Ifa is an African spirituality deeply rooted in African tradition. For most people who practice this spirituality, strict adherence to African social structure is absolutely necessary. These people feel that you can’t be a true Ifa devotee if you are busy developing new understandings about spiritual concepts that the wider Ifa community takes for granted simply because somebody who may be an elder says claims it as tradition.
It is inevitable that new understandings and concepts are refuted by elders with a vested interest in keeping the state of spirituality status quo. In this respect, Ifa is no different than any other organized religion that adheres to tradition for the sake of tradition and ceremony for the sake of ceremony. And without exception, the traditional way of doing things protects a very lucrative business for spiritual elders who can charge a king’s ransom to perform spiritual rituals that have absolutely no tangible or measurable results.
People can pay priest to do absolutely anything. In Ifa, there are rituals to protect health, protect relationships, assure financial success, or do whatever else somebody may want in his or her life. It is my experience that the ritual includes the slaughter of an animal in a very spiritually dramatic process. But all the ceremony and spiritual procedures in the world don’t amount to a hill of beans if a person’s character is lacking. I don’t care how well you know prayers, if your character needs attention then all the rituals in the world don’t matter. I don’t care how much you pay a priest, the best way to get a job is to prepare yourself through education or experience.
And what happens when the ritual doesn’t work and all that money is spent for naught? More than likely the priest will say that the devotee was unsuccessful because there was a bigger lesson to be learned here. But the priest would never admit that the biggest lesson a devotee can learn is to quit wasting time and money on pointless rituals. Although a spiritual ritual can make a person feel like they have spirituality on their side, things are not so cut and dry. If all it took was a ritual, everybody in the Ifa community would be living large. And that is simply not the case. But nevertheless, the orthodox Ifa practitioner believes in his or her spiritual elders, in ritual, and in the traditional thinking that eschews people developing their own sense of spiritual understandings.
The orthodox practices heap a great deal of significance on hierarchy and protocol. A great deal of significance is paid to people with impressive sounding titles. What exactly goes into getting a title? Well, a lot of it is nothing more than people buying them. And like rituals, almost any title can be bought for the low, low price of whatever. Like a prayer expertly recited can have little meaning from someone with questionable character, a priestly title can be neutralized as well.
Recently I have seen a number of communications from a number of devotees trying to expose people committing fraud in the name of Ifa. I was personally contacted by a couple in Trinidad who had a concern about a priest visiting from Nigeria. The priest did a reading and “discovered” that the couple’s baby was a gift from god and a ritual was necessary for the child to reach its full potential. Typical of a lot of spiritual work, the price of the ritual was exorbitant. And when the couple said that all they could afford was a fraction of the original asking price, the visiting priest didn’t hesitate to take what he could get.
It is a given that when someone is performing spiritual ritual, we believe that they are in communication with spiritual entities. No where is this more important than when someone is getting a reading. A reading is supposed to come directly from the Orisa Baba Orunmila himself. But not everyone has the integrity to pass along spiritual communications and keep their ego in check in the process. And when someone’s ego becomes more important than the messages, chances are they no longer recognize their purpose and are now just as misguided as the people they lead.
Fortunately, it is fairly easy to spot spiritualist who may have fallen off the spiritual bandwagon. All one has to do is look and listen and apply a little logic. When a priest says something like a child is a gift from god and a ceremony is needed for the child to reach its true potential, suspicion levels should go off the scale. What can a priest do on a spiritual level that god failed to do? My first guess would be very little. That would be one of the first clues.
Another good clue about a priest’s integrity or lack thereof would be the need for more spiritual work after getting a reading. That ranks right up there with going to get an oil change and having the mechanic tell you that your engine needs a complete overhaul and the transmission needs to be replaced as well. I will go out on a limb and say a reading should never lead to a need for more work. It just doesn’t work that way.
So before devotees get caught up in the spiritual tradition of throwing good hard earned money away by paying for expensive ceremonies and rituals from priest they hardly know, or from anyone else for that matter, I would recommend that they sit down and ask a single question. Why? It shouldn’t cost a fortune to become spiritual. Before our ancestors knew what money was they were able to establish this spiritual tradition. When did money become so important to the tradition?
Not too long ago I made a comment about Miss California Carrie Prejean’s comment about opposite marriage being the only acceptable form of marriage in her country and in her family. What I wrote must have been an invitation for people to hate because I got a lot of comments from people who questioned my intelligence, my patriotism, as well as my sense of spirituality. Because Ms. Prejean was being honest about the way she felt and how she stood up for the sanctity of opposite marriage she was going to get a heavenly crown from god. Who the hell was I to give my honest opinion about someone giving their honest opinion about people who were honest about their sexual orientation enough to have their same sex relationship sanctified by the state?
Ms. Prejean and her peers believe that god loves people who hate the idea of homosexual marriage. It sounds like a lot of people believe that they will be in god’s good graces if they hate in the name of god. God doesn’t like gays and lesbians and therefore, to get a holy crown, I’ll hate gays and lesbians. And how do we know that god hates same sex marriage? It says so in the bible. It says so in the book of Romans 1:24-27 and the First book of Timothy 1:10 and the First book of Corinthians 6:9-10.
It’s funny because these same Christian bible books also mention the hatred god has for adulterers but nobody ever says that people who commit adultery should not be allowed to marry in the name of god. These books also talk about sexual perversions and unnatural sexual acts. While that might include some same sex acts, I know a few heterosexual acts of sex that might cross the line of perversion. I’m not going to go into any detail here but I spent nearly my entire adult life learning a few sexual perversions in order to help satisfy the woman in my life. I know for a fact some of the things I do wouldn’t pass a lot of people’s idea of conventional sex acts.
But that’s okay. If god is going to judge my spirituality based on how prudish my peers think my bedroom life is I seriously doubt that god understands my spiritual nature at all. My god doesn’t judge me based on what you might think. In all honesty, my spirituality has absolutely nothing to do with my sexuality. As long as I respect myself and respect my partner and respect my family and respect my community, as long as I do what I can to be the best person that I can be, how does my private sex life interfere with that overall sense of respect? Why would god put such emphasis on what I do for good, healthy sexual relationship?
