during the ceremony.

ARC: Take us through your day of the re-enactment of the crucifixion?

RE: In the morning, I walk 1.7 km to the place of re-enactment carrying the cross on my shoulders, which weighs 37 kg. Many people follow me in the walk. I wear a spiky makabuhay (a very bitter vine used as herbal medicine) over my head as a crown. This crown of thorns is very spiky and extremely painful. It really hurts the skin of my forehead. I keep the crown on, till the show is over, which may be hours and hours. The scars of the spikes show on my forehead for days.

ARC: It seems like a very realistic re-enactment?

RE: Indeed, the ceremony must involve re-enacting every single stage of crucifixion as described in the Bible. The crucifixion takes place on top of a hill. When we reached the Hill, there awaits the centurions (Jew’s army) to mock and beat me. The Centurion first beats me with his hands like slap a few times and then with a latigo (whip), 5 times on my back. Then, they would tear up my top clothes and lay the cross down to prepare for the crucifixion. They would have me lay on top of the cross. At that time, the feeling of nervousness, heat, and suffocation is overwhelming. There are hundreds of people, who surround the cross to witness it closely. The temperature usually ranges from 39-42 degrees celsius.

ARC: Let us talk about the experience of getting the nails through your hands and feet, where do you get the nails from?

RE: ‘For the re-enactment, 3-inch nails are used for nailing to the cross. Two in the hand and 2 in the feet. The first time I was re-enacting I had to wait for the nails to be taken out of the person who was put on the cross before me. These nails are disinfected with alcohol. Then, the mayor suggested that I should get my own nails, so I do not have to wait for someone else’s nails. Of course, this is also safer. My brother-in-law especially prepared these nails for me. After the re-enactment of the crucifixion is over, I leave them in a jar of alcohol to disinfect.’

It was an almost unreal image to see Ruben hold a non-descript jar in on the camera to show me the nails covered in disinfectant alcohol. The humility in the tone of his voice, the sound of a cockerel in the rural surroundings, and the modest seat on which Ruben was sitting, was awe-inspiring. After witnessing this, one cannot, but develop immense respect for the commitment and devotion of Ruben. I carried on with my quest to know more.

ARC: How does the process of crucifixion take place?

RE: ‘When the cross is laid on the ground, at this time I think that I must be the bravest person in the world for doing this. I also want to back out of the whole thing at that time. But above all, I want to get it over with.

It takes two blows of hammer to drill the nail through the hands into the wood. On the feet, 3 blows of the hammer are needed to drive the nail through the feet into the wood. It hurts less when the nails are being driven through the feet. I have to scream to get through the pain. The feet are nailed on the cross when it is down on the floor as the feet must be flat on the cross. Once the feet and the hands are nailed, I am ready, and the cross is raised up.’

ARC: What is it like when the nails are hammered in?

RE: ‘There is no bleeding when the nails are hammered in, but it bleeds a lot when nails are pulled out. As I said, these nails are about 3 inches long, specially made for me, for safety purposes. Four nails in total, two for my hands and two for my feet. The pain is anticipated as the nails pierce through my flesh, but I bear the pain by closing my eyes, taking deep breaths. I make a silent prayer that I can make it.’

ARC: What is it like to be on the cross?

RE: ‘These are very mixed emotions. In the beginning, there is a feeling of nervousness. While on the cross in the upright position, I have goosebumps all over my body. Partly because I am hot and cold at the same time. There are 20,000 people watching and there is a media crew. Media are all up close and take pictures, etc. The temperature is extremely hot as Easter is usually in the hot months. In 2019, the temperature was 42 degrees celsius. There is almost no fresh air.

Because of the cheering of the crowds and the feeling of closeness to Jesus, my nervousness goes away.’

ARC: How long do you stay on the cross for?

RE: ‘I usually remain on the cross for 15 minutes; 30 minutes is the longest I have remained on the cross. I feel giddy during the first few minutes, but as I stay longer, cold wind would blow for me and I feel comfortable. I try to move my hips or my back to make myself comfortable while on the cross. The longest I have witnessed someone on the cross is one hour. It was a foreigner who was doing it for a film. He was given medicines to cope.’

ARC: Take us through your feelings, while on the cross?

RE: ‘When the cross goes into the upright position, I feel goosebumps all over my being, seeing thousands of people watching me. On the cross, I feel dizzy. This is mainly due to heat. I feel like fainting. When I am on the cross and feel dizzy, I close my eyes and pray. When I pray, I feel as if a cold wind is blowing through. I feel the closeness of Jesus. I feel as if I am pulled out of a prison. While on the cross, I usually pray the Lord’s prayer (Our Father). I also pray for the health of my family mostly. I fainted once on the cross, that was in the first five years of volunteering to be on the cross. This was because of heat and suffocation. During the entire show, I feel the presence of Jesus Christ that makes me comfortable and makes the pain bearable.’

ARC: Tell us about breathing on the cross?

RE: ‘I have to practice deep breathing before I am lifted. Because once I am on the cross it is difficult to breathe. Breathing on the cross is really shallow. I use my mouth to breathe. My legs are tied down, so I can only move from waist up. To stay conscious, I close my eyes and focus on breathing pattern, breathe in and breathe out.’

