Michael Ortiz Hill, “Claire”, Claire Ortiz Hill, Eshu Elegba

A preamble is called for of this most strange essay. There are four authors. One is obviously me. And there is “Claire” who is a fictional Catholic hermit I spun out of my pissiness with Mother Church. Then, in italics, are the comments of my very non-fictional older sister Claire, a actual hermit who often objects to “Claire” and Michael's characterization of Catholicism. Finally, there’s Eshu Elegba, the Yoruba trickster who peeks between words (and between worlds) to check out the scene and occasionally dictates to me. Claire voice is in italics.

Since the piece is about the diabolicization of the indigenous Eshu’s presence is critical as he’s long been slandered as the devil.

My father, a kind Buddhist (I don’t see dad as a Buddhist, maybe a Zen Buddhist. Mom used to correct us when we were growing up when we said he was a Buddhist. A Yogi he was – dad was passionate about Sri Aurobindo and the Bhavagad Gita, which are Hindu writings) bureaucrat with a taste for Jung and a taste for alcohol (and cigarettes! And only in the very last years of his life. I didn’t know him that way most of the time I was growing up.), had two intellectual heirs: My older sister Claire, and myself. Claire, a philosopher, a student of phenomenology (I’m not a student. I am a scholar who is a Husserlian philosopher of logic and mathematics), took my mothers’ path Catholicism (Mom hasn’t been a practicing Catholic since 1957. I started going to church on my own initiative when I was 7 years old). For the over twenty years she has practiced as a contemplative hermit in France. I also took the contemplative path but as a Buddhist, and the core of my practice has been in the two years I’ve spent months in radical solitude since I was a teenager.

For the past few years, however, Buddhadharma has syncretized nicely with traditional African medicine which I sometimes see as an ersatz of the Pure Land tradition. I was initiated as a tribal healer among Bantu people in Zimbabwe and practice in North America.

I was recently alone for the first time in six years in my cave on the coast of Big Sur, California. A couple of weeks to sit still, do rituals, sing and write. I began my retreat by setting up an altar for Eshu Elegba.

Eshu is the Yoruba “Hermes.” Just as Hermes (Mercury) was syncretised as Michael the Archangel so also Eshu in Haiti. They are messengers of the Divine thus: Hermes/Zeus, Eshu/Obatala, St. Michael/God.

The Yoruba tradition, like most of the pre-Christian African world, is monotheistic. Eshu is that portion of the godhead that turns commonsense inside out. If God has a sense of humor Eshu most certainly exemplifies it. He is a trickster to be sure but not like the humorless and cruel devil in The Book of Job who God gives over to the undoing of his servant (Old Testament, Old Covenant. Tricking people and “undoing them.” A funny way is so good? Is it better to have a funny torturer with a sense of humor?) Nonetheless in my training and initiation into the African way I often left offerings for Eshu for the undoing of my rigidity and arrogance. This he did with style and incomparable panache.

Nonetheless this one, like Hermes the friendliest of the gods, like Hermes the patron of truth tellers and liars, has been slandered as the “devil” from Nigeria to Alabama to Rio. In the thirties the bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to Legba at the crossroads and soon was yelping like a dog. So they say.

Of course I think Eshu got a bad rap. Eshu, on the other hand, insisted I thrash it out with “Claire” as it seems that some of my Catholic ancestors objected to sharing the house of the spirits with a suspicious looking coconut. (Ritually, as in this case, Eshu lives in a coconut.) And so, after night fell I called my “sister” into dialogue, first drawing three Tarot cards of the masque of the devil that these old ones might project onto this keeper of thresholds. The following dialogue transpired with “Claire.”

(“Claire” is by no means my sister though “sister” she is. I trust the alert reader will know the difference between “Claire” and Claire.)

I wouldn’t trust the readers. You should say flat out that your real sister doesn’t mind your writing this because it represents the ideas of the Tarot cards, not hers. In particular, it shows how off the mark Tarot cards can be.

It was, as I said, Eshu’s idea. The indigenous, he said in so many words, must never be trammeled with fantasies of the diabolic (The indigenous themselves know all about evil spirits. More than Westerners do.) Such impedes the grace of collaboration with Eshu and the other invisibles. When that cultural daemon Satan tramps in, I feel the cold wind of the Inquisition.

“Claire” had another point of view, and I looked at her perspective through the Tarot oracle.

Masque #1: The Three of Swords

The three, in the Mythic Tarot, shows Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus over the corpse of Agamemnon. Agamemnon, in order to win the Trojan War, sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia, having been told by an oracle that that act would ensure victory. Clytemnestra greeted the conquering hero in the traditional way, the red carpet and the sacramental bath to wash off the blood of war. Vulnerable, naked, in the tub, Agamemnon is killed when Clytemnestra drives three swords through her husbands’ heart.

(The dialogue begins.)

Michael: Oh that voice. How much it has haunted me since the deer hunter found the cracked skull of our little brother Paul. The blues song of the family curse sung by keening women. Mom kills dad, naked he bleeds into the water. And who did dad kill? I forget. Brother Paul? Well yes, in a way, posthumously. Actually I think the whole family collaborated and killed them both. Dad afloat on his lonely iceberg of congestive heart failures and diuretics. Paul marginalized off the edge of the cliff as happens with psychotics; ¬the culture completing the dreaded act that the family can’t quite do. Is that satanic? I mean the force of evil in the family or the cruel voice in me that insists on the darkest light. I¹m not sure.

