Ex opere operato

26 04 2010

Thoughts on Voudoun and worship

A collective religion cannot depend on vagaries of individual aptitude and persuasion; on the contrary, it must stabilize these vagaries and protect participants against their own weaknesses, failures, and inadequacies. It must provide the generally uncreative, often distracted individual with a prescribed movement and attitude, the very performance of which involves and perhaps inspires him… The tradition must support the individuals, give them security beyond personal indecision, lift them beyond their own individual creative powers…. It does not rise from their grace, their power, their knowledge. It confers these upon them.

-Maya Deren, The Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti

Deren in her book is perceptive in terms of analyzing the very “objective” concerns of Voudoun serviteurs and religious practice. For Deren, in these there is no room for virtuosity, just as there is no room to take it upon oneself to serve the lwa. All of these are phenomena the laws of which originate in another world. It is that other world’s virtuosity, its creativity, that must manifest itself in ritual, not our own.

The West has long ago abandoned this sense of the connection between worship and cosmos, at least on the fundamental level. What is important is not the cycle of the universe but history; what matters is the commemoration of events, not archetypes. The most modern scholarship is keen to point out the difference between the Christian and non-Christian visions of space, time, and eternity. How the seminal events manifest themselves in the present is a question of commemoration and not invocation; it is fundamentally an action haunted by the fear of idolatry. What matters most is history and not cosmos; moral action and not theurgical performance.
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