Honestly, I don’t think god cares. And since I’m talking honestly nobody can condemn me for what I say and I should be getting my heavenly crown any day now.
God is not a voyeur looking into my bedroom for sexual deviation. The idea that the creator of the universe wants to condemn me to hell because of my extracurricular sexual activity is an idea that doesn’t sit very well with my psyche. If the only people who go to heaven are the people who stick to orthodox sex without perversion, it doesn’t look good for me. I will definitely be disqualified at the pearly gates. But then again, if the heavenly bound are people who are so rigid that they cannot accept those who are different, then I would have to say, even if I was so inclined to stick with nothing but missionary sex with my partner, heaven would not sound very heavenly to me.
I have family members and friends who are part of the gay and lesbian community. The idea that they are not welcome because god doesn’t like the fact that they are honest enough to follow their true sexual nature, their true sexual spirit, is not one that sits well with me. If this is the nature of the Christian god, then hell sounds a lot more appealing than heaven.
But I know for a fact that god doesn’t judge people on such trivialities. My god doesn’t award heavenly crowns to bigots. My god doesn’t smile down and love small minded people because they hate in his name. The god that I have come to know and develop a relationship with is the type of god that would not think to judge others no matter what. God doesn’t need people to hate in his image. My god is big enough, strong enough, and capable enough to hate all by himself. People who revel in hate should learn to stand up on their own and hate on their own. Quit putting petty bigotry on god’s shoulders.
For all practical purposes we will define spirituality the existence that transcends bodily senses, time and the tactile world. Spirituality implies a separation between the body and soul. But spirituality may also be about the development of the individual’s inner life through specific practices. The spiritual is traditionally contrasted with the material. It is a perceived sense of connection to something that exists in a metaphysical reality that is greater than one’s self. It may include an emotional experience of reverence or a state of nirvana. Spirituality is the personal, subjective dimension of religion, particularly that which pertains to salvation from our day to day drudgery.
I am regularly astounded at the number of people who think spirituality is narrowly defined by circumstances from a single perspective. It is typical for some people who adhere to any particular set of dogma to believe anyone who doesn’t walk step in step with the exact same belief is a spiritual imposter unworthy of any consideration. People with the same basic beliefs but with what can be considered different styles of implementing the details are ready to condemn each other’s efforts as a damnable heretic.
The African spiritual tradition of Ifa appears to suffer more than its fair share of people who refuse to conform to the orthodox spiritual theory. I happen to be one of them. Traditional Ifa puts a great deal of emphasis on people conforming to a strict hierarchy of status and ritual that has little to do with spirituality and a great deal to do with obedience and submission not to some spiritual entity but to other people in the community.
All too often I am told that I do not have any inkling as to what makes someone a student of traditional Ifa. The most recent comment made was from a traditional practitioner expert who suggested that I go through the traditional motions of an initiation ceremony in Yorubaland because the initiation ceremony I already went through was not the way things are practiced there. But little information was given as to what makes one ceremony better than another. Instead, I was given the title of a book to read as to what makes the Ifa the tradition of Ifa so I too can conform to what the author of the book describes as acceptable Ifa practices.
Now here comes the best part. This traditional Ifa conformist tells me my personal dreams and meditations and conversations that I have with spiritual entities are all bogus and I need to stop pretending that I am doing my personal spiritual development and get with the program. Instead of Ifa I’m practicing some form of spirituality that more closely resembles Native American traditions. The Ifa conformist demands that I stop invoking the hallowed names of Orisa in my acts of blasphemy until I learn to adhere to the orthodox Ifa.
Usually it’s some self important babalawo or iyanifa or some other title that tries to get me to conform. But, this time I think it is nothing but a brand new initiate who has, in their own words, “gone through the motions” of ceremonial initiation rituals in a field trip to Africa and now feels that the only place on the planet where people are good enough to indoctrinate others into Ifa are the native Yoruba people. You see, you have to spend good money to go to Africa and find traditional elders in order to become spiritual. People who don’t simply are not worthy. Regardless of their story, this person obviously suffers from some kind of official ceremony on official Ifa ground superiority complex. You’re nothing if you’re not initiated by the expert elders in Yorubaland.
The fact of the matter is no one at our level of existence has the ability to initiate someone into or exclude someone else from the official spiritual club. Orisas are the ones who actually do the accepting. And unlike us humans Orisas aren’t bureaucratic requiring strict adherence to ceremonial ritual for ritual’s sake. No one can imbue another with spirituality. No one can say that they are the only ones who can converse with spiritual entities.
I happen to like the idea that my spirituality resembles the spirituality of people with a reputation for being spiritual. The fact that spiritual people resemble each other when all the dopey rules and regulations are taken out of the picture is kind of a compliment. People have a tendency to take the clearest of issues and convolute it with complexity and rules in a lame attempt to minimize confusion. What might work for one person might have a totally different feel for another. The steps that led to one person’s spiritual enlightenment will have no affect on the spiritual development of another. It isn’t always that cut and dry.
But a lot of people who have bought into the twelve step spiritual development program are not ready to give up their choke hold on their brand new elevated spiritual status. These people know for a fact that only someone pure of spirit and ready to manifest that spirituality with strict adherence to the spiritual principles listed in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Ifa can claim to bend spiritual entities to their will. May the Orisa have mercy on the souls of people who claim otherwise. Honestly, it must be nice to be able to write the rules of spirituality for everyone. I know I would never embark on such an endeavor.
Getting Baba Orunmila to do anything he’s not ready to do is like teaching bricks how to jump through hoops. It’s not going to happen, at least no time soon. So it amazes me that some people can get Baba to give them the reading for the year like clockwork for release on the first of January. I remember back in early December of 2007, I started asking Orunmila for the word for 2008. Baba responded asking me why I wanted the reading for the following year when the year wasn’t even close to being over yet. I responded that I was anxious and ready to demonstrate my special connection with the spirituality of Ifa. Baba responded, demonstrate it to whom and for what purpose? I responded, never mind!