“Claire”: What would it be if not satanic? You said “a force of evil” didn¹t you? Do you prefer euphemisms (I wouldn’t, I don’t, interpret it that way. Maybe you know something about the force of evil in the family that I don’t know. I haven’t called it satanic or diabolic. I’ve thought of these problems in human terms.)?

Michael: Well when things grow black I admit the fantasy of Satan sometimes intrudes. Or appeals. So simple. So compelling in its crudity. And such bullshit. The devil with his bag of tricks, his hellfire and his pitchfork (I think you know that there is a powerful spirit of evil.)

”Claire”: I see. You like euphemisms and caricatures. Pitchfork and no doubt a pointy little tail. What if he¹s cleverer than that? Cunning. Seductive. That’s what they say. The Father of Lies; lies his native tongue. He speaks fluently in euphemisms.

It¹s a wonderful world you live in. Without intrinsic evil. Sentimental and cozy I expect.

Michael: But why not “evil” on human terms? Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Orestes. Tyranny, hunger for power, revenge. Matricide for the sake of honor. Etc. (This is not sentimental stuff. Our family on human terms ¬not a hive of demons. I do see evil on human terms.)

”Claire”: And wasn¹t Paul a hive of demons? Our psychotic little brother. (I do see evil on human terms. I don¹t see Paul as psychotic. He was very kind to me.).

Michael: Paul was destroyed by Christianity. Can one call Christianity a demon? I¹m tempted. It is cunning, seductive, and it speaks in euphemisms. It neuters the reflective mind by pitting God and (Christian) Good against Evil and it keeps hundreds of millions of people subjugated by the fear of Hell. Is that the devil you talk about? It killed our brother (At least you’re not pretending to be Christian here. I don¹t know many people worried about hell. God is infinitely more powerful than any power of evil. You’re the one that’s bringing in all this devil stuff.)

”Claire”: How drunk you get with your exaggerations. You inscribe your childhood wound, inflicted by a bunch of twisted Irish nuns, into two thousand years of history. This is what you call Evil with human terms? These are inflated terms and they lack complexity. (I thought that you got hellfire and damnation from Protestant pentecostals. I don’t remember the nuns talking about it).

Was Paul damaged by Mormonism? Sure. Before or after he almost suffocated with his umbilical cord wrapped around his neck (You were the one who was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, not Paul. Paul had low birth weight. I don¹t consider Paul a damaged person.) He was damaged long before he became a Mormon. The Latter Day Saints were his solace.

Michael: Yes. His solace. True. That Christian double bind - ¬the necessary solace is the place where the tradition imprisons you before your crucifixion. To be crucified between this mindless absolutism, Good versus Evil and Evil versus Good. God forever the warrior, the soul forever the battlefield. Basta. (Nope. God is always victorious. Evil is puny compared to God. Your characterization of Christianity is foreign to my experience. God and the Devil are not even nearly on equal footing. The world is charged with the grandeur of God. Even the worst evil is pathetic.)

See how possessed you are by this devil you don¹t believe in? You believe in the devil.

Michael: Okay. You want me to give the devil his due. I wrote a book about it you remember. In Dreaming the End of the World I did C.G.Jung’s soft shoe. I translate Christianity into my own home recipe of Jungianism. The “Beast” of apocalypse, of ancient Babylonian origin is an “autonomous complex in the collective unconscious”. (I used the book, Jung on Evil, in my book, The Roots and Flowers of Evil. It is very interesting. Jung talks directly about integrating the devil into one’s personality.)

”Claire”: Ah. Another euphemism.

Michael: Please. It worked for C.G.Jung. He did the same with “Shadow.”

”Claire”: And Christianity didn¹t invent the devil. That’s good. Babylon? Why not the Pleistocene? How about the Jews in the Old Testament?

Michael: Christianity did so invent the Devil. He kept you all in business.

”Claire”: Not that again. Do you think you or Jung invented “the collective psyche” or Freud “the complex”?

Michael: They are just ways of explaining…

“Claire”: The devil? Freud and Jung (lie and) invent, you steal and Catholicism describes. I rejected both Freud and Jung at age 15 and still do.

Michael: Oh yes. The One True Faith. Anyway the Beast/Devil is a hallucination, the dark antithesis of civilization, the Nature that Civilization had to defeat in order to get civilized.

”Claire”: And he continues autonomously and ever since the Manhattan Project autonomously invented the autonomous Bomb, this so called “FORCE OF EVIL” threatens to destroy the world. I read the book. Congratulations on the reprint.

So you rename the devil and claim he is afoot. We¹re in agreement. I¹m from a long tradition of dealing with him. How do you deal with him?

Michael: You simplify the book. The “Messiah” (not Jesus but the messianic militarism of a bloated hero archetype) is the other face of the Beast. One extreme demands and depends upon the Other. So one deconstructs both and walk simply on the earth.

”Claire”: How do you “deconstruct both?” I mean you, personally.

Michael: Humility, prayer, meditation, self-examination, good works, more prayer. Learning to submit to God in all things. The balancing of good friends, my wife and solitude. (That is Catholic teaching exactly.)

”Claire”: Sounds Catholic to me. And does the devil -¬ I mean ”the autonomous complex in the collective unconscious” disappear?

