Through the Spirits of Others to Faith
Transformed by StruggleWe publish this frankly written reflection on how approaching the spiritual practices of others with a willingness for personal struggle creates faith, by Meg Young. – Ed. by Meg Young
I’ve never been much one for self-denial, and thankfully for me the Unitarian Universalist tradition in which my parents raised me rarely told me that there was anything that I absolutely couldn’t do. I remember sitting with a member of my youth group during high school, as we were first experimenting with drugs, alcohol, and the especially (even after OWL) mysterious realm of sex, asking how we were supposed to make rules for ourselves since our religion didn’t seem to give us any. The Seven Principles were good and all, but they didn’t exactly make it clear who we were supposed to be having sex with and when. (Wouldn’t it just be easier to be told that we were only supposed to have sex with our husband? At least then we would know when we were doing something wrong.) Or whether or not our lives would spiral out of control if we accepted a puff of a joint. (I mean, who were we kidding, Henry David Thoreau was probably a total stoner anyway.)
Flash forward ten years. I am in the Brazilian state of Bahia, sitting in the back room of a little brick house. The house is part of a terreiro, a religious compound where practitioners of Candomblé congregate to worship the Orixás (a pantheon of deities associated with forces of nature). Candomblé, is an Afro-Brazilian religion combining aspects of Yoruba, Bantu, and indigenous Brazilian faiths with Catholicism. I have been on a Fulbright for six months, studying the interaction between Candomblé and healing for mental illness, and have now just completed a two-day ritual to rid myself of an unbalanced energy that has been pursuing me. Now the priest who performed the ritual, a cheerful rotund man in his mid-thirties, the cousin and spiritual guide of a close friend, is dictating the terms of my nine-day resguardo, the cleansing period I will undergo at home now that the ritual is complete.
“No black clothes, ideally only white. No beer or liquor. No cold beverages. No pumpkin, yam, corn products, pork products, chicken, eggs, honey, pineapple, cashews, okra. You can’t stay out after 6pm. Also avoid going out in the noonday sun. Don’t pass through crossroads. Don’t stand in front of an open refrigerator. Certainly avoid drinking from glass cups…”
The list goes on and on, becoming increasingly obscure and finally concluding with an exhortation to avoid cemeteries. I ask tentatively, sensing the immanent response, “Can I have sex?”
“No!” exclaims the priest “That is the first thing you can’t do. You can’t kiss or hug or touch, or” he looks at me sideways, “do anything with your hands. You can’t su-“
I burst out laughing before he can finish the word and he looks bashful “I wasn’t going to say that!” he stammers.
“It’s ok,” I reply. I get the idea.
When I leave the terreiro the next day, I can almost feel the gaze of people on the street burning a hole in the back of my neck, where I am wearing four long strings of beads, charms for my protective deities – Iansã, the goddess of wind and storms; Oxum, the goddess of fresh waters; Iemanjá, the goddess of the sea; Oxalá (sic), the father of us all. As per the terms of my resguardo I am wearing all white, including a white headscarf, which the priest carefully showed me how to wrap. In this region of Brazil, known to Brazilians as “the land of magic,” and where eighty to ninety percent of the population are Afro-descendants, everyone on the street knows what these clothes and charms signify, and I can almost hear them some of them thinking, “What is that gringa doing messing around with our Candomblé?”
Candomblé has long been a source of force and resistance for Afro-Brazilians, and a way of maintaining cultural roots and heritage in a ferociously racist society. The chants and prayers, brought to Brazil by slaves from West Africa, have been passed down orally over the past five hundred years and are still sung in the original Yoruba and Bantu, among other tongues. The clothing that priests, initiates, and clients (like myself, who visit to do various offerings and cleansings, or seek advice through fortune-telling) use inside the terreiro is often made of fabrics imported from Africa and evokes a pan-African aesthetic.
Although many of my research participants have emphatically explained that the gods of Candomblé love everyone regardless of race or color, the vast majority of those who frequent Candomblé are Afro-Brazilian. One priest explained to me that I was called to Candomblé because I have “black blood” (to my knowledge I don’t, but I suppose anything is possible).
Being a recent graduate of a liberal arts university, I have paused more than once to consider the implications of my involvement (both scholarly and personal) in Candomblé as a white North American and to try, once again, to draw that impossible, faint line in the sand between appropriation and appreciation. It is a line that is all too familiar, having been brought up in a family and at a UU church that practiced rituals from Sanskrit chanting to Passover seders to gospel and spirituals during the Sunday service. I had always had a lower tolerance for these “borrowed” traditions than my parents or many other members of my congregation. Especially in my home town of Middlebury, Vermont, where the non-white members of my congregation numbered in the single digits, I always questioned our right to use these traditions for our own religious means and questioned the authenticity of these traditions when practiced by a group of non-adherents, even if they were acting with the utmost respect and reverence. White folk have a long and rich history of taking the most beautiful aspects of the cultures of people of color (especially black folks), decontextualizing them, and then using them for their own good time. Think Elvis. Think Macklemore. I wanted no part of it. And yet here I am, in white from head to toe, charms around my neck and waist, head full of Yoruba.
