New Orleans, Religion, Vodou

What Is Vodou Initiation Like?

We cracked my skull open and installed a few new parts.

Saturday, February 16 I was initiated into Vodou. I feel an obligation to write about my experience, because most people don’t. They say there’s no way to describe it. “You have to experience it for yourself.” But I do believe I can describe some of the feeling, the experience. I wish someone had described it to me long ago.

First, here is what I won’t say:

  • I won’t reveal any of the secret aspects of initiation. There are things the initiates don’t know beforehand, and I won’t share them here. The anthropologists have already revealed them anyway.
  • I won’t give a primer on what Vodou is or what the religion is all about. For a basic introduction read this. Or for a detailed journal of one man’s life in Vodou check out Oungan François’ Chasing the Asson.
  • I cannot help you initiate (sorry). If you are a person considering initiation into a Vodou house, I recommend contacting the wonderful community at La Source Ancienne Peristyle.

What Kind of Initiation?

This does not make me a priest of Vodou. The initiation I went through makes me a “hounsi bosale.” Hounsi is essentially a dedicated member of Vodou. Sometimes I see it used to mean apprentices or assistants of priests. In other usages it seems more like a term for a mystic or devotee who is not clergy. There is no analogous term in Christianity. It’s not like baptism, Christening or confirmation, although I erroneously compared it to those things before I underwent it myself.

Here are some questions I’ve been asked:

  • What is the purpose of this initiation? The reasons are different for every person. In my case it was to dedicate myself to a lwa who I’ve grown very close to. He is my met tet or patron deity. At least, he’s one of them—I have more. For other people, the cleansing aspect of the ceremony might be more important, or being “opened up” as a clearer medium for the lwa.
  • Why did you initiate? It felt appropriate. The lwa have been in my head for over 10 years and finally I’ve had a chance to practice with them formally and learn their traditions, songs, stories. It was time to officially dedicate myself in some way.
  • What about your other religions? I am and will always be a priest of the Old Belief. I practice multiple religions. They’re compatible.
  • Will you become a Vodou priest? We’ll see.

Experiential

I understand why people say they couldn’t possibly describe what initiation is like. However, I do think it can be put in words—you just have to think about the words very hard. Many practitioners have a hard time framing it in a way that outsiders can understand, which is frustrating for both parties.

Vodou is primarily experiential. It will provoke moods, emotions, ideas and realizations in the practitioner and that’s really the point. It doesn’t matter what herbs the priest threw into the fire. That’s the stuff that’s easy to describe, but it doesn’t communicate the feeling.

Feelings are harder to explain but they’re the end result of Vodou practice. I can’t speak for anyone else’s experience but my own. Other initiates may feel something different. But I believe initiation will always be deep, emotional and outlook-changing.

My Vodou initiation. Photo by Julie Valdivia.

My Vodou initiation. (Photo by Julie Valdivia.)

Internal Shift

Here is why it can’t be compared to confirmation. Confirmation is as much external as it is internal. The person might feel a sense of spiritual elation or they might feel blasé. Maybe they’re only there because their family expects it. Much of the Confirmation is for the congregation: it shows everyone that this person has made a commitment. It strengthens a social structure. A 14 year old receiving confirmation may feel like the same person before and after; it’s their status with their group that has changed, not their sense of identity.

Vodou initiation is internal. Imagine if every person who took confirmation had an immediate vision of Christ bleeding on the cross, then felt the holistic ecstasy of all the angels singing. Imagine they suddenly blacked out and saw through the eyes of Jesus the day he forgave Peter.

Vodou has this down to a science. The ceremonies used in Vodou are a finely honed technology that can, reliably, provoke powerful consciousness shifts.

No one goes through initiation because it’s “expected” of them. If they’re there it’s a conscious, personal choice to be there. And, in the case of becoming Hounsi Bosale, their status with the group doesn’t really change. It didn’t make me a Vodou priest and it conferred no special powers or rights. I haven’t even made a promise of any kind. The entire point of initiation is to take a step in a personal odyssey. It is a rite of the individual, not of the congregation.