Michael: Well it¹s not a personal issue. It is in fact destroying the world. But for me? When I go into the dark imaginings ¬mom killed dad, dad and the rest of us killed Paul, God and Satan are killing all of us and George Bush is the anti-christ then I catch the scent of the diabolic. Those moments pass in a few minutes, a few months or a few years. “Claire”: That¹s why I meditate also. And pray. By the way you know that non-Western religion made dad miserable and ultimately killed him, don¹t you?

Michael: I mean he never recovered from a childhood of revival tents and hellfire preaching. (Neither of dad’s parents were exactly holy Christians when he was growing up. His father was a criminal and his mother promiscuous.) Eastern Religion was his solace.

”Claire”: That too. That¹s the double bind of Eastern religion. The necessary solace is the place where the tradition imprisons you in the life of Sisyphus. Forever on the treadmill of suffering and forever yearning for the end of suffering. No grace. No transcendent meaning. No God and no Savior.

Masque #2: The Star

Pandora opens the box and is engulfed by the Spites, a locust cloud: Old Age, Disease, Dementia, Labor, Vice and Passion. . The inexpugnable suffering that is the life of mortals. Also from the box, the Spites swirling, emergea the star of hope.

”Claire”: Ah Pandora. Eve (Pandora is a myth trying to explain things about life. Eve is the Old Testament. The Blessed Virgin is the new Eve in Catholicism and Jesus is the new Adam. Original sin is from St. Augustine.)

The devil, seductive as he had never been before, extends the apple and she bites. End of story. Or the beginning.

Michael: Since I¹m dispensing with the devil I just as soon give over Original Sin, (As St. Paul says: Just as sin entered the world through a man, so Mankind had to be redeemed by a man, Jesus.) especially the old yarn that a woman fucked up again the lovely order arranged by a man and his God (A Jewish, pre-Christian story. Fortunately Jesus, the New Adam born of the

New Eve, redeemed humanity.)

”Claire”: Zeus (Zeus. The Old Testament God)?

Michael: Close enough. But even Jesus couldn¹t heal the world of the Spites. (How do you know that?)

”Claire”: He cast out demons, he healed the insane, he raised the dead. (These are small accomplishments)

Michael: That¹s different. He¹s not abolishing demons from existence or undoing the reality of insanity or eliminating disease and old age. (Yes he is.)

”Claire”: That comes later. In the fullness of time. He’s doing it now.

Michael: Heaven? The New Jerusalem? And in hell the Spites have free rein mandated by God to torture the damned for eternity. Such a loving God. The Greek story is more humane. There¹s no ³loving God² who is nonetheless cruel, no Christians oblivious in their heavenly ecstasy to the damned beneath them. Certainly no responsibility to the damned because if God damned them then all is well (I don¹t know anyone who thinks like that. I guess you got it from Protestant pentecostals.)

”Claire”: You know as well as I that they are damned by themselves, their willful refusal of God.

Michael: You mean of Christianity.

”Claire”: Christ showed the way.

Michael: An ambassador of a heartless and narrow minded God. (How do you explain Christ’s teachings in the New Testament or the kind of life he led?)

”Claire”: …the truth and the light…

Michael: …and no one cometh into the father except by means of him. I read the book a few times. I used to preach it.

”Claire”: Pandora refused the light and succumbed to the devil¹s temptation and opened the box.

Michael: That¹s not the story. It’s just a pre-Christian myth.

”Claire”: Everything pivots on choice. That is the story: Free will a the hell we make with it.

Michael: Touché. The hell we make with it. No argument there. As Blake said, “To create Hell in Heaven¹s despite.” But why put the devil in all the time. Pandora didn¹t. Who put the devil in it?

Look. You say Lucifer was the closest, the most intelligent and beautiful of God¹s angels, yet was taken by the sin of pride and cast out. Now all of us sinners risk being tempted to pride and other sins by Satan and we¹ll also be cast out to spend eternity in his abode of darkness (a Greek idea, hubris). All disbelievers sharing his company forever because, like him, we choose to forsake or compete with the light of God sometimes known as Jesus. (There’s not just the devil, there are evil spirits, which of course you believe in. What about purgatory?)

”Claire”: Well something like that, but you do love your hyperbole. I¹m not Jimmy Swaggart. “All unbelievers”? But yes, there is Evil, there is a choice towards Evil and the reality of choice is that one is choosing a darkness that is void of God¹s light and presence. You¹ve chosen to be beyond the reach of God¹s loving or at least so endarkened that you don¹t really believe Love exists. That¹s called hell. (Not really. If the suffering is the absence of God, then you must have a sense of the presence of God to feel it. Therefore God is in a sense present. Evil is not just an abstraction as I show in The Roots and Flowers of Evil. You keep talking about myths. What about real incarnate evil?)

Michael: But people feel that all the time when they¹re alive.

”Claire”: That¹s true.

Michael: But why the devil? If he¹s the source of evil, who tempted him to pride? No one tempts Pandora to curiosity. It wells up. Lucifer swells up with pride. It happens all of the time when you meditate ¬both swelling up and deflating, systolic and diastolic. Curiosity and boredom are the rhythms of a distracted mind. Not a devil in sight.

Who tempted the devil to the sin of pride? )That is a non-question. The devil can think for himself. I wasn’t around in those days and don’t spend time speculating about things I couldn’t possibly know about. Besides these are pre-Christian, Greek or Jewish stories.)

”Claire”: My, you wax talmudic in your efforts to deny the devil¹s existence.

Michael: Jesuitical.

”Claire”: Touché. But Pandora, ¬isn¹t she liberating evil into creation? Old age, insanity, senility…

Michael: And hope.

