Again on “committed Christianity”

22 07 2010

…the Christian of the future will by a mystic or will not be at all.

-Karl Rahner

Joseph Komonchak is a smart man. I enjoy reading his posts on the Commonweal site. I know that he is older than me, and I know that he sees things quite differently. I suppose in the post cited above, I was most impressed by how well he was able to crystalize everything I dislike about the “new Catholicism” in such a short post. I especially was appauled by this Yves Congar quote:

We have not yet sufficiently communicated, or developed, the positive biblical grounds on which a new chapter in the history of the Church has really begun, in continuity, however, with the living tradition of the Scriptures, the Fathers, and the classic centuries. The fate of the Church, it seems to me, is more and more tied to a spiritual and even a supernatural life, that is, to a Christian life. I think that today the only ones who can stick it out [tenir le coup] are Christians who have an inner life. In Tridentinism, there was a kind of conditioning (in a non-pejorative sense); there was a sort of enveloping, of a framework that one entered or stayed within, whereas today…, it is impossible, I think, to maintain a Christian life without some kind of inner life. And here I like to cite a rather curious remark of Fr. Emile Mersch, that Belgian Jesuit who did so much for the theology of the Mystical Body: “It’s because they lack a skeleton that certain animals surround themselves with a carapace.: Today I think the great carapace of Tridentinism has in great part dissolved, flaked off in some way, so that the need for a kind of inner frame is very urgent.
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The crossroads

19 07 2010

From the blues to Brazil and beyond

If you want to learn how to make songs yourself, you take your guitar and you go to where the road crosses that way, where a crossroads is. Get there be sure to get there just a little ‘ fore 12 that night so you know you’ll be there. You have your guitar and be playing a piece there by yourself…A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar and he’ll tune it. And then he’ll play a piece and hand it back to you. That’s the way I learned to play anything I want


This vignette was told in conjunction with the story of bluesman, Robert Johnson, who according to another site, “claims he sold his soul to the Devil at the Crossroads in exchange for becoming the greatest musician ever. He is — and was dead at 27.”
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Maya Deren on technological sorcery

15 07 2010

Indeed, the best condition for magical action is not the primitive community with its collective emphasis, but the modern community, with its individualistic emphasis, and it is here that one may experience the pre-eminent spectacle of the magician at work. He conceives his plans in almost solitary secrecy, or with a few cohorts; he is feverishly protective of the exclusive right to exploit the power of his discovery or invention; he is frequently concerned with an almost occult effort to divine that special twist of public taste which makes for a hit or a best-seller; he is devoted to the idea of a magic combination of words in a certain just-so order, which is a catchy slogan; he labors to create a skillfully obsessive image of material or sexual seduction, and is not above accomplishing this with a maximum of artifice and connotative sleight of hand; he is involved in a complex and formal series of cabbla-like manipulations involving “contacts”, publicity incantations, and even what might be accurately termed the cocktail libation. Moreover, this is all pursued in the interests of personal aggrandizement and entirely irrespective, in a profound sense, of the public welfare. The hexes, elixirs and fetishes of primitive magicians are paltry achievements compared to the vast powers of such modern magicians.

-from The Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti

AG and I watched the above film, and it reminded me of this quote. Of course, Deren writes this to get the point across to here Christian and post-Christian readers that the society of Haitian voudou (in which sorcery is actually something looked down upon) has nothing on modern society, where manipulation is not just accepted, but is a way of life. This is not a new observation: Giordano Bruno’s real sympathetic magic has more to do with modern advertising and social propaganda than Neoplatonic theurgy. “The bond of all bonds is love,” according to Bruno, but that love can be used to make people do what you want.

I look into some pretty questionable things: folk Catholic prayers, botanicas, white magic, black magic, and so forth. But I really do think Deren is right. We look to those systems like voudou and santeria and see the hand of the devil. But our society manipulates desire all of the time, convinces people to go into debt to buy things they really don’t need, and transports images that present us with things that we shouldn’t really enjoy, but we don’t see the “sorcery” behind this. Who then are the poorly catechized ones? The real “Christo-pagans”?