By the fifth night of my resguardo, trapped once again at home, trying not to think about the beer in the fridge, having spent a tense day with my boyfriend, pulling away every time he reached for my hand, feeling the distance between us as thick as honey, I start to wonder the same thing. “What is this gringa doing messing around with their Candomblé anyway?” As I understand it from conversations with the priest and other initiates at the terreiro, the resguardo has various purposes, symbolic and practical. The first is to avoid foods and activities that are unappealing to the Orixás so that they will stay close and protect me. Another is to avoid activities that will “make my head too hot or too cold” causing imbalance and emotional problems. The most functionally important is to prove to the Orixás (and in the case of a small, gossipy city like mine, the community) that my faith is strong, and that I value my relationship with the Orixás more than these earthly pleasures.
But do I? I have long rebelled against the demonization of sex in religion. I think it vilifies women and queer folk and creates an artificial and unnecessary dichotomy between our bodies and our minds, the desires of the “flesh” versus the “purity of spirit.” It had always been easy for me to rage and storm about this sex-negativity when the perpetrators were evangelical Christians. However now I’m not so sure. Is sex more important to me than the Orixás? Is the ability to drink or eat pumpkin? Why should they care? I can’t even say for sure if I believe with all of my heart in the Orixás, but nevertheless there is a corner of my mind that doesn’t want to find out what will happen if I defy them and they leave me alone at the mercy of the world. This nagging concern would have been crazy to me a mere six months ago, and when I try to write it out in English, it still seems absurd, and yet…
I sit on my porch with a friend who did a similar cleansing ritual a few months ago, watching the night time rain on the river, lamenting.
“I know,” he says gently, “It’s hard, but I think that the resguardo is the most important part.”
I sit with that idea over the course of the next day. I think of all of the times that people have told me that struggle and pain brought them to Candomblé, but that their faith is so much stronger for it. I take a strange pride in knowing that each of these nine days is a battle won, a world of temptations conquered. I wonder if I am appropriating self-denial and sacrifice. However, the closeness that I feel with Candomblé, and the respect that I feel for its immense power is unquestionably heightened as I pass through this period of cleansing. I think of all of the things I didn’t sacrifice when I “appreciated” other cultural traditions at church and with friends growing up. For all of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur meals I ate, when did I ever give up eating pork during those days? For all of the Siddha Yoga chants I sang, when did I become vegetarian? For all of the Sufi poetry that inspired me, when did I give up drink or cover my head and arms? I knew the sweetness of these traditions without ever knowing the bitter, that special bitter that makes the sweet taste all the sweeter.
When we, white folk of the liberal religious tradition, take these practices out of context, they lose the power with which struggle imbues them, and this holds true on a grand level as well. When we sing spirituals and gospel songs, we separate them from the ongoing history of struggle from which they were born. Even if we verbally acknowledge this struggle, in which we have been staunch and admirable allies, we are just that, allies. We cannot place ourselves within that fight, and therefore our voices raised in song lack the sweet, sweet edge of grief, of loss, of continuing in faith because faith is all you have left. As much as we “appreciate,” these are fundamental, central aspects of these traditions that often to elude us, and thereby our appreciations can become hollow.
Now, am I saying that we should forget the whole thing and only sing Anglican hymns for the rest of our sorry lives? Perish the thought. After all, I am still here on my porch, alone, tummy rumbling, beads heavy around my neck. Neither I nor anyone, it seems, has yet been able to draw an appreciation/appropriation line that the vast ocean of circumstance hasn’t been able to quickly wash away. I am just suggesting that tradition is empty without faith and faith is empty without struggle. But I have faith that especially as our congregations grow more diverse and our connections with social justice continue to be strong, we can begin to explore this connection between appreciation, appropriation, struggle. As Wendell Berry so aptly pointed out, “Faith is not necessarily, or not soon a resting place. Faith puts you out on a wide river, in a boat, in the fog, in the dark. Even a man of faith knows that we’ve all got to go through enough to kill us.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Meg is a lifelong, episodic, and occasionally lapsed UU. She graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a degree in anthropology and community health, and currently lives in the Northeast of Brazil, where she has a Fulbright Grant to study traditional faith healing, mental health, and culturally specific psychiatry.