”Claire”: And hope, yes.

Michael: Pandora is not liberating evil. She¹s like Prince Siddhartha leaving the palace for the first time and seeing lepers in the street, the rags of poverty and disease,¬ his innocence forever ruptured by “the first noble truth” of suffering: The endless cycles of birth, maturity, debilitation and death. She perceives these things that were always already there.

”Claire”: That¹s not the story. She liberates them from a box. She is culpable. Her choice originated “the first noble truth” just like Eve freed Original Sin (Pandora is a story, one among others. I don¹t have any serious ideas about it. As far as I know Pandora never really lived or had a box.)

Michael: Touché. That¹s true. But the Spites aren¹t evil. There’s no more force tempting her than there was for Lucifer in heaven. If Pandora was a Buddhist she¹d be moved toward a life of compassion and…

”Claire”: Not the story.

Michael: Right. But I¹m a Buddhist and…

”Claire”: When it¹s convenient…

Michael: …and and… Touché.

”Claire”: So you really don¹t see evil at all in this story, do you? All this suffering just an innocent mistake?

Michael: Don¹t forget the hope.

”Claire”: Yes. The hope. (Hope is one of the three theological virtues in Catholicism.)

Michael: Evil? Old age and insanity? Hell, I¹m a nurse. The old ones are grandparents and when they get demented, well ¬ they¹re demented grandparents. And crazy people are my tribe. This is all normal. Not evil. Sometimes very sad though.

”Claire”: Now who¹s the Catholic? (What does that have to do with being Catholic?)

Michael: Only when it¹s convenient. (So much I surmised!).

”Claire”: It¹s not about those who suffer not being evil. It¹s about the suffering itself let loose in the world. That¹s evil. It is not about the suffering let loose into the world by mythical people, but the real suffering caused by real people.

Michael: We could go round and round about all this. As far as I can tell the only evil in the story is that again it makes the innocent girl the source of all trouble. Pandora or Eve. It slanders the daughters of the world. (To hell with the two of them. I mean neither is a Christian explanation. Again St. Paul: Since evil came into the world through a man Christianity certainly doesn¹t take the fall of Adam and Eve as the last word on evil. This is pre-Christian thought. Where does the Blessed Virgin Mary come in? Or all the women saints, say St Clare.)

”Claire”: Hang it up, Michael.

Michael: Thank you. I will.

Masque #3: Six of Wands

Michael: Now here¹s evil. A young man, riveted by his destiny, imagines if he steals the Golden Fleece of Zeus he will be recognized and therefore recognize himself as Zeus’ son and thus King of Kings and so he recruits the Argonauts, seduces and betrays Medea…

”Claire”: You¹re getting ahead of the story… (Back to pre-Christian stories.)

Michael: …all to the greater glory of his ego…

”Claire”: And it destroys him. Where¹s the evil? I just see ordinary Greek tragedy. Guy gets high on testosterone, inflates, a woman kills their kids, his balloon pops.

Michael: Now you¹re getting ahead of the story. In the six he dances with the fleece aloft over his head. Not a yeshiva bucher with the Torah aloft but…

”Claire”: Cut the cross cultural showing off.

Michael: Exactly. Jason showing off in front of his buds with Zeus¹s totem…

”Claire”: Michael monologue…

Michael: …over his head in triumph. What¹s your problem with testosterone anyway?

”Claire”: Nothing. Some mammals have more than others. And some genders too. It¹s a well known fact. What¹s your problem with testosterone? (Was that Eve’s and Pandora’s problem?)

Michael: Nothing. Except…sometimes it does seem to be involved with mindless aggression…

”Claire”: Among elk and other species. Apes and gorillas, back to nature!

Michael: Exactly. It wasn¹t just the mindless war against Afghanistan and Iraq but the triumphal gloating. We defeated the Taliban! We defeated Saddam Hussein! See Iraqis cheer for twenty minutes (all over the world). It¹s as if we¹re doomed to listen to the same scratched record for the next ten centuries: We defeated Hitler! We defeated the Japs! God bless the bomb and let¹s all pass out candy bars to the lads and cigarettes to the happy liberated people.

”Claire”: Did you ever notice that testosterone intoxication causes monologues?

For an African witch doctor you are so eclectic! So much a son of the enlightenment -¬ I mean the 1960’s enlightenment. You dance around evil with everything from “autonomous complexes of the collective psyche” to rehashed 1973 feminism with your penchant for Greek tragedy thrown in with a dollop of Buddhism. This is intellectual gibberish. You are far more preoccupied with “my” devil than I am. A regular St Anthony harangued forever in his own private desert. Get a life!

Michael: Excuse me?

“Claire”: You¹re excused. The devil is not an unmoved mover. He is not absolute. He is a creature rather like yourself and a very clever creature at that. He has only his lies. That is his only power. Call him “an autonomous complex,” etc or call him Beelzebub, get Catholic or don¹t, just stop lying. He has possession of you until you stop! (I don¹t go very far with comparing the devil to anything we humans know or experience.)

Michael: Thanks for the clarification. Claire. I get it. The devil is the father of lies and his most seductive lie is that he exists at all (His most seductive lie is that he does not exist.)

”Claire”: Your ideas dance around Satan like water nymphs around Pan. So you don¹t have a theology of evil. What else is new? You prefer a theory of autonomous complexes and testosterone. Bad poetry.

Michael: Touché.