Both the expectations and the results of initiation are different than the rites of passage most of us went through growing up. It involves a dramatic internal shift.

Before the Jump

Four of us initiated together. I had never met the other three. They are part of our House (congregation) but they live in another state. They can’t fly to New Orleans for ceremony very often.

I was told to arrive at 6 pm with all my offerings. They looked like they had been there for hours already. I was just showing up for another evening at the temple—something I do every week. For them it must have been a pilgrimage.

I wonder how they felt. I’ve been through initiations before. None were quite like the Vodou ceremony, but some were very intense. If we were soldiers waiting to jump out of an airplane, I was one who’d jumped before. It didn’t make this one less intimidating, it just meant I was calm about it.

We were sequestered together. I sat leaning against the wall with my eyes closed. I prayed to my oide, Lugh, and reaffirmed my devotion to him. Just because I am taking on a met tet doesn’t mean I don’t need my oide. There’s room in this adventurer for many gods.

That was all I really needed to do to prepare. I felt ready for anything. I made small talk with the other initiates, and made sure they were feeling happy and ready. Then I closed my eyes again and waited for my head to break.

The Ceremony

To a spectator, the highlight of the ceremony is when each initiate personally calls their lwa in. This is something that’s usually done only by the priest. Imagine if at confirmation you were told to turn the wine into blood and you had to find the wherewithal to do it. Would you?

Lwa are called in by drawing their veve (diagram) on the ground in cornmeal, giving them offerings and invoking them. There’s a lot more to it but that’s the short version. Each of us had to be our own priest and manage this ourselves.

However, for a lot of reasons our lwa were already there. At least for me, mine was in my head since before we entered the main temple and he stayed there all night. I suspect it was the same for the other initiates.

I’m not going to describe all the details because I don’t know how much is secret. But I can say this:

  • The initiation lasts all night. We were aware of this in advance. And yes, we were allowed to sleep. Bear that in mind when you’re reading below.
  • No hallucinogens or drugs are involved at all, not even alcohol. (Alcohol is offered to the spirits, but not consumed.) Bear that in mind below, too.

Snakes in the Head

I had a spirit installed in my head that night.

What is that like? Overpowering, joyful, profound.

It’s overpowering because there is a loss of control. I would move without willing myself to move. At one point I was asked a question and my mouth opened and someone else’s words came out. My lwa’s words. I was conscious and I heard them—I could even have stopped them if I wanted to. But I let them come out, and to hear them in my own voice was startling, almost worrying. It felt like something foreign in my head.

Likewise, at times I was completely lost in something. During the ceremony I was grinning and happy and acting with an energy and euphoria that are not part of my everyday persona. While dancing I felt lapses of control over my own body and I felt things very differently than normal. Some of this I had experienced at routine weekly ceremonies. But it was magnified.

With time, this overpowering aspect of the experience became normal—I learned to trust it. But even though it began to feel natural, it was no less overpowering. Aspects of my movements, words, thoughts, emotions remained out of my control or, more accurately, external to me. As if I was participating in my actions, but no longer as sole proprietor.

The overpowering aspect was there from the beginning, but the joyful aspect set in more gradually. I described already the euphoria during ceremony. This came and went in crescendos. When the main ceremony was over and we were led off for the rest of initiation, the four of us could hardly keep from laughing with excitement. Every one of us was in full contact with something that had previously been glimpsed only fleetingly in prayer.

I should note here that one does not choose one’s met tet at random. In some cases, you consult with your priest to decide it. Other times you may just know who it is. But always there is a connection between yourself and the lwa you choose. There are thousands and thousands of lwa, represented most commonly by about 20 main characters that every Vodouisant has heard of. They each correspond to a personality type that us living humans sometimes encounter. Your met tet is often the lwa with the personality most like your own, or the one who inspires you most. In the abstract this is like a list of archetypes. But a list of archetypes does not leap off the altar and into your brain, does not speak out loud, does not dance with you and share your cake. To meet your lwa is like seeing your mother or your soul mate when you thought they were dead.