Come New Years Eve, the last day of 2007, I was back with pen and paper ready to get that reading from Orunmila. Again, what’s the rush? Well, in the Orisa houses I experienced as an early practitioner, I was taught that people received a reading for the year at the beginning of the year. And Baba responded that I was also taught that people who were initiated into Ifa were more significant than people who were not initiated. I was taught that people had to shave their heads when they were initiated. I was also taught that people who wanted to practice Ifa had to spend tremendous amounts of money and must adhere to traditional Yoruba culture. Okay, Baba I give up! But when will I get the reading for the year? In classic Baba mode he responded, you will get the reading of the year when you are ready to get the reading for the year.
For weeks I had to put up with this circular, yoyo, Master Yoda logic. I didn’t get the reading for 2008 until sometime in March. So when I see people in the Ifa community post the reading for the year according to Orunmila right on the dot come the first of January, or even the first week of January, or even the month of January, I have to wonder what’s up?
Last year there were a variety of readings for the year from a lot of people. Not a single one of these readings matched what anyone else had to say about the coming year. Again I went to Baba for an understanding of what’s happening. Baba asked when did I ever hear him say that all of these people were speaking for him? Why would anyone simply take these people’s word that they were speaking for him? You see, a lot of people feel like they are speaking on behalf of Orunmila. They get out their divination tools and use them according to the user manual that comes with them. They will say a few prayers, throw the ipwele chain or ikin or whatever divination tool being used, do a little math to figure out which odu holds the answer, look up the result in a book of odu verses, and there you have the reading for the year.
But spiritual readings should be much more involved than a lucky throw to lookup an odu in a reference book. Imagine trying to convey a message about how someone should live their life using nothing but an odu verse that has a rather convoluted story about praising a babalawo and the babalawo praising Ifa with ten thousand cowry shells as payment. Now the odu has to be interpreted and the interpretation is only as good as the practitioner and there are so many ways a very important communication can be misinterpreted. And that’s only part of the problem of an Ifa practitioner whose relationship with Orunmila is in good standing.
People whose standing with Baba Orunmila is troubled have zero chance of even pulling up the correct odu. These people might think they are communicating with Orunmila by going through all the motions associated with divination. Indeed, any body watching them would see a very spiritually dramatic demonstration of stereotypical Orisa worship. But in actuality these diviners are doing nothing but making random stabs at luck. A divination tool in the hands of a practitioner of poor character or on the outs with Orunmila for some other reason would be better used as a doorstop. Baba doesn’t work with people who manipulate readings intended for others to their own benefit, and it is a guarantee that the benefit to the diviner will be lead to more money.
So I asked Baba, how are people supposed to believe what you are telling them through me when there is so much spiritual clutter out there? What distinguishes me from the others? Well, the fact that I don’t publish a reading for the year right on schedule like everyone else should give people a hint that something here might be different. I would rather do without a reading than just put anything up as Baba’s word.
When people read the word of Orunmila here, they can rest assured it is straight from the Orisa and not out of a book of odu verses. Baba and I will sit down and we will discuss the word so that I can get it from him without spin and without interpretation and without having to do some ciphering to get a number so I can pull an odu out of a reference book. Baba will explain exactly what he means. And if form some reason a question comes up about the reading that I didn’t think to answer before, I can always go back and start a new conversation with Orunmila instead of just throwing the equivalent of divination dice around. Integrity and accuracy are key. I might not be the first with a reading for the year. But trust that when I am ready for the reading, it will come straight from the Baba’s mouth.
By many measures 2008 was a helluva year. Baba Orunmila said that this would be a year of great change. To quote Baba, “This will be for good, better, and yet also worse. Oya is blowing and the landscape of life will begin this beautiful metamorphosis that is change. Do not be confused as change is wonderful. But ugly things can, and do, happen during the process.” Truer words were never spoken. And boy did Iya Oya blow.
2008 started off with some of the craziest weather seen in forever. A monster blizzard in China just in time for the Chinese new year brought that country to a screeching halt and threatened many people’s ability to celebrate the coming year of the rat. Snow in Los Angeles of all places. There were reports of tornadoes taking out targets in Tennessee in early February. We saw satellite photos of the Wilkins Ice Shelf collapsing into the ocean off the coast of Antarctica in the southern half of the globe and glaciers in the northern half that have existed for thousands of decades are on the verge of extinction. But for many people global warming continues to be nothing that warrants attention. A cyclone hits Myrammar and kills tens of thousands. An earthquake hits China and kills tens of thousands more. The changes in our natural environment are beginning and we are woefully prepared for what is to come.
The economy burst out the gate erratic. While the recession was far from being official, unofficially it was way too real for a lot of people. Back in January something like sixty thousand jobs were lost. But that was just the start. Well over a million American jobs were lost in 2008. And while the petroleum giants were raking in their astounding profits fueled by four dollar a gallon gasoline, automobile manufacturers hit bottom and were asking the government for help. A variety of financial institutions ceased to exist as independent entities. But others, believed to be too big to fail, received the nurturing handouts of government sponsored bailouts. While AIG and other financial institutions get a no strings attached bailout easily topping one hundred billion dollars that can be used for anything and everything like executive retreats at lavish resorts and seven figure executive retention payments that look amazingly like end of year bonuses, automobile manufacturers have to agree to an hourly wage cut before they can get a dime.
And do we really need to point out the changes in politics, at least in America? After well over two hundred years America is finally going to have a President that is not a white male. That’s the news of a couple centuries. Political change was coming even if President-elect Barack Obama was not elected. If the Republican presidential nominee had won we would have had our first female Vice President. Thankfully, America dodged that bullet like a President dodges a couple of Iraqi loafers. But that’s not all. Louisiana made a couple of politically historic moments as well with the election of Republican Bobby Jindal as the first Governor of Indian American decent, and the election of Republican Anh Joseph Cao to Congress makes him the first Vietnamese American to go to Washington.
Baba Orunmila also said that many have overreached and are looking for Orisa to come to the rescue. How many people pray for better days? And true, relatively speaking not many people pray specifically to Orisa. But a lot of people are clinging to their faith in these hard times. Whatever people’s beliefs, they pray to their spiritual entities for some kind of relief for the mess they have made of their lives. This past year, like every year of our lives, should have been used as an opportunity to make adjustments and wiser choices. The potential for loss is great and people who try to face the ways of the world separated from the support of family and friends would do better if they had true allies.
