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.

Of course, there are remnants of older practices in modern monotheistic systems. These have always been seen as necessary evils by many; an intruder whose presence is tolerated in the cult to the one True God. Over and over again, we find the signs found everywhere: the Tree, the Egg, the Star, the Womb, the Woman, and so forth. Over and over modern religion has to “reform” itself so that the symbols do not overshadow the Gospel of spirit and truth. The world is a very poor vessel for God’s grace, and if it does indeed manifest itself, it does so in very limited and defined circumstances: the seven sacraments, the Scriptures, the priesthood, the Pope. All of this occurs in the context of “conscious assent”, always respecting the autonomous human subject that is the foundation of Western philosophical anthropology.

Not so in Voudoun, or any other ancient system. There, nature and supernature, the divine and the human, are unruly and proximate neighbors. There, the act does not have to be understood to be done; in the doing lies the understanding. There, the symbols have a power all their own, and the moral layout of the universe is often undefined. It is here that the loss of one’s subjectivity, the riding of the lwa, is seen as the highest act of religion. It is the manifestation of the divine that lies not in the immortal soul, but in the blood.

Nothing better speaks this sacramentology of Voudoun than the language of the drum. The drum is what holds the ceremony together, calls forth the lwa from the other world, and is the primordial heartbeat of the universe. Drums, however, need drummers, and particularly adept drummers make for crisper and more effective ceremonies. A good drummer may be able to call down the lwa more effectively in some circumstances. But in the end, the thing that matters most is not the performer, but the drum:

Not only is the drummer outside the organization of the hounfor, but he is systematically distinguished from the drums, which are sacred, and it is understood that salutations addressed to the drums do not include the men who happen to be beating them. The degree to which the drums are understood as independent spirits, almost as loa, is revealed in many of the ceremonies which attach to them. All sacred objects are consecrated by being baptized in the name of the chosen loa, but the drums are the only objects which are dressed for their baptism, as a child is dressed. They are the only objects that are literally fed with food and put to sleep overnight, a ritual designed to strengthen them… They are also conceived as having a will of their own, which can even oppose the will of the drummer, in that they may refuse to speak for him under certain conditions.

The drummer is not the agent of the ceremonial drumming, but merely a mechanism. While his contribution contributes in some way, a merely adequate rendition of the songs is enough to bring down the lwa. The moral force behind the drums is not the man, but the gods.

While such a mentality continues to persist in some parts of the “civilized” world, it is something with which we have never been comfortable. Modern man continues in his labor to drive the divine out of matter, or at least enchain it under tame, unenchanted categories. The construction of the massive juggernaut that separates heaven from earth continues.


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2 responses

22 05 2010
christina

Yet isn’t it precisely the Incarnation that grounds our Faith in history? Man-made religions of all kinds are built on myth and archetype… and so must rely heavily on them for their rituals. Christianity, however, celebrates first and foremost the earthly life of God Incarnate and the lives of His saints. That doesn’t mean that myth and archetype can’t play a part… Christian art for instance portrayed such elements for a long time. But like Judaism, ours is a Faith rooted in history and covenant with the living God.

27 04 2010
mcmlxix

“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.”

This seems as good of a response as any to those disdain “organized religion” and solely glorify “being spiritual”.

Besides, religion means to bind, and if that binding is not to the other, then it’s to the self. This was Lucifer’s error.

I’ve been in drum circles with barefoot postmodernists with ridiculous dreadlocks and BO for days. How does neo-paganism compare to paleo-paganism?

“There, the act does not have to be understood to be done; in the doing lies the understanding.” And “Nothing better speaks this sacramentology of Voudoun than the language of the drum.”

Are the neos interacting with supernature in the same ways as the paleos are? Are they passing through to the other or merely gazing into their own navel?

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