”Claire”: You are tethered to the idea that you understand evil, or at least better than the rest of us. Call that devil, testosterone or autonomous complex.

Michael: Or the Six of Wands.

”Claire”: Whatever. The devil binds you up in your lies. Bless you should you find a way other than Christ to free you.

Michael: Blessing received.

”Claire”: I haven¹t. I don¹t think there is one.

Michael: I know.

”Claire”: And give up not believing in the devil as a replacement for believing in the devil. That¹s dishonest.

Claire’s comments on the Michael’s dialogue with “Claire.”


Dear Claire, Have been sitting with your response to “From One Hermit to Another” wondering whether to answer in kind or let it drift. I must say that I wrote the “monological dialogue” at a peculiar moment. I’d walked to my hermit’s cave on the Big Sur coast, my legs giving away (as yet undiagnosed) and spent two weeks alone meditating on whether I’d be able to make it out of the ravine. I wrote the essay one afternoon “down below.” A couple of months later I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and the grace of being stripped has accompanied me since. So by the time I sent it to you the essay was a bit of an artifact of an obsolete self. Nonetheless, I think genuine dialogue is sanguine.

I imagine three layers, none equal to the rich questions you provoked. Firstly, apologies and gratitude. Secondly, engaging some of the issues here: the indigenous world, the devil, Christianity, the nature of evil, Buddhism.

And finally, and I expect most relevantly, matters of spiritual epistemology between cultures. Ultimately the episteme of contemplative practice.

Apologies, of course, for the misrepresentation of you and your Catholic faith. The “Claire” golem was obviously much a figment of my strange history. At the least a garish and awkward effort to find real dialogue. The opening of the essay was quite sincere – you and I are dad’s intellectual heirs, both contemplatives.

This is a bit what I mean when I say that when you communicate with me it’s not with me that you are communicating. One thing too is that you and many others have a caricatured view of Christianity that is outdated and unfaceted. (You don’t know about my views of Christianity, but you do ascribe to me outdated, unfaceted, caricatured views that I don’t have.)

From that opening might there be an opening?

Gratitude for your provocative response, rich in questions.

I’m reminded – and cautioned – by the Yoruba folktale in which Eshu Elegba paints half his face white, the other black and saunters down the trail separating the fields of two inseparable friends. “Who was that strange white man who just walked by?”

“White man? He was no white man, he was black.”

Soon they are wrestling in the mud.

Eshu is the spirit that eschews either/or. He is the quintessential third. “Both/and.” Let’s not simplify each other, spin out artificial conflict. I’ve been much informed and appreciative of your spiritual commitment.

Do I believe in the devil?

Oh no. I consider him a bogey man used to frighten children into being “good.” And a time-tested tool to control colonized people. (I’m sure that you believe in the Devil.)

I see this essay as not about the devil but about the diabolicization of the indigenous.

This began in Europe, of course. Pan’s horns and hooves grafted to a folk imagination of the devil. The Furies who avenged matricide made demons. Hades for millennia the place of initiation that sustained Athenian society, made hell a place of eternal damnation.

In Africa this is a contemporary reality, the wholesale destruction of the way of the ancestors in the name of a colonialism that pretends to be Christian. I stress pretends, for before this Christ certainly weeps. In Rhodesia the devil was not only black but “Negroid.” The angels white and European. I’ve seen the same in Guatemala. The devil is Mayan.

My friend Dr. Kykosa Kajangu, who teaches African studies, verifies that traditional African culture never had anything remotely like Satan until Christianity and Islam introduced him. His presence has been profoundly distortive. In Zimbabwe the ngozi the Christians have christened “evil spirits,” exactly as the furies were once christened “demons.” The ngozi are the restless dead who have fallen in violence or suicide. The healing rites of ngozi in the medicine tradition that has received me are about justice, reciprocity and peacemaking. Deena is in Liberia now as the society is initiating feasting ceremonials to allow the dead from the civil war a way to the land of the ancestors. This is peacemaking par excellence.

Ngozi are not evil spirits and it trivializes a shamanic tradition to suggest as much. My own initiations and my practice as a healer have been sending ngozi home.

At the beginning of my second initiation I had a bloody racial dream – a large black man insisting that we fight with crowbars. they also held slaves. He came to teach you to fight. Follow me. We’ll send him back to Africa.” We went behind the house to a ritual compound; he prayed over water, gave me some snuff to inhale, dipped a fly whisk in the water and slapped it on my back. I fell to my knees and for perhaps a minute as he continued to slap my back I was that slave. Wrists bound, enraged, humiliated and completely powerless as Massa whips him bloody. And then – gone.

“That one being received now with the drumming and singing in his village. He will be a powerful warrior spirit that will protect people.”

And, of course, Eshu is “the devil” – a brilliant gesture really. Eshu is the bricoleur extraordinaire, making possible the Afro-Catholic traditions of Cuba, Haiti and Brazil. He is a spirit of radical possibility and connection between different ways of knowing. As the quintessence of imagination, he makes vibrant and creative the very African dance in these Catholic traditions. In Santeria in Puerto Rico and Cuba, the bembé, or trance-possession ceremony, opens with drumming for Eshu and the clan dancing his buffoon dance. Eshu’s buffooning cracks up any rigidity that would impede the orisha/santos from coming and possessing a devotee that that one can offer wisdom and healing.

Yemaya is the Blessed Virgin and the spirit of the ocean. Shango is St. Barbara and the spirit of fire. And Eshu is St. Michael the Archangel.