I wonder how many people actually heard Baba Orunmila’s reading for last year and took it to heart. I wonder how many people actually took the steps necessary to make adjustments in order to better prepare for what was coming last year. And now that the year is over, how successful were we in our preparation or lack thereof.
Like many people I could have done better this year. But I also could have done so much worse. Thankfully, I had my family around me and with me in every endeavor I had to make this year. Like everyone else I have to take the somewhat vague things that Baba Orunmila tells us and figure out for myself the best way to respond. Regardless of what many students of Ifa claim, children of Orisa don’t get a free pass or any advantage when it comes to facing the challenges of life. We can live and we can die just like anybody else. How we chose to live is based on the same choices that, for the most part, apply to everyone else. We have the choice to take the reading to heart and try to prepare or we can disregard what was said and take our chances with the spiritually deaf and dumb.
I have yet to hear the reading for the next year. I’m willing to bet it will be very similar to 2008 if not worse. I hope to hear the word of Orunmila and take it to heart. Listening to the reading and then making changes to stay in harmony with nature and the environment can be extremely difficult. But change is the only constant in the universe and the changes to come are bound to make the changes we’ve been through pale in comparison. But as humans, if we take the time to build our social strengths we are more likely to survive changes together with less fuss than we are as individuals too rigid to compromise. Whether we want to or not the next year is coming. I look forward to hearing it.
Recently I was admonished by an Ifa devotee for suggesting a break from the so-called traditional interpretation of Ifa doctrine that requires the majority of people to give their spiritual guides or teachers full control of their spiritual development. The traditional interpretation of Ifa does not encourage everyone to learn the techniques necessary to develop the inner calm to communicate with our individual personal spiritual universe. Traditional Ifa keeps people dependent on their babalawos and iyanifas and every other person with a priestly title so that they can charge considerable amounts of money for spiritual development.
Who needs to take the time to establish a personal relationship with Orunmila and the other Orisas when you can just pay your local neighborhood Ifa priest for a reading every now and then? And an Ifa priest with an unhealthy craving for wealth and material goods, a very human condition, would never be tempted to manipulate a devotee’s reading for personal gain. Everything will always be honest and above board. Olodumare help the person who tries to encourage people to take control of their own spiritual development. Why, that’s like somebody getting in a car and doing their own driving instead of simply getting in a car and going for a ride while letting someone else choose the destination, the route, and the time of arrival for you. Surely the second option is much more appealing for most people. And it’s a very lucrative way for Ifa teachers to make a good living to boot!
From what I have been able to learn first hand of Orunmila, Baba does little to interfere with people’s personal development. Baba doesn’t tell people where they need to live, what they need to drive, who they should marry, or what profession people should pursue. But more often than not, people who go and get readings will be told that they have to be initiated and that they have to become some priestly title. And more often than not the priestly title requires outlays of cash that will run into the tens of thousands of dollars. The person conducting the reading will tell the devotee that Orunmila requires them to be initiated to a particular Orisa. By accepting the reading the devotee accepts the burden of finding the resources, the money, to be initiated. That is the tradition of our belief system. And it is rather interesting that Orunmila never tells the initiate that they need to be a doctor or an educator or a blacksmith or some other profession.
People like to say the traditional way of practicing Ifa has been around for thousands and thousands of years. The ancient African tradition of Ifa is older than most of the world’s more notable belief systems. Most Ifa practitioners know this and accept this without question. However, when this tradition was started, it was started without any knowledge of the concept of money. Money and economics are artificial concepts that have no root in nature. Our African ancestors knew nothing of money until they were introduced to economics by the European. The ancient Africans practiced the purest form of socialism and worked together for the benefit of the community at large without the slightest thought as to how much their bank account can be enriched.
Traditionally, an Ifa initiation wasn’t done for the individual. An initiation was done for the benefit of the whole community. The more spiritually developed the entire community was, the less likely the community would submit to the influence of wealth, materialism, status, and power. It was not until materialism and greed entered the picture that spiritual development required huge amounts of money. It is because of the introduction of money that many of us who grew up in this tradition believe that wealthy people can literally afford to be more spiritual than people who are impoverished. And as Ifa devotees, we allow ourselves to be manipulated into thinking that paying thousands of dollars for an initiation is the way this tradition has been practiced for years.
If we all exercised a better idea of what it means to be a student of Ifa, if we had a better idea of what it means to be spiritual, we would know that spiritual development does not depend on the size of our bank accounts or the amount of weighty status we have to throw around. Spiritual development requires little more than a sincere desire to be spiritual. It does take effort and a commitment and some financial resources. But spirituality does not require a devotee to spend tens of thousands of dollars. If a devotee has that kind of money to throw around then all I have to say is good for them.
But the more we allow others to control our spirituality and to connect the amount of spirituality we have to the size of our wallets then we lose sight of the tradition. Literally, our ancestors practiced this tradition without a dime to their name. That is the way this spiritual tradition was founded. That is the way it developed for thousands and thousands of years. It is only since we have been introduced to concepts of money and individual wealth have we confused the ability to pay large sums of money with conditions of spirituality. If we are to get back to being traditional practitioners of Ifa we will learn to do it the way our ancestors did it. We will learn to be spiritual without letting money get in the way.
I am too embarrassed. I like to consider myself a conscious student of Ifa. I like to consider myself in tuned with nature and less likely to take nature for granted. I have been watching the happenings of flooding along the Mississippi river practically right in the back of my own neighborhood. The level of the river water has risen significantly. I have seen the Mississippi flood, but I cannot remember the last time I have seen the river so swollen.
Last night I drove across the big 270 highway bridge just north of St. Louis, Missouri to check up on some property I have in a storage locker just across the river. The river looked like a lake. The little road that runs along the river on the Missouri side was a lot closer to the water than it should be. As I drove into Illinois there were soggy puddles of standing water in the fields just on the other side of the river levee. I marveled at all the water. The Chain of Rocks canal that runs parallel to the larger river is no longer visibly separate from the river adding to the lake affect. It was another impressive manifestation of nature.
