Sunday, August 9, 2015

Religion As Spiritual Sustenance

I was raised with elements of Christianity, paganism, and indigenous ideology. While I was christened in the UCC as a baby, my mother was always searching for "the right fit." She was born into a Catholic family and celebrated her First Communion in the streets of southern Italy, wrapped in a white, lacy gown that hugged her small form. She always described the Catholicism of her childhood as "pagan" because while everyone loved the Pope, people practiced their faith in their own ways, often incorporating aspects of folk magic, such as using cornicellos to ward off the evil eye.
Cornicello and sign of the horns. Photo Credit: CRWR
When I was a girl I recall experimenting, alongside my mother, the worship practices of the Unitarians and Episcopalians. I remember attending a sacred circle with her at a retreat and educational facility tucked away in the Michigan forest, called Circle Pines, where I had my first taste of the power of meditative group trance. In my teen years my mother began to recognize the Celtic Wheel of the Year, and I remember becoming very familiar with Beltane and Samhain, and reveling in the creation of the ancestral altar.

In my early 20s I sat through a sweat lodge ceremony with my Ojibway boyfriend and other members of the local native community. My indigenous Costa Rican college professor was there, and in the evening while everyone was enjoying a communal meal, I helped his Anishnaabe wife bring the spirit plate outside and set it at the foot of a towering oak tree.
Sweat lodge/Walt Hubis
Throughout my life I always spent endless hours alone in the woods, absorbing the breeze, the river water, the movements of the deer, fox, and rabbits, picking raspberries and letting myself fly with the soul of the wild. All of these things impacted me in important ways. I grew up appreciating all faiths, and finding deep value in the uniqueness they each had to offer, and the similar qualities they shared.

Still, I had never found a "seat for my soul" until after marrying my husband who had been raised with Santería in Santos Suarez, Havana, Cuba. After many years of living with the Orishas in our home, I one day realized they had become my dear family and my friends. My journey in Santería and Ifá had begun even before I'd become conscious of it, and has continued through the years to feed me in rich and indescribably wonderful ways as I've experienced initiations, delved deeply into the Yoruba perspective and cosmology, and grown in community with my family and ilé.  In the end, my religious practice was not something I sought out, but something that found me instead.
Yemaya dancer/James Emery
But I know that not everyone has positive experiences with religion and religious structure. I know that many have difficult memories of organized faith communities, and who prefer the freedom of expression that an unrestricted spiritual ideology offers. I've even found seekers who discover the beauty of the Orishas, but reject the ritual traditions that form the historical, ancestral, religious, and ceremonial context in which they are meant to be understood, explored, and experienced.

It is true that religion devoid of spirituality can be a dangerous entity, and in my experience it is the union of the two that create what for me is a deeply satisfying whole. And while many are content and well-served with spirituality devoid of religion, I do find that many "spiritual-not-religious" people develop practices that provide them some sort of structure, whether it be pulling Tarot cards for guidance, maintaining an altar, or honoring the turn of the seasons (and in fact these are all aspects of my own spiritual practice as well).

There is a subsection of people in the "esoteric" community (and in many communities, I suspect) that are very opposed to what they perceive as a rigid and authoritarian religious hierarchy that disempowers individuals. I wanted to explore this further, as there are people (like me) that have had a very different experience with religion. I decided to pull some cards:

"What represents religion at its worst - the aspects that drive people away?" The 5 of Swords almost immediately flew out of the deck.

Prisma Visions Tarot/James Eads
Interestingly this is often called the "bully card," and I'd say that "bullying" is an apt term to use to describe the negative experiences that some have had with organized religion. The 5 of Swords says, "it's my way or the highway," and represents the impulse to dominate others. In the religious context this can be the move to monopolize belief systems, to control the behavior of others (often via fear), and symbolizes the dogmatic systems used to beat out those who are deemed "less than."

