Tag Archives: religion

Thoughts on “Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn” by Karen McCarthy Brown

This book has been on my shelf for a few years. I purchased it along with Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen (click to read Part 1 and Part 2 of my review of Deren’s book). I bought these books because they were recommended to me by a close friend who was initiated into the Vodou tradition in Haiti, and I was interested in learning more about the religion. I would later learn that Mama Lola was the manbo who initiated him.

The book is an excellent academic work. Ms. Brown is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Anthropology of Religion, so not only does she explore the mystical practices of the Vodou religion, but she also presents a moving look at the challenges that face Haitian immigrants in the US who struggle with poverty, racism, and discrimination. Having known many Haitians from my years living in Miami, I was able to relate to a fair amount of the personal stories presented in the book, having seen friends deal with the same types of struggles. Professor Brown does a great job explaining how popular culture, institutionalized racism, and organized religion all contribute to the negative stereotypes associated with Vodou.

American popular culture dwells on images of Vodou’s malevolence, an attitude as nonsensical as equating Catholicism to Satanism. The understanding most North Americans have of Vodou is derived mainly from its portrayal in novels, films, and television, where images of sorcerers, zonbi, snakes, blood, and violence abound. In the United States, the word voodoo is used in a casual and derogatory way to indicate anything on a spectrum from the deceptive to the downright evil. If it were not so clear that racism underlies these distortions, it would be hard to understand why this kind of stereotyping is tolerated for an African-based religion when it would not be tolerated for other religions.

The negative portrayal of Vodou in the press, in novels, and in travelers’ accounts began in earnest shortly after the Haitian slaves won their freedom, a period in which slavery was still practiced in the United States and in many European colonies. The argument was often explicitly made that the barbarism of their religion clearly demonstrated that Haitians were incapable of governing themselves—an argument used by the United States and several countries in Europe to justify their refusal to recognize the fledgling black republic. Racism is more covert and convoluted these days, but the stereotypes of Vodou still serve their purposes. One of the central ways such propaganda works is by characterizing Vodou as in every way the opposite of “true” religion, that is, of Christianity. This description is ironic, for people who serve the Vodou spirits consider themselves good Christians.

(pp. 110 – 111)

It is important to remember that Vodou is a rich spiritual tradition, and like any spiritual tradition or religion, when practiced in earnest, will instill the practitioner with spiritual values and promote individual growth. I love the way Maggie, who is Mama Lola’s daughter, explains this, emphasizing how having Vodou in her life helps her live in the world, and elevates her above mundane and meaningless human existence.

“You know, maybe if I wasn’t part of Vodou, I would not know so much about people. Maybe if I did not grow up in it, I would be just, you know, just like ordinary people . . . walking . . . like everybody else walking on the streets, up and down . . . and don’t know right from wrong.”

(pp. 298 – 299)

There is profound wisdom here, and something we can all learn from. So many of us are guilty of “walking,” and being lost in our self-importance while cut off from reality through the constant stream of digital noise. We have forgotten that we are spiritual beings having a worldly experience. I can still picture my old Haitian friends, and I remember distinctly how deeply spiritual they were, how caring and charitable. I think the world could learn from the Haitian people, about the importance of community, family, tradition, and spirituality.

Thanks for stopping by, and I hope this post inspired you.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 54” by Lao Tzu

Image Source: Wikipedia

What is well planted cannot be uprooted.
What is well embraced cannot slip away.
Your descendants will carry on the ancestral sacrifice for generations without end.

Cultivate Virtue in your own person,
And it becomes a genuine part of you.
Cultivate it in the family,
And it will abide.
Cultivate it in the community,
And it will live and grow.
Cultivate it in the state,
And it will flourish abundantly.
Cultivate it in the world,
And it will become universal.

Hence, a person must be judged as person;
A family as family;
A community as community;
A state as state;
The world as world.

How do I know about the world?
By what is within me.

This passage is pretty straight-forward. A good and spiritual life must be cultivated and tended. You must nurture that which you want to flourish in your life. The closing couplet, though, seems to express a little bit more.

In the last two lines, it appears that Lao Tzu is asserting that an individual’s view of the world is based upon the sum of his or her experiences. I wholeheartedly agree with this. I know that personally I am the culmination of all the things I’ve read, all the people I’ve met, all the places I’ve been, all my joys and sorrows, and on and on. And my understanding of the world is constantly evolving, as I continue to travel the path of life. As long as I am alive and conscious, I suspect that the way I see the world will continue to change.

This past year, I have seen a lot of change in my life. Some of it was painful, but they were all experiences that I can learn from, and that’s what life is about, learning and growing.

Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you have an amazing day.

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Filed under Literature, Spiritual

“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 53” by Lao Tzu

If only I had the tiniest grain of wisdom,
I should walk in the Great Way,
And my only fear would be to stray from it.

The Great Way is very smooth and straight;
And yet the people prefer devious paths.

The court is very clean and well garnished,
But the fields are very weedy and wild,
And the granaries are very empty!
They wear gorgeous clothes,
They carry sharp swords,
They surfeit themselves with food and drink,
They possess more riches than they can use!
They are the heralds of brigandage!
As for Tao, what do they know about it?

The first stanza of this passage is a beautiful expression of humility. One does not need to seek lofty goals of some grandiose idea of enlightenment; all that is needed is one tiny grain of wisdom to keep you on the spiritual path.

The idea of simplicity is put forth in the second stanza. Lao Tzu asserts that while many people seek the paths of dogma and structured religious practice, the simpler way is preferred. All one needs to do is sit alone quietly, or gaze upon a stream, or walk along a forest path, and one can discover the Great Way.

The third stanza is more of an admonishment to those who strive after riches and material overabundance. These become such all-encompassing obsessions that those who follow the path of material gain become blind to the Way of the Tao. Basically, in common terms, dying with the most toys does not make one the winner.

I hope you found this post inspiring. Have a blessed day, and keep reading and thinking.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 52” by Lao Tzu

Image Source: Wikipedia

All-under-Heaven have a common Beginning.
This Beginning is the Mother of the world.
Having known the Mother,
We may proceed to know her children.
Having known the children,
We should go back and hold on to the Mother.
In so doing, you will incur no risk
Even though your body be annihilated.

Block all the passages!
Shut all the doors!
And to the end of your days you will not be worn out.
Open the passages!
Multiply your activities!
And to the end of your days you will remain helpless.

To see the small is to have insight.
To hold on to weakness is to be strong.
Use the lights, but return to your insight.
Do not bring calamities upon yourself.
This is the way of cultivating the Changeless.

I love this passage and read it several times today.

The first stanza expresses the interconnectedness between all beings. We are all born from the Earth, we all coexist upon the Earth, and in the end, we will all return to the Earth. It is only our egos which delude us into thinking we are separate. We are not. We are all one, all intrinsically connected, and should keep this in mind when dealing with each other.

The second stanza describes how meditation and contemplation are the paths to happiness, fulfillment, and ultimately, spiritual evolution. We all know that we must seek within if we seek the truth, or connection with the divine. The external is but a distraction. I believe it was Nietzsche who said something to the extent that wisdom comes in one’s stillest hour.

The third stanza sums everything up. Take time to notice and appreciate the small miracles happening around you at all times. Strive for simplicity, and avoid undue complexities that lead to stress and anxiety. Practice compassion, with others and yourself. And most importantly, take time for introspective reflection. Do these things, and happiness will flourish.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 51” by Lao Tzu

Image Source: Wikipedia

Tao gives them life,
Virtue nurses them,
Matter shapes them,
Environment perfects them.
Therefore all things without exception worship Tao and do homage to Virtue.
They have not been commanded to worship Tao and do homage to Virtue,
But they always do so spontaneously.

It is Tao that gives them life:
It is Virtue that nurses them, grows them, fosters them, shelters them, comforts them, nourishes them, and covers them under her wings.
To give life but to claim nothing,
To do your work but to set no store by it,
To be a leader, not a butcher,
This is called hidden Virtue.

This passage is interesting and somewhat challenging. I read it a couple times, and I think I have a sense of what Lau Tzu was trying to convey.

The Tao is the source of all existence, and hence, all things that exist in our universe, whether those things are animate or inanimate. Everything is a manifestation of the divine source, or, explained in terms of physics, everything is comprised of energy.

So how does Virtue come in to play? I think the problem is that we’ve been trained to relate virtue with ethics or some form of moral code, which really only applies to sentient beings. But I don’t think that this is what Lau Tzu was referring to. I feel that what he meant by Virtue is the interconnectedness and relationship between all things, that there is really no separation. We are part of the environment, and the environment is a part of us. We share an intrinsic connection with all living things, plant and animal, as well as a connection to the elements. To understand and respect this relationship is the source of wisdom, which is the goal of individuals on the path of the Tao.

I’m not sure if this is what Lau Tzu meant, but it is the impression I get from reading this passage. As always, if you have other insights to share, please do so in the comments section.