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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The Metaphysics of Voudoun

12 04 2010

Maya Deren’s book, The Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, is one of the greatest works of metaphysics of the 20th century. Unlike the works of such figures as Husserl and Heidegger, and very much like the work of Mircea Elaide, she attempts to find being in the midst of life itself, and not in pure thought. For her, Voudoun is not just some “ungodly” superstition, some manner of manipulating spirits in order to get your own way in life. The complex pantheon of deities and the rituals used to feed and invoke them are informed by a complex worldview in which all things are interconnected. The truth of being is thus not abstract, but is so concrete that it flows through the very veins of the worshippers themselves.
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Maya Deren’s Erzulie

25 03 2010

Maya Deren in her book, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, gives a different perspective on the divine feminine than is seen in most cultures. The central goddess of Voudou is not a mother goddess, but a goddess similar to Aphrodite or the Muses in Greek mythology. I speak of course here of Erzulie. As is the case of all loa, she is more archetype than person, and she is the manifestation of “that which distinguishes humans from all other forms: their capacity to conceive beyond reality, to desire beyond adequacy, to create beyond need.” Far from being the divine mother giving birth in the midst of protean chaos, she is the mother of the “myth of man’s life – its meaning…that very principle by which man conceives and creates divinity.”

When she takes possession of someone in a Voudou ceremony, she is the true woman of luxury, often making irrational demands on the surrounding devotees, themselves sunk in dire poverty. She performs an elaborate toilette, using only a new soap, the best combs, the finest jewelry. She also demands the best food and flowers, and displays an elaborate formalism in every gesture. She is a veritably “out of this world” character in the midst of the squalor of her surroundings. This is needed in this system, as Deren writes that:

In her character is reflected all the élan, all the excessive pitch with which the dreams of men soar, when, momentarily, they can shake loose the flat weight, the dreary, reiterative demands of necessity; and the details with which the serviteur has surrounded her image reflect the poignant, fantastic misconceptions of luxury which a man who has only known poverty would cherish.
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On the margins of theology – VI

18 01 2010

The myth of Marie Laveau

“Voodoo” is a brand name in New Orleans. This past Halloween, right in front of the museum in City Park, there was a big “Voodoo” sign advertising a big concert at which performed such treasures of our American culture as Eminem. It also shows up, almost annoyingly, on many advertisements in the city. Tours of the French Quarter almost always end at St. Louis Cemetery no. 1, home of the tomb of famed “Voodoo Queen”, Marie Laveau, over which now looms one of the more crime-ridden housing projects in the city. (Really, don’t go to this cemetery by yourself, go in a group of at least five or six people. If you want to visit an authentic Louisiana cemetery without risking life and limb, go to St. Louis Cemetery no. 3 off of Esplanade in Mid-City, or to the cemeteries on Canal St.)
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New Orleans Voodoo – Two contrasting videos

7 05 2009

One wonders how accurate this video is. I have yet to read a serious biography of Marie Laveau, mainly because I can’t afford it (sigh). Should we believe that the head of the New Orleans clergy and the chief Voudou priestess worked together in many ways? (Congo Square is about six blocks behind St. Louis Cathedral, almost in its shadow.) Perhaps our own ideas of acceptability when it comes to syncretism are different from those of “good Catholics” from back then. One thing is for sure: Marie Laveau was a fixture at the cathedral throughout her life, and no one tried to throw her out.

Of course, I picked this video because there is not a black person in it. I was recently at the St. Jude Shrine in New Orleans, which has a number of African-American parishioners. There was a woman who was doing something very interesting around the statue of St. Jude, probably something she made up, but it would look like “Voodoo” to anyone else looking on. The one thing about syncretic systems is that they are most authentic when people use them in the style of a bricoleur, that is, not self-consciously, systematically separating the “pagan” from the “Christian” elements. Indeed, it is middle class whites who often exploit syncretic systems, Indian shamanism, etc., in their own anti-Christian, neo-pagan quests for “real spirituality”. Marie Laveau or El Niño Fidencio would have never thought themselves anything but good Catholics when executing their “pagan” rituals. When outsiders arrive to take up their mantle, they more often than not miss that very important point.