I find that a culture’s primary religion and spiritual practices are usually pretty evident when visiting a country, even for a brief visit. Brazil is noticeably, mostly a Roman Catholic country. While Brazilians originally came from a wide range of religious backgrounds, Catholicism became the dominant path. In the early part of the 1900’s, people immigrated to Brazil from Japan, Portugal, Germany, Italy, and the Middle East. Catholicism and Christianity became the religion that united them as Brazilians. That is evident by the large churches we frequently saw, even in the poorest of regions. We passed the Our Lady of Aparecida shrine on the long drive between São Paulo and Rio. It is the church that holds the statue of Mary found by fisherman in Aperecida and can seat 45,000 people! A massive replica of King Solomon’s Temple was built in São Paulo in 2014, at the cost of $300 million. Notably, one of our hosts is a Brazilian born, Japanese woman who was baptized in a gorgeous church that we visited in São Paulo.
Tucked in among the multicultural societies, are descendants of the millions of African slaves who were brought to Brazil by colonialists over the course of a few centuries. (Slavery was not abolished in Brazil until 1888!) While in Rio, we were lucky enough to learn about one of the African religious traditions that is still alive today. We were invited to a Candomblé Temple. I give huge thanks to our organizers, because without them, I would have never been exposed to the fascinating, unique, and beautiful demonstration we saw.
For those who don’t know what Candomblé is (neither did I), it is an African derived religion, based on deities associated with Catholic saints. When the African slaves came to Brazil and were forced to hide their beliefs within Catholicism, they synthesized their rituals and practices. If I understand correctly, the Candomblé Initiates connect with one of the many deities through a very involved process that takes years of study and practice. The rituals involve sacred drumming, and trance-like dancing. The Temple is a place for people to come, heal, and witness.
Our giant tour bus drove through the favela making many tight turns to get us safely to our destination. The bus literally could not fit on many of the streets in the neighborhood. Multi-family dwellings are crowded together with steps and corrugated roofs connecting them. Below are narrow streets filled with parked cars, people in their shops, and a sense that everyone knows each other. On the surface, it appeared as though we really did not belong. Yet, we soon felt very welcomed and included in a special corner of the culture. As we piled out of the giant tour bus, we were ushered quickly off the sidewalk and directed to climb to the top of a hill of steps. It was as if several homes were built on top of each other.
Just above that sidewalk, I felt the sincere welcoming into a world both sacred and unassuming. We walked though what seemed like an outdoor hallway attaching many rooms or apartments. The daily rain had flooded some of the structure and the sun was soaking up the moisture, as it was getting closer to noon. We passed the little rooms and walked onto a flat roof, with unusual wooden doors on both sides, and a larger room at the end, covered with a simple corrugated roof. This room was the Temple. There, plastic tables and folding chairs were set up for us on one end, and the sacred drums and special priestess chairs at the other end. There was a simple alter with pictures of the family’s ancestors. The ceiling was covered with strips of white fabric, like petals hanging, and there were accents of bright yellow fabric streamers decorating the walls. It was a warm, inviting, and very treasured space.
I could not help but notice that the piercing green eyes of the father, the patriarch of the family, matched those of his three sons, the drummers, and his daughter, the high priestess. They and their Initiates taught us about Candomblé and played and danced for us in the Temple that shaded us from the Brazilian summer sun. Every rhythm has its own connection with a specific deity and each, in turn, has a special dance and gesture. The symbolic movements reflect the making of bread, the sweeping of dirt, or the ripples of the water. The dancer shuffles his or her feet subtly in small circles, taking up very little space in the room. They fed us fruit and water and taught the kids how to play the drums. Only the boys were allowed to touch the sacred drums because the tradition says that the sacred drumming will disrupt the women’s menstrual cycle and her fertility. Our modern, teenage, American girls accepted the information graciously.
Calm in the Storm
The beauty of the whole scene fascinated me. As a dance therapist, I think I have witnessed and studied many movement rituals that feed a society’s soul. Similarly, this felt pure and simple, in the middle of a huge and often unsafe city. Everything about this family and their beliefs seemed honest and without agenda. I felt that they just quietly create and hold a space that helps to keep the calm in the eye of the storm.
Sitting in the sun and watching the smiles of the drummers, the dancer, and his fellow Initiates, I was aware that I could not relate to putting my life so deeply on a spiritual path, and live that simply. At the same time, I recognized that they seemed so completely happy and at peace with their choice to do so. Witnessing that genuine love for something divine is truly a gift. It was a really delicious and soothing cup of decaf.