After the night long ceremony the devotees go to mass. Having confessed they eat the body and drink the blood. These are profoundly Catholic traditions and like Catholicism in the Motherland have a syncretic genius not unlike the Catholic/pagan amalgam that allowed Europe to be Christianized.

(I’m sure any genuine Afro-Catholic tradition would be better off without him)

The effect is, as in Europe, to cut people from the ancestral lines continuous from long before the birth of Christ.

About the devil I don’t give a fig, but the diabolicization of the indigenous disturbs me. I’ve witnessed this firsthand and it is pandemic.

(I live with African sisters who have come to France to study. They are from indigenous congregations that do not exist outside their countries. They integrate their traditions and their traditional religion into their spirituality. This year I am living with a Tutsi and a Hutu from Burundi, and a sister from the Ivory Coast and another from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Over the past years there have been many Malians, many from the Ivory Coast, Senegal, Cameroon, Togo, Nigeria… What you say is not relevant to my experience.

The point of my comment is that I would never have referred to Paul as “my psychotic brother” or in any disparaging way at all. Basically I don’t approve of reducing people to adjectives.

Traditional African religions believe there are evil spirits as do more than a lot of Christians. While there are a rising number of avowed Satanists in society, most Christians nowadays think that demons, evil spirits and the devil are products of imagination.)

You suggest I got my preoccupation with the devil and hellfire from Protestant evangelicals but actually the Church seeded me with that by the time I was eight.

At eleven I (prematurely) decided I was an atheist – it was that or (in my fervid imagination) condemned to hell for having lit our garage on fire.

(Kids get dumb ideas.)

At forty I was almost four months alone before I had noted the tacit, ambient fact – I’d lived every moment beneath the gaze of a punitive God. It was then I conceded to the God of love you speak of. .

My brief spasm of fanaticism as a teenage Pentecostal (charismatic Catholic not Protestant) – all of six months – was mercifully benign. Nonetheless I did mine it for its gifts – deeply immersed in Christ’s teaching (I read the New Testament once a week for a couple of months.) I still rely on the gospel of love and forgiveness as my ethical ground. And that other gift extended to an escaped prisoner – a commitment to a radical pluralism in matters of the spirit, a refusal of any kind of spiritual hegemony.

(When the founder of the Catholic charismatic movement died suddenly of a heart attack, they found instruments of devil worship in his room. Whether the devil exists or not, there are devil worshippers.)

And brother Paul? Well the outrage of my essay was his self-torment which was “all-too-Christian.” Paul was in fact psychotic. Yes, as you say very kind but those sleepless days and nights when I took him to the forest after his first break, the two of us shivering all night in the cold of his urine, it was mine to convince him it was the devil and not Christ that was telling him to mutilate himself. The devil, hell and imminent apocalypse were quite real to Paul.

(I realize that. You are the one who wrote a book on the apocalypse.)

I much like your portrait of Grandma Lorena as a lusty lady. I see her and the scoundrel Grandpa Herbert as Bonnie and Clyde. But it was dad who told me about the hellfire tent revivals. I guess Lorena wanted her sons to get religion.

(Mom thinks it was the influence of her mother May Retta.)

Which brings me, I guess, to what I found most disturbing in your response – coming forth with that old trope of old and new covenant as if Judaism were a primitive preamble to the true Christian revelation. I think of Mark Twain’s quip about the Old Testament being full of blood and lust and the New about when people ”got religion.”

(That wasn’t my attitude. I said that the story of Adam and Eve was a Jewish story, which it is. You attributed to me the idea that sin came into the world through women. I said that in Catholicism, the Blessed Virgin is the new Eve. Protestantism is different. The Old Testament God does not appeal to me and Jesus shed a different light on things.)

I do not for a moment imagine you an anti-Semite. There are reasons I brought you that icon of the converso saint, Edith Stein from Carmelite Monastery at Dachau. But his trope, as you know, has been a fundamental way Christians have confabulated anti-Semitism for two millennia.

(That’s extremely simplistic.)

I write this as I have it confirmed that our ancestors were in fact Sephardic and por los antepasados.

(Only the Garcia de Noriega have tested out as Jews, but we are Garcia de Noriegas many times over.)

(Who were they, those conversos? What were the circumstances in which they catholicized in a time of terror? They left Spain almost a century and a half after the Jews were expelled if they didn’t convert. How did they survive? Like some did they practice Judaism in secret for a while? What brought them to Mexico City in the 17th century, so far from the talons of the Inquisition?) (Alonso Garcia de Noriega was born in Zacatecas, Mexico in the early 17th century. I don’t think that his origins before that are known. His wife was from Santiago de Compostela, I think. It’s on data base on the internet, In the beginning, the Spanish wanted the Jews to go to the New World and in the 16th century Mexico City was heavily Jewish. Mining towns like Pachuca and Zacatecas were too.)

But Mexico City was not long to be sanctuary.

(Then the Spaniards decided it was best to have a racially pure new world. The Inquisition came to Mexico and to New Mexico, but it was really not a big deal and didn’t last long.)

The main cathedral in homage of St. Francis built on the ruin of the temple of Huitzlopochtli, the war god for the imperial Aztec empire where thousands of virgins were sacrificed on the coronation of Montezuma.

