I’ve never been a big fan of Catholicism for the same reasons I’m not a big fan of party politics and potted meat, and most of the Catholics I know are emotional wrecks and/or highly conflicted people. I happen to enjoy these qualities, so my Catholic friends are also some of the most fun people I know–and some of my most cherished friendships (Leo J. Carmody, you know I’m talking to you.)
I associate angel worship and the worship of the Virgin Mary with Catholicism, which, of course, is ironic because my life is colliding on these exact points, as is God’s seemingly obvious plan that I will have to embrace everything that makes me uncomfortable about life. I also never put much stock in saints, being a Baptist we weren’t required to do so, and I saw all the extra celestial beings to be superfluous. Catholicism, I judged, suffered from Too Much Syndrome. There was just a lot going on. Baptists see Mary once a year at Christmas time, and some lucky school child gets to play her in the pageant. Important, oh yes, this Mary, but not our focal point. He is in the manger in the swaddling clothes.
So I come to adulthood, and mine has been, as you all know, this ongoing spiritual journey which is hilarious and harrowing and confusing and exhilarating, and all the things better writers have noted when they attempt to convey their own adventures in the spheres. As with most doors that I must open and walk through in this spiritual journey, an outside force–usually a person but sometimes a book–brings me to the door, or introduces me to it. So it was with angels and the Virgin Mary.
I will hold off on talking about angels and my experiences there, this blog is really about Mary. My former boss, Jill, held Mother Mary as an icon in her life, and she spoke freely with me about her reverence for Mary, and statues of her, photographs and curios, adorned Jill’s office. Jill is not Catholic, but she is definitely wide open to the spiritual experience. Cool, I thought, but not much else. Later that year, I met Leotha Douglas, the shaman who died suddenly in June from cancer, and he and I had long, endless conversations about spiritual matters and he had, as he was told, the energy of the Mother Mary. Skeptical as I am, I did not doubt it about Leotha. He could walk in a room and everybody would calm down–it really was a sight to witness. He didn’t “do” anything, he was just there, emitting infinite grace as easily as breath.
I didn’t think much about these two people and their unwavering reverence for the Blessed Virgin until yesterday, when I received an email from Linda Yudin with Viver Brasil about the details of our upcoming trip to Bahia. As it turns out, we’ll be in Bahia during the Festa de Boa Morte–Festival of the Good Death–and we are going.
Festival of the Good Death?
I google it immediately, and find that it is not what I expected.
Now I feel it fitting to mention that, in secret (well, Michael knows), I have recently been compelled to ride my bike over to St. Columbkille, a Catholic Church about a mile from our house, and light candles for my friends in the outdoor alcove dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Her 3 1/2 foot statue rests in a cave made of shells outside of the church next to a walking meditation that takes you through the highlights of Jesus’s birth, passion, death, and resurrection. I walk the path, and then spend time with Mary, and I talk to her like a mother, and, I swear to you, she answers me. The action of the lighting of the candle, of dedicating it to someone I love (and, sometimes, someone who is so bad on my nerves I don’t know what else to do), of praying with Her, feels to me like swimming in cool river. I like it.
Michael was raised Catholic, and he has many unresolved issues there and none of them good, but by God he was paying attention, and he knows the religion inside and out. He’s my go to guy about all things Catholic, and I had to make sure with him that it was okay for me to light candles at Mary’s place because I’m not in the faith. Some religions are like that, you know, and I didn’t put it past the Catholics to excoriate somebody for lighting a candle if they weren’t in the club. However, it is okay.
As I’m reading through the Global Axe website about the festival of Boa Morte, I’m discovering the most shocking information.
“What is the Feast of the Assumption of Mary?” I ask Michael. He tells me that “feast” simply means “holy day” and that Mary didn’t die because she was born without sin; she was assumed into heaven. (Michael’s favorite WMD for Catholics is to catch them believing that the Immaculate Conception was about Jesus–it was, as he reminds people, the idea that Mary was born without sin, ergo God’s selection of her as the Mother of Christ. I did not know this, either…Immaculate Conception = Virgin Birth, but no, Michael says. Not the same.)
I keep reading.
Oh my God, I think. This can’t be for real. So, check this out:
When the white Europeans overthrew Brazil and brought Catholicism and African slaves with them, they outlawed the traditional African form of worship, called Candomble, and forced the Africans to take up with the Catholic faith. Underground, a group of African women formed a secret society called Irmandade de Nossa Senhora da Boa Morte. The Sisterhood of Our Lady of the Good Death. Here, they pretended to be lay Catholic sisters, and they disguised their African orixas, or gods/spiritual entities, as Catholic saints. Mary’s Assumption, a “good death,” blended with their African worship of their female ancestors, who also gave their lives for the betterment of humanity–and so the “good death” represents women who died fighting, in their own ways, for liberation.
Hidden behind the cloak of the Sisterhood of Our Lady of the Good Death, they passed along their traditional African beliefs mixed in with Catholicism, earning, in time, money and social power–enough to buy some slaves from servitude and create a secret network to provide freed slaves protection and care.
Because of the work of the Sisterhood, slavery was eventually abolished in Brazil (the last country to do so), and these miraculous and brave Bahianas still operate today in the oldest “secret” society of women in the world. Each year in August, they assemble in Bahia to celebrate The Festival of the Good Death–of Mary’s Assumption, of the struggle against slavery in Brazil, of the power of faith and prayer and doing what is right in the face of peril.
And we are going. We will wear white and dance and eat bean fritters called acaraje in honor of the Bahianas.
I’m sitting in our bed in my t-shirt and underwear reading all of this on my lap top as Michael watches videos online. I’d just been to see Mary that afternoon, and I had wondered why I was suddenly so interested in her, what was happening. And so it continues. A few weeks ago, I wrote that I knew somehow this trip also was bringing to me some resolution or something about my interest in slavery, how it all ties into my life in the South, and here, this festival of the good death–as, I hope, my own death will be–these points converge–and here’s the kicker, in dancing.
A few days ago, riding through the Everglades with my tour group, we saw a storm blow in across the sky from the Gulf of Mexico to where we were inland. The sky there is so big you can literally watch a storm approach from the horizon for a half hour before you ever see the first drop of rain. You can be standing in the sun and see the rain and lightning way off in the distance, and you know, in your heart, that storm will be upon you soon, and you can even feel the roots of your hairs tingle from the thunder and electricity that is so far off and yet inevitably approaching your life.
That is how I feel right now. I can see all the elements of the storm gathering and they are heading my way. Storms, as I see it, are wonderful acts of nature that have a way of bringing priorities into focus. Storms bring life. Jill and Leotha, I can see in hindsight, made Mary’s path in my life, and as I have learned to trust my own inner guidance–as in, get on your bike and go see the Mary statue at St. Columbkille’s–then I walk the path, and it leads me, miraculously, to a festival of holy women in a secret society in Brazil.
Don’t you just love living? The most bizarre and wonderful things transpire.