ARC: How do organisers make sure about your safety during this event?

RE: ‘There are people responsible for the safety of volunteers. We all have to sign a waiver before taking part in the ceremony. When we are on the cross, every 5 mins a ‘director’ checks on the condition of those being crucified. The director is responsible of timing, stands beside the cross. When I am on the cross, he keeps asking regularly, if I am still fine.’

ARC: Please, tell us how are you taken down the cross?

RE: ‘When taking me off the cross, the nails of my feet are pulled out first. Then, I am lowered down, and the nails are pulled out of the palm. But during my fifth year of the crucifixion, the nails were taken out from both the hands and the feet while upright. A cloth was used to provide support and then the nails were taken out. There is quite a bit of bleeding and blood flows profusely from my hands and feet as nails are pulled out. All the pain is gone when the nails are pulled out. The pulled nails will be soaked directly in a jar with alcohol or disinfectant. Once taken down the cross, I can stand up straight away. Then I walk to the tent designated for me. There is a medical team, who attend to our wounds, clean and disinfect them, and apply dressings on my palms and feet. I would just rest there for some time and then I am good to go. I prefer to watch the remaining proceedings and then head home, walking 1.7km barefoot.’

ARC: Have you ever needed to go to hospital, after being taken down from the cross?

RE: ‘I have never needed to go to hospital after volunteering to be on the cross; never because of my wounds.’  

ARC: How long does the whole process of the devotional crucifixion take?

RE: ‘The whole process starts at around 11 am and ends by 3 pm.’

 ARC: What is the most difficult part of the re-enactment?

RE: ‘Carrying the cross! The cross weighs 37 kilos. This is the most difficult part of the entire ordeal.’

ARC: How do you look after your wounds at home and how long does it take for your wounds to heal?

RE: ‘My wife will clean and look after the wounds. The bandages are kept for 2 days. I am a carpenter and by Monday, I am able to go back to work. The healing process takes two to three days. I take antibiotics and pain killers at home.’

I could not but admire the pride in the voice of Ruben, who said, ‘You see, I get crucified on a Friday, I can go back to work as normal as before, on a Monday’.

We were truly fortunate to meet Ruben’s immaculate wife Mrs Juanita Enaje. She explained that all the wounds take nearly 3 days to fully heal. Ruben usually takes Amoxicillin and Mefenamic Acid after volunteering. Mrs Juanita Enaje confirmed that Ruben can walk normally right after the devotional crucifixion, without any problems. She told us that she feels ‘super nervous’ the night before Ruben goes for volunteering. She gave a profound message to the readers of The Review of Religions. She said that from Ruben’s story, they can learn a lot about devotion, commitment and keeping their vows with God.

ARC: Tell us about your family; how do your children feel about your taking part in the re-enactment?

RE: ‘I am married and have four children: three sons and a daughter. They are all grown-ups and have their own families. The youngest is the daughter who goes with me from the start of the show until after the end. She continuously checks up on me. She attends to my needs, gives me water, and keeps asking me if I am still fine.’

ARC: How do devotees support each other? Is there a support club or group of them?

RE: ‘Every year different people volunteer for the crucifixion, so there is no club of the people who volunteer to be crucified. On the morning of the show, they all gather in the Barangay Hall (local council office) and the Barangay Captain gives them the directions. We all have to sign a waiver. It is at the Barangay Hall that I see other volunteers for the first time. The younger ones and first-timers are nervous, and I do not say anything to them. I stay quiet and remain on one side. I only give information if anyone asks me. I do not want them to get disappointed.’

ARC: Are you aware of the views of the local communities around you about the re-enactment ceremony?

RE: ‘The church and local priests are against this practice. They have said many times to people who re-enact that this is against the teachings of Bible.’

Ruben expressed his view that because of this, the priests and the others do not talk to him properly.

ARC: You were 26 when you started to volunteer to be put on the cross and now you are 58 years old; an unusually brave experience spanning over 33 years, how do you feel when you reflect on this?

RE: ‘While I am proud that I was able to fulfil my vow, I have this regret that I have done this for so many times something which is against the Bible. But I only did this because of my vow. It has been a long time that I was into my vow, when one day, I realized that the things I was doing were not written in the Bible and that priests were against it. What I say is that praying is not only in the Church. In the Church, there are many distractions like a beautiful woman, etc. I usually find a quiet place under the shade of a tree and ‘talk’ to God. One should pray like Jesus prayed in the ‘jungle’ of Gethsemane. I try to follow the example of Jesus and try to pray when no one is watching and pour all my sorrows to God in seclusion.’

ARC: What’s next?

RE: ‘Honestly, I am not a very religious or pious person, nor a regular churchgoer, in my opinion, I can talk to God not only at church but praying sincerely in quiet, shady places, where I can be alone without any disturbances, pouring the contents of my heart to God. I regret to say that I know that the vow of having crucified is not the proper way to follow Christ’s example. The way to follow the example of the Christ is by having faith in God and doing good works. After the pandemic, if God permits, will be my last year in the crucifixion ceremony.’







[6] – Science and History; Vol 1, by Rev Henry Christmas. Page 324-25



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