My property was safe by the way. Now that the family has a minivan, I parked my blue 1992 Honda Accord wagon in covered storage with some other items that are hard to keep when a family is trying to stay in a large one bedroom apartment. In order to keep the car in good shape, I start her up once a week and let her run for a few minutes. The river will crest in the next day or so and it looks like the levees will hold easily. I was prepared to move my things. I was even prepared to lose a few items. But it looks like the wagon and the other items will be safe.
However, it wasn’t until this morning that I realized that had not acknowledged the Orisa Osun at anytime during this ordeal. When I saw the storms traveling through the upper Midwest, my mind automatically went to the Orisas Oya, Yemonja, and Sango. I saw the winds blow and the tornadoes spin and I would give praise to Oya! I saw the rain fall and I would give praise to Yemonja! I saw the lightening strikes and I would praise Sango! I saw the rivers swell and I said wow. I have been severely lacking in my appreciation of Osun. I would like to take a second and correct that mistake.
Osun, the Orisa of the river, plays a seriously important role for humanity. The river has done so much for humanity. We have used for travel. We use it as a source of drinking water. We have disrespectfully used the river as an open toilet for our waste products. The river water has quenched the thirst of our crops. We have used the power of the river to light our houses. Man is so smug to think that we can build river damns strong enough to hold the river at bay. We think we can build levees that will keep the river confined to a small channel of water that is guaranteed to hold the water for five hundred years!
The river must be the Rodney Dangerfield of nature. It gets no respect.
Orisa are interdependent. In nature, it is rare for one Orisa to manifest change alone. They work together. Oya, Yemonja, and Sango have created conditions that have made the normally docile Osun an assertive, uncooperative, force of water, one of the most forceful elements of nature. While high velocity winds, raging fires, and movements of earth are destructive forces in their own right, the river Orisa can effectively turn our world upside down with a burst through a barrier with so much energy that a wall of water will destroy anything in its path for miles and disappear as quickly as she came. Or, Osun can creep quietly and glide slowly but relentlessly, without exhaustion, until she has literally consumed our entire world. She will stay for days, and then quietly slink away just as slowly, leaving considerable damage in her wake to everything made by the hand of humans.
As humans we have done a lot to try and redefine the relationship between the land and the river. The natural occasion of water exceeding the river banks was part of nature’s cycle. To live next to the river was to live with the fact that it is only temporary and when the river wanted to exceed the banks it was time for those living next to her to leave. It was natural. Water pouring over the land helped replenish water tables. Even the sediment and sludge that traveled with the water would carry nutrients to help keep land fertile. All of this is nature keeping maintenance of its self.
But we have engineered levees and water management systems that are intended to make the cycle of water exceeding the river banks a once in a five hundred year event. We’ve built concrete canal systems that are intended to keep the rainwater from being absorbed into the soil and instead, moving it back to the river so it can be swept out of our vicinity, back to the river, to be whisked away to some other location. And when nature responds with even greater river swells, man responds with stronger levees, damns, dykes and locks until mutually assured destruction is inevitable. The mutually assured destruction is not shared between humans and the river but among all the people who dare become so comfy that underestimate the danger of the situation we create for ourselves.
If somehow Osun burst through the levee that kept my property across the river safe it would be no one’s fault but my own. I made the choice to put my property within her reach. I know the river is swelling and yet I leave my property there instead of moving it safely out of the way. Just like the river helps to take excesses away from the land it would take my excess stuff away from me.
For now, it looks like Osun will let us keep our excesses. Regardless, she deserves an ebo. Tonight, I plan to go to the grocery store and buy a melon, apples, oranges, and etcetera. I will make a big basket of fruit. I will take it to the old Chain of Rocks Bridge that crosses the Mississippi that is now reserved for pedestrian and bicycle traffic across the river just south of the 270 interstate highway bridge. I’ll go out there to the middle of the river and toss the fruit in. I’ll watch the water rage below me. I’ll feel my heart pound in my chest with adrenaline as common sense heightened by a sense of self preservation tries to convince me not to take such an unnecessary risk with the river so swollen. Hopefully, the experience will instill with me such respect for the river that I will never take Osun for granted again.
One day I awoke early in the morning to watch the day start. The sun had yet to make an appearance, but like a light peaking around a dark corner its proximity could be seen. The sky was a deep indigo in the west and brightening quickly in the east with lighter hues of blue, reds, and oranges. I watched the sky change and the stars as they began to fade away. I praised the creation for all its glory. And as I sat there, I felt god’s presence around me.
I waited but god did nothing to breach the stillness. We sat there together and we waited. The sun broke through the horizon and started to climb and we still waited. We must’ve sat there for hours. I began to wonder if he’d ever say anything to me. It should’ve been obvious that his patience was far greater than mine. I began to wonder if he wanted to know if I loved him. After what seem to be an eternity I finally cracked. I finally asked god if he wanted to know how much I loved him.
Not at all, was his quick, short reply.
I was taken aback. Here I was with a prime opportunity to impress god with my devotion and he acts as if he didn’t care. As a young Christian I was always taught that god not only wanted but needed my praise. I started to sulk. God must’ve picked up on my funk. He asked me why I was suddenly moping.
I told god that I wanted him to know that I accepted him as my lord and savior. He asked if that was important to me. I said yes and asked if it was important to him. He said not really.
But I love you, I said. He immediately replied with do you really.
Yes god I love you. You are my lord and savior. If I was physically handicapped I would love you even though it would be difficult for me to do all the things that I take for granted. If I was blind I would love you even though I couldn’t see another sunrise or watch the stars twinkle at night. If I was deaf I would love you even if I could not hear your word. I love you lord because you are the one true god.
God was not impressed. That’s nice was all I got for my declaration.
I asked god what he wanted from me. God said nothing. It was not that he didn’t reply to me. God actually said he needed nothing from me. He continued.
Does that surprise you? Listen, I don’t mean to burst the little bubble of an ego you may carry around but I need absolutely nothing from you. I don’t need some lame profession of how you love me so much but then forget about me the minute you leave my presence. I’m not so insecure that I need to hear you tell me how much you adore me every single time you get ready to stuff food in your mouth, every time you go to bed, every time something wonderful happens in your life. Just because I’m the supreme being doesn’t mean I have the supreme ego.