And here in this self same place but within another empire, holy and Catholic, 1649, 109 judaizers are burnt at the stake. I try to imagine the terror of it. The political terror of the inquisition arriving at one’s doorway or across the sea. But also the archetypal terror – Jews burnt like candles over the bones of the war god. The fires blessed by the seraphic saint, Christ and the Virgin. (You should look into the facts. The only book I have is in French.)

This sent them north to the garrison city of Santa Fe, 1694. The year after the reconquest from the Pueblo Indians. I think of Nicolás, exactly my age now, trekking north, burying his five year old Ana in Zacatecas. North, north with thirty six families to the Promised Land. Up the Rio Grande through what would be where I was born almost three hundred years later. I doubt we will ever know how this small cluster of Jews became Christian. (There’s no indication that many of those guys were Jews. Only 2% of Spanish New Mexicans are testing out as Jews. The Ortiz’ didn’t test out to be Jews. The Garcia de Noriegas were a pre-revolt family.There were surely a lot of things and many were probably sincere Christians. There is a fair amount of research into New Mexicans of the 17th centuries. According to the leyenda negra, which you seem to believe, the Spanish massacred all the Indians. In France people don’t realize we have Indians in New Mexico. According to you, who did this massacring, the converso and crypto Jews?.)

The new covenant/old covenant schema is the oddest of fictions. In Judaism moschiach, (Messiah), was much the son of man but the idea of the incarnate son of God is far from Jewish. I’ve tried to explain to Jews (and Muslims) the idea of Trinity to no avail. You once told me that traditional African monotheism isn’t monotheistic in the sense of the “one God of Abraham and Isaac” but of course neither is Catholicism.

(Christianity believes it, of course.)

The Christian Messiah seems closer to the god man dying and resurrecting redeemer Tammuz than anything remotely Jewish. Or rather the rites of Tammuz were judaized long before Christ was born and messianized in Christs passion as a very pagan scapegoated god.

On the Jewish Day of Atonement (New Year's Day) in the month of Tammuz, the sins of the community would be transferred by a priest into the bodies of two goats. One was slain and the other chased into the wilderness so that the wildness within the village could return to its proper domain. That the Jews picked this ritual up from the Syrians is revealed by name of the month Tammuz for Tammuz was the dying and resurrecting god of Babylon. As disturbing as the idea might be to fundamentalists, the death and resurrection of the savior is probably the least Christian element in Christianity. Each year on the Day of Atonement he was sacrificed in the form of a lamb, son of the Holy Eve. On the occasion of the god's death, temple women raised ritual howls which the Babylonians called alalu. The Roman colonialists took Tammuz to be the chief god of the Jews in Palestine, and there is no question that he has prefigured much in the Christ story. Called Healer, Savior, Man of Sorrows, he was the Heavenly Shepherd who "tended the flocks of stars" which were considered souls of the dead in heaven.

Redefining “Messiah,” appropriating Hebrew scripture as “old covenant” that prophesies the coming of that god man and then persecuting our ancestors for not submitting to the redefinition – well what can one possibly say?

I was in Israel (doing water spirit rituals at Yardenit where it is said John baptized Christ) at a remarkable moment of reconciliation. The Pope had just apologized for two thousand years of Christian anti-Semitism. (He had also apologized for what the Church had visited ion indigenous people: his jubilee gesture at the turn of the millennium). Regarding the two worlds with which I have cast my lot I can only quote Christ, “Even as you have done to the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.”

Paul’s obituary.

And so was dad a Buddhist? No. You’re right. He was far too eclectic, far too much a creature of his library. We bonded over his Zen texts and the Tibetan Book of the Dead. For a few essential years I was also a creature of his library.

Sure, the Buddhist texts, the Tao de Ching, Aurobindo, but also Evelyn Underhill’s survey of Catholic mysticism, St. Teresa of Avila, of Liseaux, Meister Eckhart, St. John of the Cross. Bonheoffer offered for me the link between East and West from the Gestapo prison: “To live in God as if God himself did not exist.” That thoroughness of presence. As a boy I was taken not so much into tradition but to the place between, the locus of generous dialogue. Dom Alraed Graham on Zen Catholicism opening to the dialogue between Thich Nhat Hanh and Father Daniel Berrigan, Merton’s exploration of Buddhadharma and Chuang Tzu, to the Jesuits who learned the Japanese tea ceremony to deliver the Eucharist fully within the present moment. And further and further from then to now – not so much a creature of his library but taken by the wild autodidactic impulse as he was.

I dare not pretend that I use epistemology in a way that would pass muster philosophically. I speak loosely of spiritual epistemologies as ways of knowing. And I don’t think that the contemplative way of knowing, if taken to its utter and true simplicity is “off the map” culturally. (In English epistemology and theory of knowledge are synonymous.)

Let me hack my way through the jungle briefly.

My formal Buddhist training has been scant though it’s been almost thirty years since I committed to sit still. In the three Buddhist traditions I’ve been most allied with – Zen, Madyamika and Vajrayana – belief is regarded as an obstacle to meditation. I think of the old Zen master who was asked, “What is the meaning of Buddhism?” to which he replied, “If Buddhism has any meaning whatsoever I myself am not liberated.” I think also of my teacher, the peacemaker Thich Nhat Hanh who make renouncing belief a precept in his lay order, having seen its consequences in Vietnam between North and South, Catholic and Buddhist.

In Madyamika monks engage in “dharma combat” – each arguing one point of view then changing positions and arguing the other’s perspective.