So it’s joyful. But more than just the joy of knowing them, the experience itself is uplifting. All the changes to your body and mind are positive. And my lwa likes the other initiates’ lwa a lot. So the fact that they were there too, also in the flesh, right next to me meant this was like a reunion on top of it all.

In my case, the experience included a lot of visions. I don’t mean anything prophetic. But the visions can tell you a lot about what’s happening in your own life, and about yourself. Ultimately this leads to the profound aspect of initiation.

The profound comes after the fact. During my visions I was hardly thinking of their meaning at all; I was just in a state of bliss. The next morning, the weight of some of what I had seen, felt or realized crushed home. Again, this will be different for every person. But it comes with clarity. Tremendous, far-ranging clarity.

Integrated

The effects of the ceremony continued long after it was over. The next day I went home and showered. I went out to lunch with friends. I got some work done. Even though I had returned to normal life, I experienced the following conditions the whole time:

  • A continued sense of my lwa’s presence in my body, which was welcome.
  • I moved differently. I moved slower, more purposefully and gracefully. I didn’t think about this or affect it. In fact, I noted it with a sort of incredulous awe.
  • I spoke with more confidence, I was more social and charismatic. People reacted warmly to me, even strangers.
  • The euphoria remained.
  • I made good decisions. I said the right things in conversation, I handled stressful matters easily, and I chose my priorities well.
  • My reflexes were faster.
  • My mind was quiet. Normally I have a lot of thoughts unless I intentionally take them away with meditation. But now I was hardly thinking at all. I paid attention to the moment, experiencing it without judging it.
  • I was more aware of my surroundings.
  • I enjoyed physical sensations more, even simple things like the feel of a blanket.
  • I did better work. I sat down and wrote seven client articles in record time, same quality as normal, but with no distractions along the way. I was able to concentrate fully when I needed to and calmly, easily complete my work.

All these conditions lingered long after the ceremony. Some of them are still in effect.

I don’t know what the long term effects will be. How many of these conditions will remain? How will they effect my journey? We’ll see. If you have questions about Vodou or the initiation process, please ask in the comments. I’ll try to answer although I’m not a Vodou priest.

Note: If you are interested in information regarding Vodou or initiation, I am not the person to ask—I am not a Vodou priest and I cannot speak on behalf of the House or our tradition. Instead, I recommend you contact La Source Ancienne Peristyle. They are great at answering questions. 

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Atheism

Are Your Gods So Easily Offended?

I was warned.

“Spiritual entities take a dim view of non-believers,” he told me. “Faith comes first.”

Perhaps the gods will punish me, perhaps they will simply withdraw their favor. Surely they will be offended. To question the gods is hubris.

How striking. Who really believes gods punish doubt?

The history of the last 1900 years is the story of one religion after another falling before Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. The gods have never stepped forward to stop non-believers. The gods are Switzerland.

Druids wept as the sanctuaries were violated; so did Aztec priests. I see Christians and atheists in the UK, visiting the old megaliths with their camera phones. It’s the same sight at Templo Mejor.

Where are the lightning bolts?

Devils and Titans

This fear is more than bad history, though; it’s bad religion. A question: why would you worship selfish pricks?

The gods I worship are ancient, calm, wise in their years. They are sages. They will speak to you if you approach, but if you do not? It isn’t their concern.

But some imagine the gods hungry, needy, jealous, impetuous, lost without humanity. They want bribes and they will make threats to get them. Their finger is on the button.

That is an abusive relationship. That is titans and devils.

An Experiment

But I did say I keep an open mind.

So I went straight to the source. I asked my patron deity.

Lugh is a no-nonsense god. If the gods are in our psyche, some very rigorous part of me invented Lugh; if the gods are real, this is one who will tell me if I have offended him.

I’ll admit I was nervous. I don’t commune with him often. It’s usually very special. To use such an opportunity to tell him I question his existence, to discover I’ve offended him…

I lit the candles.