But don’t you need my worship in your epic struggle against the devil, I asked.
Who? God feigned ignorance through his laughter. I felt like I was being mocked. But god continued. Listen, I can appreciate your gesture. But honestly do you think I spend my time fighting some battle of good and evil with somebody who’s supposed to be, at best, my former protégé. You say you understand me to be so great but then turn around and say god’s having a little difficulty getting rid of that satan guy. What kind of faith does that sound like to you?
But that’s what I’ve been told. I’m just trying to do what’s right. I don’t want to be damned to hell you see. Don’t I get some kind of acknowledgement or dispensation because I’m trying, I asked.
Would you feel better if I said that you’re not going to hell, god asked. I replied immediately with a resounding yes. God laughed and told me not to worry because I’m not going to hell. In fact, god told me that no one was going to hell because there is no hell with a lake of fire or demons with pitch forks wreaking misery on everyone. God asked me how I felt about that.
But aren’t there people who deserve to be damned? Aren’t there people who commit really bad sins who deserve damnation? People like murderers, pedophiles, thieves, you know, real criminals.
Who says they’re criminals?
You did! It says so in the bible. These people committed sins that hurt people.
When did I say that I ever wrote that? And even if I did write it so many thousands of years ago do you know how many people have rewritten it, translated it, explained it, and interpreted it into a mere shadow of its former self? But for the sake of argument, let’s say that it is what I said verbatim. Have you ever hurt anyone?
Well, I guess I have. But not like that. I meant serious hurt.
The people you hurt probably thought it was pretty serious enough to tell you to go to hell. Besides, in that book you say I wrote, does it not tell you to believe that a sin is a sin regardless if it’s a big sin or a little sin?
I lowered my head and said a little yes under my breath. I could hear god’s humor in his voice as he asked me if he condemn everyone to hell who would be left.
But don’t you care, I asked.
God made a sigh as if he was talking to an imbecile. He started talking. You know that tree you planted in your backyard a few years ago. There’s a birds nest in the upper branches. Did you know anything about that? I answered no. God asked if I bothered to make sure the birds were righteous and lived a good life the way birds do. I answered no. God asked if I found out that the birds in the nest were not the original builders, but some interlopers who pushed the original eggs out and let them fall to the ground to be killed would I go into the tree to punish them. I said no. God asked me why not and I answered I didn’t have the time. I have a job and a family to look after. Why would I bother to interfere in the lives of some dumb old birds.
God laughed for a moment and then continued. Didn’t you get the analogy or do I have to spell it out, he said. I’m the supreme being of the universe. Not just this universe but more universes than you could possibly know. The word infinite doesn’t do the actual size of the numbers justice. Each universe has its own set of physical laws and realities that must be shaped and formed. Each universe contains uncountable galaxies and each galaxy has countless planets and each planet can have a population that will run into the millions, billions, trillions, and zillions. And I’m supposed to take my time from what I’m doing across countless universes, galaxies, planets, continents, cities, and people to come back here and make sure that you are doing what you’re supposed to be doing.
But you’re here talking with me now why don’t you do something that might make a difference in our lives? God replied, and you’re sitting here talking to me right now why don’t you do something to make a difference in those birds’ lives.
So what’s the point in you creating me, us?
What was the point of you planting the tree?
I wanted a nice garden. I wanted a view. I wanted to plant some life to make things better and the yard less barren. I don’t know. And god replied, I wanted a nice universe. I wanted a place to visit. I wanted something that might grow life in harmony with nature. In many ways you and I are very similar. But don’t believe for a second you can understand me or what I’m accomplishing. I really don’t have time to monitor you, your family, your planet, whatever. There is just way too much that has to be done and even a god has his limits. Besides, why should I have to explain myself to you?
You created me in your image.
Slowly god said the single word nooooo. He dragged it out for what seemed like forever. It was more of the I’m talking to an imbecile speech. God continued, you created me in your image. I have no real form to speak of. I created the birds in the tree in your backyard as well. You think they look like me too?
But you created me. I’m your child.
I created the birds too. Are they not my children as well? Do you refer to them as your brothers and sisters, he asked me.
That’s ridiculous. I’m nothing like them. They don’t love you like I love you.
That may be true. But I must say that they don’t need me to constantly stroke their egos like you do either. Instead of constantly looking for some kind of confirmation they are content to just be.
And they don’t bother to improve themselves either, I said with a boast.
And you feel that you can improve what I’ve done? You think your technology and your bank accounts can do things better for you than what I have provided through nature. He let out another huge sigh and he continued with disappointment in his voice. There goes that ego again. I really do need to do something to get that under control for you. Suddenly the disappointment in god’s voice was gone and replaced with a cheerfulness as he said, I know! Now is just about as good as a time as any. He snapped his fingers.
It only took a moment of seconds for it to develop. It grew into a loud roar like a hundred locomotives running at full steam. The wind blew with a force I never knew possible. My heart pounded from the unexpected dump of adrenaline into my blood. I put my hands and arms up to protect my face. The earth started to shake violently and I fell to the ground. I rolled on to my back and looked up at the world around me. Incredibly thick clouds had gathered blotting out the sun and darkening the sky. Flashes of lightening pierced the heavens that were so tranquil just seconds before.
Suddenly a blue-white column of fire from the clouds slammed into the ground not far from me. My reflexes tried to react and get me away from the blast. But I was like a turtle on its back. Instantly I was deaf and blind. My ears rang from the hot explosion of thunder as the air was super heated around me. My eyes burned from the brightness of the lightening strike. Although I was deaf and blind, I could still feel the wind’s pounding and the ground’s rumbling. I tried to scream but I had no idea if I was successful or not.
My ears may not have worked but I heard god’s voice in my head. Where’s your technology now, he asked. How much money can you pay to convince me to stop?
Not bothering to give me a chance to answer either question, the world began to tilt and I started to slide. I couldn’t see but if felt like the ground was opening up and everything around me was being swallowed in. I rolled over to my stomach and tried to climb over whatever I could to get to higher ground. But the wind was pushing against me and I was struggling just to get my arms extended. All of a sudden, as if I had climbed over the edge of the world itself, I started to fall head first into the abyss of darkness waiting for me below. God had lied and I was on my way to hell.