What I like in this picture is the one figure watching the butterfly as it flies away from the fight as if wondering, "Could there be another way?" Divinity is out there swirling above their heads but they're so wrapped up in their victor-less battle for "right" over "wrong" that they don't even seem to notice.

This way of thinking ("my way is the only way", "if you don't act right you're going to pay") is a sickness of many, if not all, religious practices that have stepped away from spiritual creeds and become dominated by ego and baser instincts. However it doesn't mean that the religion itself has no value, rather that some of the people running the show have lost their way. So I ask....

"At best, what does religion offer?" I pulled the Hierophant, and the 2 of Wands flipped out as well.

Prisma Visions Tarot/James Eads
I find this to be a very fitting duo. The 2 of Wands is about choice, personal power and growth, and a search for the right path. We don't practice a faith because it is forced upon us (that defeats the essence of "faith," really). We practice it, learn it, live it and breathe it, we struggle with it and we love it, because we have made the choice to do so, and because it empowers us rather than disempowering us.

The Hierophant at first glance seems kind of funny: religion at its best is... religion? But no. Religion at its best is tradition. In the Handbook of Yoruba Religious Concepts (1994), Baba Ifa Karade writes: "Religion, as a custom of worship, is not man's purpose, but only a means to an end while the end itself is iwa-pele (balanced, gentle character). The fundamental reality in respect to the divinity of self and the heavenly forces is that of pure and enlightened character development" (pg. 23).

Religion isn't the purpose, it's simply a path, a means to improve the self and develop strong character with integrity. There are many roads that lead to the same goal, like there are stars in the sky. Nowadays most people have the opportunity to discover a faith practice that resonates with them - or to choose none at all.

I find my religion to be a great source of spiritual sustenance and wisdom, and the traditions are meaningful and sacred to me. Incidentally, while there are certain ways of conducting ritual and ceremony that should be followed (and even this will vary from house to house), there is generally a lot of flexibility and free will within the structure of the religion. Most often we receive advice or recommendations as opposed to mandates. This allows for a great deal of personal freedom and development. Even if someone were to unknowingly commit a "transgression" it's seen as a learning opportunity. There is a saying, "La inocencia se perdona" ("innocence is forgiven").

I am deeply fed by my relationship with the Orishas. They are not abstract concepts, or interesting-sounding entities; they are my father, my mother, my Warriors, my best friend, my teachers, my allies, my family. As I grow in my practice and knowledge, my relationship with them, with God, with my ancestors, and with myself, continues to deepen and blossom in wondrous, fulfilling, and beautiful ways. That, to me, is what it's all about.

"Only when you allow religion to be more than a book of rules or a means to get power can you internalize the fundamental truth about Creation: that our world overflows with the Sacred."
(pg. 24, Tobe Melora Correal; Finding Soul on the Path of Orisa, 2003).


  1. Thank you for sharing this very personal part of your life with us. It must be wonderful to feel so supported by your faith and religion .Sometimes I wish my spiritual path was more clear to me too. Often I seem to sway between ideas and ideologies. When I am feeling not so good and insecure about a lot of things (like the last couple of days) I tend to start praying to God of my childhood, a loving Father in heaven. He seems so much more familiar to me then, than the Great Mother. I guess they are all the same so it doesn't matter much as long as I keep praying..

    1. Hugs to you too! :) I believe that spirituality and religion can be inclusive. While Ifá is my home and forms the heart of my central practice, I study Norse myth as an important aspect of my ancestral cultural heritage that I feel connected to. Even though I know that God is far beyond any gender assignments, I was raised thinking of God as a father, like you, and that always seems to be what I go back to as well. But I love the female essence of God, too, the divine feminine. You are right that in the end it's the prayer itself that really matters :)

    2. Thank you! it means a lot to me to know I am not the only one who sees God(dess) with multiple faces :)

  2. That is so interesting, you have a nice rich depth of various practices there and it is all knowledge and experience and valuable. Thank you for sharing. BB