I reminded myself that the experience matters either way. Even if I’m speaking to myself, if prayer is a sort of deceptively inward-focused meditation, it has always given useful results before. Whatever I was about to discover would be meaningful, whether I liked the answer or not.

Lugh’s Words

Do you think I care what you believe?

You have a mission. When you inspire people, I am there. When you sacrifice yourself, I am there.

If you would make your name, go out and make it. The battle is yours. Let your own arm decide the outcome.

My Interpretation

This answer was emotional for me. It’s extremely reassuring that Lugh is there with me even as I doubt his nature. And it was an important reminder that faith in the gods does not win special favor.

The battle for a better world is ours.

One step toward it is to put “stop pissing off the gods” safely to rest. For those who are absolutely, positively sure that atheism offends the gods: I asked a god, and he told me it does not.

You can question the validity of that revelation, but then you’re admitting that the experiences of the divine are at least partly in our heads. After 12 years of meditation, I can quiet my own inner voice as well as anybody can—this was communion, if there is such a thing.

Do the gods exist? I don’t know.

I don’t call that hubris. I call it honesty.

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Religion, The Heroic Life

I Abandon Refuge in the Dharma

Photo by Miss Cartier

I abandon refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.

I exit the temple door. There is nowhere to spend three jewels, no beggar to receive them.

Merit earned by chanting cannot be given to those who do not chant.

I abandon refuge in the Buddha:

To exist is not to suffer,

It is to struggle, and that’s different.

I abandon refuge in the Dharma:

To quiet your desire cannot save you,

because desire is not the enemy.

I abandon refuge in the Sangha:

Their ship is built to sail a thousand lifetimes,

but the shoal will hit in 60 years.

There is no soul in this frame,

It is only earth and blood.

It hungers and I feed it,

It lusts and I turn to another.

I take risks for love, I walk across the world.

With blistered feet I sing joyful songs.

I abandon refuge,

I exit the temple door.

Let no man want what he already has.

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New Orleans, Religion, The Great Adventure

Spirit Will Use You

“If you use Spirit, Spirit will use you.”

These words echoed in a friend’s dream, to be delivered to me.

A warning, or a promise?

Every day I serve Papa Legba. Sometimes I give him rum, sometimes paprika, sometimes other little gifts. He is an old, limping lwa and one of my patrons. Legba possessed my friend Saturday night. Later, he had this dream.

Photo & original artwork by Judith Pudden

Photo & original artwork by Judith Pudden

Priesting

I miss priesting.

It’s been a year since I ran a temple. A year focused very much on myself.

My role at the temple was that of teacher. Often, I guided people through crisis (or provoked it); spoke for tradition (or silenced it); attacked pride in the proud students and fanned it in the meek ones. I rehearsed ancient ways with dedicated apprentices.

But there are other needs.

What of those who seek their next meal? Instead of the dedicated, what of the lost and uncertain?

I used to minister to, essentially, a college; now I’m called to minister the street.

Drunks and Maniacs

Bring out your drunks, your maniacs, your criminals.

I feel invited to mix with them.

I will talk with the tongueless man on the corner. I will give my dollar to the kid who hops boxcars. I will hold the alcoholic in between his shouted rants.

At least, I think I will.

I’ve been told this city brings out my protective streak. I don’t know if it’s this city, or the presence of so many people who struggle. Many don’t know how to get past tomorrow, tonight. They don’t have any control in their lives.

Most of us derive our peace from a sense of control.

How do you help people who have neither?

Divine Terror

I’ve used a lot of magic lately. I’ve used, so to speak, Spirit.

Will it use me back? How?

It’s scary. I’ve seen people run from religion over smaller scares. Sometimes digging deep means finding things.

Divine terror is the same flame as divine awe.

There are two tools I’ve used when struggling. For peace, meditation; for control, magic.

In some way, I think it’s time for me to share those tools in the community. I don’t know what that means. I don’t know how to keep myself safe when I do it.

Perhaps an open salon for handing out ceremonies. No one turned away, no matter who they are.