There was an eruption of pain as my vision was restored in a burst of stars.
My face had absorbed the majority of the energy from my impact with the floor. My arms and legs were tangled in the sheets. I was babbling. Random noises came from my throat. The bed clothes were wet and I struggled to escape them. Once clear I staggered to my feet and kicked the sheets aside. I looked around the room as if I was seeing it for the first time. I noticed my pajamas were wet. I pulled at them. I had pissed in my sleep. No real surprise there. My dream felt so real and the world was coming to an end. I was breathing heavily and my pulse was racing. I was having trouble keeping steady on my wobbly legs so I sat on the edge of the wet bed. I started to rub the side of my face trying to massage the pain of my landing away. I looked up around the room again. The dream was all so real. I looked out the window and I saw the tree I planted a few years back. It was if I was seeing it for the first time since it was planted. I heard birds cheerfully chirping their song. I had never noticed them before. I looked around the room a third time. It could have been my imagination, but I would’ve sworn I heard someone laughing.
**** Originally posted March 2007 ****
Early in my development as a practitioner of Ifa I met an awo, an Ifa initiate who has passed the iyawo stage. This particular awo had gone through the process to receive the first of three hands of Orunmila, the assistant to Olodumare himself. Traditionally, to receive the three hands of Orunmila is the process necessary to become a full fledged babalawo, a keeper of the mysteries of Ifa. But, to say that this brother was a mystery was an understatement. This man would confound anybody short of Orunmila’s intellect. To put it politely this man had issues when it came to integrity. The most basic concepts of good character were not an essential component of his repertoire. And because he held the most senior position of males in the hierarchy of the ile house I had selected, the man felt that he was Olodumare’s gift to humanity. While even the most dense of Ifa practitioners would understand basic concepts of community this man thought he was the center of our community.
Like every other house of Orisa worship that I ever visited here in the States, the ile that I had belonged to was mostly composed of women. Even as a Christian every church I ever visited had more women than men in its makeup. So this awo felt that as the senior male awo in the ile, the house would fall without his considerable spiritual guidance. In his presence you couldn’t call this man’s name as part of a rote house prayer without using his full Ifa title and his complete African name without him interrupting the proceedings to make a correction. He was quick to take credit for the work of others. He felt that he was above doing chores to help keep our meeting place clean. The man was truly full of himself. He would have made a great politician. Since I did not grow up in the world of Ifa and was extremely new to this traditional spirituality, this was the role model I was given to learn what it meant to be a man practicing Ifa. To say that Orisa have a sense of humor is an understatement.
I lived right at two hours away from the ile house. This baba lived about three and a half hours away and had to come virtually right by my house to get to the ile. Out of all the regular attendees, baba had the furthest distance to travel. I had the second farthest. He drove one of those serious sized sport utility vehicles that barely got out of the single digit gas mileage. But baba was proud of his truck. Whenever we had the occasional guest coming to the ile to visit, baba and his monster SUV were employed to make the trek to the airport when the number of visitors could justify the arrangement. The word “employed” is most appropriate because baba had a habit of charging people in the ile for his services. He would submit a bill to the ile and get the going rate for mileage reimbursement as defined by the Internal Revenue Service. As a pillar of the community some times this baba left much to be desired.
Once I was initiated I became privileged to experience the inner workings of the house management. Only Ifa initiates were allowed to participate in meetings to decide house management. The term participate is generous in this application because essentially the woman that ran the house would dictate exactly what was going to happen. Disagree and coercion was applied in order to get buy in. It was the initiates’ job to make her decisions manifest whenever possible. So we had to put a practical plan together for decision implementation. But it became common practice to have the plan develop around baba. I found working with him infuriating. If I had to summarize his work ethic with one word it would be lazy. He would procrastinate doing work until somebody else stepped to the plate. Since I was just an iyawo, baba would tell me it was my job to shut up. Literally, the man would tell me to shut up. As low man on the totem pole my opinion carried little weight. But as the high man his thinking was weightless and full of little imagination.
The more I tried to work with this man and the other initiates the more frustrated I grew with the tradition, the house, with Orisa, with ancestors, and with everything else. Because of finances I had to miss a couple of meetings to the house. The last time I arrived at the ile this awo took me out to the grove to have a down to earth heart to heart discussion with me. As I was sitting on my mat like a good iyawo baba asked me to follow him. Before I ventured to get up I asked for what. It was rather funny because several other people in the house, initiates and non initiates, turned their head surprised to hear such impudence. My poor manners were showing. But tradition or not I needed to know if it was really worth me getting up. Baba said he just wanted to talk to me so I acquiesced and followed him. But my behavior was less than accommodating. As an initiate it was my duty to do as I was told and never question my elders. Baba told me this with a smile on his face and a hand on my shoulder and then followed this up with his opinion that I was acting like a jackass and I needed to straighten up.
I wanted to slap his smiling face off his head. He may have outweighed me by about seventy five pounds but I could have taken him. Taken him to lunch maybe. But I really did have my fill of this guy. I remember thinking that elders were supposed to be a source of wisdom and repute. I wanted to say that if I ever found any elders to follow I would do so gladly. This man was as far from being trusted without questioning as one could get in my book. I held my tongue and thanked the baba for his guidance. We walked back inside the house and I apologized to each of my senior initiates individually. They were all very benevolent and accepted my apology graciously. The iyawo could only learn the ways of the tradition by making mistakes. Their condenscension was seriously annoying.
The ile meeting broke up late that night. It must have been about eleven when we started venturing our separate ways back to our own homes. The awo and I had driven separately and so we were going to follow each other back home. I wasn’t going to get home until about one in the morning. But baba and his wife weren’t going to get home until well after two in the morning. It couldn’t be helped. However, I had discovered a shortcut that could cut ten or fifteen minutes off of the trip. It wasn’t much but as tired as we were and as late as it was, every little bit helps. He agreed to follow me.