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“Words are Stones” by Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco

What I love about Umberto Eco is that he was able to look at social and political trends and identify the root causes of the trends. In this essay, he shows how fundamentalism stems from literal interpretations of symbols, specifically words.

He begins by pointing out that words are powerful symbols, but that in our current world culture, many people have lost the ability to recognize the subtlety and distinction when interpreting words. We want everything to be black and white, while words exist in the realm of grey, open for interpretation. (Turning Back the Clock: pp 214 – 216)

He then observes that religious fundamentalist movements are based upon strict literal interpretations of text, which by their nature, are highly symbolic.

In historical terms, fundamentalism is bound up with the interpretation of a holy book. Protestant fundamentalism in the United States of the nineteenth century (which survives to this day) is characterized by the decision to interpret Scripture literally, especially regarding notions of cosmology. Any form of education that undermines faith in biblical texts, like Darwinism, is rejected. Muslim fundamentalism is also based on the literal interpretation of a holy book.

(ibid: p. 219)

The problem that Eco sees is that fundamentalism often leads to integralism, “a stance whereby one’s religious principles must become the model of political life and the basis of the laws of the state.” Integralism can lead to theocracy, which ultimately leads to totalitarianism. “Every form of integralism contains a certain amount of intolerance for those who don’t share its ideas, but this amount reaches its peak in theocratic forms of fundamentalism and integralism. A theocratic regime is destined to be totalitarian.”

(ibid: p. 219)

As more laws are being passed that are solely based upon religious fundamentalist beliefs, we seem to be moving closer to a threshold that once crossed will find us in the realm of theocracy. This would land us in very dangerous waters, indeed.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading.

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“The Laws of Spirit” by Dan Millman

New age books can be hit or miss. This one has been on the shelves for a long time. Someone had given it to my wife as a gift. Anyway, I was looking to read something spiritual and this was nice and short, so I gave it a quick read. I have to say, it was better than I had expected.

The book adheres to the tried and tested format of the seeker meeting the sage, and they have an ensuing conversation where the sage has the answers to life’s questions. It’s kind of hackneyed, to say the least, but is saved by the fact that the chapters are very short and focused. Each chapter averages about eight pages in length. Also, Millman gets right to the point and does not wander off on tangents, which is appreciated.

As with most books of this nature, you get out of it what you bring to it. For those starting on a spiritual path, many of the concepts may be new, fresh perspectives. For me, it was more a refresher, which I confess I regularly need. It’s easy for me to get caught up in life and forget the fundamental principles I have learned.

The first passage I want to share from this book that resonated with me is about how all religions are one, that they essentially all teach the same spiritual principles, just using different languages and symbolism.

“You don’t have to believe in the sun to delight in the warmth of the morning light. It is simply obvious. That is how I know God. And as to my religion,” she continued, gazing into the distance as if remembering times past, “I’ve sat in the shining temples of the Israelites and under the glorious spires of the mosques of Islam; I’ve knelt in the great cathedrals and bathed in the light of Christendom; I’ve sat in sweat lodges and passed the pipe, lived as a shaman on the African plains, meditated in Buddhist temples, and inhaled the sweet aroma of incense on the banks of the Ganges. And everywhere, I’ve found the same Spirit in all religions—a Divine Will that transcends time, belief, and culture—revealing the universal laws that are the treasure of God.”

(p. 6)

And just as all religions are one, all spiritual paths ultimately lead to the same destination, you just learn different lessons based upon the path you choose.

“You lead for a while,” said the sage.

“But I don’t know where we’re going.”

She looked at me and smiled. “An interesting belief, Traveler, but I think you’ve always known where you were going, whether or not you were aware of it. So, which path will you choose?”

“Does it make any difference?”

“Ultimately? Not at all,” she replied. “In the end, all paths lead to the same destination. But one of these paths may lead into a green valley, another to a rocky peak, and the third into a dark woods. You can’t be sure where each trail leads; still, you must make a choice.”

(p. 18)

This life is filled with challenges, on individual levels as well as globally. But it is important to remember that these are just challenges, and that ultimately, things will balance out if we but persevere.

As the sage finished speaking, the rain stopped. Stepping out from under some trees into the warm sunlight, I felt an extraordinary sense of calm and well-being. In that moment, I knew that despite the challenges and tests confronting humanity, our world was in the hands of Spirit, unfolding, like a flower, toward the Light.

(p. 56)

As I mentioned earlier, this is a very short book, just over 100 pages, but there is a fair amount of insight inside, presented in clear and easy-to-understand language. It’s definitely worth a read, in my humble opinion.

Thanks for stopping by.

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