I am open to suggestions.

Patrons of my novella get a free story, plus other goodies. Become a patron today!

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Religion, Spotlight

The Pagan Shoe That Never Fits

Photo by Spencer Finnley

Photo by Spencer Finnley

I’m equal parts humanist and priest. This puts me on a lonely fence where both atheists and believers get to throw stones at me.

I wouldn’t mind some company.

Recently I invited blogger John Halstead to depart Paganism and join me in leaving that label behind. John’s spirituality, like mine, delights in the world as-is: a world both good and bad, with quiet gods who do not rush to help.

When John said he was “embarrassed” by mainline Paganism, I wasn’t the only blogger to jump up (though I was the only one tempting him away from it). John addressed a number of us in a single response post. The verdict? He’s sticking with the Pagan umbrella, even though it doesn’t represent his beliefs.

What remained unclear to me was why.

As I write in a comment to him:

[That] affirmation, which you say “defines what Paganism is all about,” is indeed beautiful. But how is it Pagan? I share those beliefs, and I’m not Pagan; Thoreau shared them, and he wasn’t Pagan either. [Your affirmation] even says that those beautiful beliefs are “human” rather than belonging to any religion — such as Paganism.

And Paganism today adds many beliefs beyond what that affirmation offers, some of which you’ve specifically said you’re uncomfortable with. Why the continued loyalty?

(The affirmation really is beautiful, though. It comes from a reader of mine, Dave, and I strongly recommend you read the whole thing.)

In comments however, John offers his personal reasoning:

I love the term [‘pagan’], precisely because it has been used by monotheists to distinguish themselves from those who found divinity in nature in all its diverse forms. I embrace the term… precisely because it is a challenging term.

“For me, the word [‘pagan’] cannot be understood outside the context of monotheism. Whatever was meant by the early Christians when they coined the term ‘pagan’, the word came, at least by the 18th century Romantic revival, to have the meaning described by Henry Hatfield… a “this-worldly” view of life, as opposed to Christian dualism.

As Ronald Hutton demonstrates, the NeoPagan revival was inspired by the German and English Romantics, as much as it was by the Western Hermetic Tradition. It was in this sense that Tim Zell used the word when he started calling the the religious movement that coalesced around the Green Egg newsletter ‘NeoPagan’. And it’s in that sense that I use the term now. For me, it calls up thoughts of people like Stephan George, Thomas Taylor, Charles Swinburne, Leigh Hunt, and Harry Byngham more than Enheduanna, Homer, or Julian.

I adore this usage of “pagan,” though I’m not sure the word implies that anymore. For good or bad, the word has been “reclaimed.”

It matters what John and I call our beliefs, because the number of people who share them is growing. Somewhere between humanism and animism lies the future of religion.

And today, it’s fragile.

Spiritual humanists are among the most disunified groups in existence. Most of us sit under umbrellas that don’t really embrace us—Pagan, atheist, secular humanist, Unitarian—and which don’t represent our interests. By calling ourselves these things we make our own lives harder. More seriously, we prevent actual fellowship or organization under a common flag. We keep our beliefs in the margin.

I also wonder what you think. Do any of you find yourselves in this non-faithful, yet spiritual position? What do you call it? Do you still use some larger umbrella term, and how does it help?

I believe these questions matter. Leave a comment and tell me what you think.

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New Orleans, Religion, Vodou

My Vodou Apprenticeship

I first saw someone possessed by a lwa when I was 19 years old.

I was not in Haiti, nor were the drums pounding. No ceremony had been performed. A friend, who said she was a medium, told me about the lwa: archetypal ancestors who speak through the living.

Bored, I told her I wasn’t interested; that didn’t sound likely to me. She said she could prove it.

Incense was lit, the lights were darkened and she began her spasms as the “spirit” took hold. I sat across the room shaking my head. Was this the best performance she could muster?

Then everything changed.

The Baron came through, one of the death spirits of Vodou. The shift in the room itself was palpable. I was jolted by a presence that even I could feel, and sat as straight as a roof-pillar for the next eighty seconds.