The awo was in his truck and I was in my little wagon. We started out on the back roads that twisted and turned like a kudzu vine up a tall oak. It was dark and the only company we had on that country road was the moon and stars. Baba was unfamiliar with the route so he drove with his high beams lighting up the interior of my car. I simply turned the dimmer on the review mirror and pushed my little blue wagon a little harder. Usually I would take it a bit slower than the sixty five mile an hour speed limit because I would be so afraid of driving up on a skunk crossing the road under cover of darkness. It didn’t take much to imagine the animal spraying the car with the smell of raw rot before I squished the life out of it with one of my tires. My car would have smelled like skunk for weeks before the offensive odor would dissipate.
But that night I didn’t care. I pushed that little wagon to eighty miles an hour whenever I could. Going around a bend I would use the entire road. I would look for lights coming from the other direction to make sure it was safe to play Grand Prix racer. But it was late and we had the road to ourselves. The line of trees on either side of the road blurred into two parallel walls of darkness standing like a gauntlet shepherding me down the road without any idea of what was around the next bend. We made it to the interstate in record time. I looked in my review mirror and saw that the headlights on baba’s truck had fallen behind but they were still visible. I waited for him.
When he got close enough I got on the highway. Baba followed. He must’ve been tired because he didn’t even try to keep up with me. The speed limit was sixty five and the interstate was heavily patrolled by state troopers at night. It was prudent to do no more than seventy. But even at this relatively moderate pace baba fell steadily behind. I didn’t bother to slow down or wait for him again. It didn’t take long. Less than ten minutes later his headlights disappeared from my mirrors completely. I didn’t even hope he was okay. I got home without so much as a yawn. However, when I laid my head down sleep came as easy as you please. The symbolism of what had just happened didn’t hit me until weeks later.
I had heard through the grapevine that baba and his wife made it home okay. He pulled over and his wife drove a little while he caught a few Zs. But she was tired as well and could only drive for so long before she had to give the car back to him. They managed to hobble home. That day was the last time I ever saw or spoke to this baba. I never returned to the ile for one of our house meetings. I was on my seventh month of my iyawo year. As far as they were probably concerned I had dropped off the face of the planet. My frustrations with Ifa have subsided considerably since then.
As a practitioner of the African spirituality of Ifa it should be no surprise to anyone that I don’t practice the traditional American holidays such as Easter, Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas. Having the conscious awareness to venture deeper into knowing more about the origins of these holidays instead of just applying the hype and propaganda associated with their traditional celebration I really can’t say that I have much cause to recognize the festivities of the occasions the way most people do.
I have to admit that up to a week or so ago my depression was getting the best of me. Unemployed and at the end of my rope I had my own insecurities to struggle through. Thankfully I finally found a job. But I’m far from being alone. This is the time of year a lot of people become really disheartened and unhappy with themselves and with their lives. Some may be so troubled that they actually come to the conclusion to ask, what’s the point of it all? And without a satisfactory answer a lot of people check out early. This is so unfortunate especially in a time when we are supposed to be coming together to celebrate life, fellowship, and spirituality as a community.
As a Christian I was taught to believe that this time of year is all in tribute to Jesus Christ the kings of kings and the son of god and the prince of peace. But what did his life and the sacrifice of his life come to mean? The other day there was a discussion on one of the television news program. Somebody asked the question would Jesus approve of the war in Iraq. Some military professional with a lot of stars across his shoulders and badges pulling at the front of his uniform actually said that as a good Christian he believed that if Jesus was alive he would sanction the war in Iraq.
No doubt this man is just one of many good church going people who would propagate the theory that the prince of peace would kill as many enemies of America as his god powered weaponry could slaughter without hitting the innocent. Trouble is a lot of innocent people are getting hit and are being seriously injured, maimed for life, and/or killed. I seriously doubt if a righteous and fair god would allow the innocent to suffer and die in a war for the liberation of their oil, I mean country. But nevertheless, a President wants people to believe that god told him to start this war. I guess when you stop and think about it, if the book of Revelations is true, somebody is going to have to start the war that brings Christ back. If anyone can start a global conflict that could ravage the world it might as well be the President of the United States.
And so this is what we have come to hold dear this time of year. Christmas is supposed to be recognized for the birth of a man who is widely accepted as the epitome of peace but somehow he would sanction unjust wars. To say that the philosophy of Christmas has become as complex as the mysteries of god’s workings would be an understatement. I’ve always believed the Supreme Being to be quite simple and direct with his principles for life. It is my personal belief that people will try to complicate things by twisting the principles of god to fit their own personal objective.
Even if I was still a Christian devotee I doubt if I would be following the junk that people pass off as the word of god these days. This twenty first century rendition of Christmas replete with messages of mandated consumerism for the sake of the economy is just not cutting it. I won’t let the corporate figureheads on the television tell me how I need to do to help assure that Macy’s and Wal-Mart have the best Christmas ever. Neither one seems too particularly worried on making sure I have the best Christmas ever. So we’re just going to have to call it even.
My personal philosophy is that the principle of Christmas, the overwhelming concept represented by the birth of the lord and savior of the Christian religion, runs along the lines of goodwill towards all men. As far as I know there isn’t an asterisk in the Christian bible that makes an exclusion of people who refuse to submit to our wants. Goodwill should be the monarch of all our hearts. Peace on Earth doesn’t equate to peace only throughout our land while our military machine continue to drop bombs on and occupy the territories of countries with government policies that run contrary to our government’s will.
I don’t celebrate Christmas the way a lot of people may recognize the holiday. I don’t even celebrate Christmas at the same time most people around me do. Personally, the concept of goodwill for our fellowman should be a philosophy practiced year round. Unfortunately, such a philosophy requires a strong sense of community that forces us to actually look out for each other without exception. But with this form of hyper capitalism that we have in place here in America, it’s every man and woman for his or her self.
Sometimes I really wish I could go back to the days of Christmas when all I had to worry about was what I was going to get under the Jesus tree. It doesn’t matter if it came from my parents when I was knee high to my dad or from my significant other back in my days as a younger unconscious adult neck deep in the propaganda of assimilation. But such wishful thinking ranks right up there with hoping that we would have the spiritual wherewithal to truly see each other as part of a global family. Peace and harmony? Not likely in this holiday season or in any other for that matter.
Happy Birthday Jesus, king of peace!