My private “Mr. Toad’s Ride” through Madyamika was influenced by my friend Judith Remington’s ideas on paraepistemology. Judith wrote a doctoral thesis in anthropology comparing the epistemology of Western science with that of Navajo (Diné) divination: both empirical within their different cultural premises.

I was reading Benjamin Whorf, who dad so enjoyed. Whorf wrote about how the structure of a language determines how a person will see the world. I knew this to be true with Spanish. The Spanish speaking self is actually quite a different person altogether. But the world is full of folks who do not experience the world through a European grid.

I spent two years trying to learn the Diné language, taken with the possibility of thinking in a verb based grammar. Diné has nothing of what the West would call “nouns.” Everything is in motion. It is said that its deep roots are Sino-Tibetan. Madyamika is a school of Tibetan Buddhism.

Altogether hopeless, I was recently with a Diné elder who spoke no English and greeted her confidently with “Diné bizaad alt’ngo beyashti.” (I speak a little Navajo.”) Her garrulous response showed me that, actually, I remember almost nothing of the language beyond, “Diné bizaad alt’ngo beyashti.” So much for my bid for Whorfian ecstasy. More useful to remember that Benjamin Whorf, who had some familiarity with Vedantic Hinduism, deduced the only way out of the episteme embedded in any grammar was silence.

My typology of spiritual epistemologies was perhaps too simple.

One way of spirituality is about direct and unmediated relationship with the Absolute. Dzogchen Buddhism, for example. The Zen of Dogen Zenji, Judaism and Islam, Jnana Yoga.

The other way, mediated by saints, deities and bodhisattvas tends to be devotional. Devoted to Orisha if you’re Yoruba. The Midzimu if you’re Shona. If you’re Hindu, the incarnate gods, avatars, of which Christ and Buddha have been included. Catholicism, with the saints and Christ, is in the latter category. The way you speak of Paul assisting your friend’s son from the “other side” is exactly the way my African friends understand the way the dead help the living. But of course it’s purely European as well. Purely Vietnamese.

I see Catholicism as syncretic from the beginning – Hebrew but with the mark of having absorbed the pagan world. Again Tammuz, dying and resurrecting but Christmas celebrated on the holy day of the Roman Mithra, Easter coinciding with the fertility rites of the Celtic Oestre. Centuries before Afro-Catholic Vodoun, Santeria and Candomble, Catholicism was syncretic.

(Catholicism has always been syncretic, but it does not include Voodoo and Candomble, which have made a mess of the places where they are.)

For this reason it was a simple step for me to study Vajrayana with Lama Sogyal. Vajrayana absorbed the indigenous world of Bon in Tibet and so has numerous bodhisattvas that mediate the process of enlightenment. Like Catholicism it bears the confusion of spiritual hegemony, the “diamond path” presuming itself superior to not only Bon but other schools of Buddhism. Such seems to be the blindness of any spiritual tradition with an imperial past, however modest.

A simple step to Vajrayana but also to African medicine. I was much moved by the beauty of Yoruba theology – itself paraepistemological. Eshu Elegba is the only spirit who speaks all the languages of the four hundred plus Orisha, the four hundred aspects of the godhead. The cosmic bricoleur. Before one leaves an offering to Yemaya, the spirit of the ocean, or Shango, the spirit of lightening and fire, one invokes Eshu. But I must say I never “believed” in Eshu. I’ve met Yoruba (Ifá) fundamentalists – a curious breed, Eshu being by his nature mercurial, ungraspable, the very spirit of non-literalism. So there it is, Claire. For eighteen years Mr. Toad, my paraepistemological chauffeur then – off the cliff! The gift of multiple sclerosis. The gift that keeps on giving. Last fall stripped me to the bone. I was off to Liberia to participate in the peacemaking work Deena is involved in right now. The travel doctor insisted on a meningitis vaccine and that was all that was necessary to drive Mr. Toad crazy. I became like scores of patients I’ve taken care of over the years: staggering, falling, unable to speak coherently, incontinent of stool and urine, sleepless and half mad with steroids.


I write this letter, British Air, flying home from Botswana and Zimbabwe. I just left Mosiyatunya, where I was first initiated into Bantu medicine. Victoria Falls. After a quiet week of sitting alone with the elephants and crocodiles, I offered to the Zambezi this long cycle.

Easy enough for me to deconstruct it all, to intone with Aquinas, “All chaff.” Easy to undo the real and the spurious visions. St. John of the Cross, most certainly pertains, “The measure of true vision is no vision at all.” A true and profound teaching but the impulse to deconstruct disallows gratitude for the generosity of God.

The wisdom of Madyamika. One monk speaks of God, the other of the gods, one of the one true episteme, the other of paraepistemology. These arguments now mercifully irrelevant. Never either/or but both/and. And always as Blind Willie Johnson sings, “Just God. Nothing but God.”

Am I then a practitioner of Buddhism? I suppose if you shear off the –ism and leave it naked: awareness (sunyata) and compassion (karuna).


“That is all on earth ye need to know. That is all ye need to know.”

And am I a nganga? Some have said so but really God is the healer.

?Que no?

To the Sister of Solitude(for Claire)

A woman, alone
Hail Mary
glides free
full of grace
in water blue or cloudless space
blessed art thou
lamb or dove
among women and blessed
pomegranate, pear, capulin, grape
is the fruit
peach, manzana, wild raspberry,
of thy womb
Jesus enfold soon your daughter
Mother of God
prays for us sinners now
and at the hour of our death