This began a lifelong interest in the beautiful faith of the diaspora, Vodou.

Vodouns after Fête Gede 2012. Picture by Saumya Haas.

La Source Ancienne

In the past I’ve found closed doors around Vodou. While my scholarly knowledge grew, my practical experience remained at a standstill, blocked by my lack of Haitian or even African ancestry.

But that changed with the friendship of Urban (Conversion or Initiation?) and Saumya (What is Voodoo?) and with La Source Ancienne, the community of Vodouns who initiated them in New Orleans. Open to people of all races, their house (temple) practices a very public, very community-oriented flavor of Vodou.

Vodou ceremony is a swirl of music, dance, laughter and visionary trance. It is experiential, and nothing you have read here or elsewhere gives you any sense of what that means.

I would enjoy simply being lost in it every week.

But the community can use more than that. During my six months here, my mission is to learn as many songs as I can—so that I can contribute another voice and, in turn, carry the ancient words to others.

And I’m chasing down the drummers to learn the beats, too.

I’m not formally apprenticed. There is no formal apprenticeship here. You just learn by doing and if you stay around long enough, you know something. Very different from the European way of my other religion.

This is New World, and that’s where we live. The Caribbean lies ahead of me, many more gods along the way. It’s time to see the rest of my heritage.

What will it reveal?

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Writing

Why My First Book Will Be No More

Photo by Spencer Finnley

Imagine knowing exactly what spirituality is.

Picture a world where it doesn’t come from scripture, church, or doctrine. A world where it doesn’t come from what your parents told you, or your pastor.

Imagine a version of yourself with a calm, self-assured confidence that comes from experiencing the sacred firsthand.

You can have that experience.

These words open my first ever ever book, Walk Like a God. They were written two months before I deployed.

Rich in photos, Walk Like a God expresses a way of spirituality that doesn’t follow religion. It roots the spiritual search in the act of challenging yourself, and the simple practice of walking.

It’s a love song to the natural world, to the human spirit, and to our ability to find our own way without doctrine.

And on Sunday, Walk Like a God will no longer be available.

Why?

Authors change.

In the paper-laden past, books went out of print. If all copies sold they became hard to find. Only a huge demand could conjure more.

In the digital realm authors can ride a product forever. But I don’t want to. I’m no longer the person who wrote Walk Like a God. My journey changes me, and I want my work to change too.

Digital publishing is supposed to free writers from a corporate mentality. So instead of selling and selling till the sales run dry, I’m taking it off the shelf.

I want to be clear: I still think Walk Like a God is a great book. I’m proud of it, and when I read back through it I still feel happy with what it teaches.

So you have a little time left.

Whether you’ve been putting it off, just heard of it, or simply want to have a “complete” Rogue Priest collection:

grab Walk Like a God here

But only through 11/11/2012. At the end of Sunday, it’s gone.

Many thanks to everyone who bought, read, enjoyed, or reviewed my first book. The big question is: what do you want in my next book on spirituality?

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Religion, The Heroic Life

Multireligious

Photo by Vicki Ashton

Recently I defined what polytheism means. But my beliefs are in flux: on top of polytheism I consider the Heroic Faith my religion, and it’s still unformed.

When people ask me what I’m a priest of, it’s hard to answer. How do you explain a faith that doesn’t exist yet? Here’s my best attempt:

I don’t have a strong sense of faith. I seldom pray. What inspires me is heroism and sacrifice, which are how humanity endures. I believe every single person has the spark of heroism. It’s the ability to stand up when no one else will.

I want to know how that spark is kindled, and how we keep that flame burning bright.

That’s why I’m on this journey.

This is the very edge of my ability to explain my beliefs. The conversation seldom gets this far—most people either don’t talk about religion, or want to tell me their own views. And me? I listen with care. Mine is the journeyman, not the master; I have no sermon to deliver. I am here to learn.

But sometimes they truly want to know what I believe. And that helps me figure it out.

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