Huston Smith, in his classic best-selling book entitled The World’s Religions, says that “authentic religion is the clearest opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos enter human life … and inspire life’s deepest creative centers.” That’s why I titled our year-long sermon series exploring the world’s religions “Voyage to Aliveness.” We are Unitarian Universalists who are in search of truth wherever truth may be found, because truth is about aliveness.
Truth inspires aliveness,
Truth releases aliveness,
Truth celebrates aliveness.
So far, our search for truth has taken us to Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism on the one hand; and then to Islam, Judaism, and Christianity on the other. Both are standard fare in courses on the World’s Religions. But we also know, regrettably, that “standard fare” has room to grow; that historically it has excluded important voices.
So now we engage a religion that standard scholarship has yet to do justice to, and is just catching up on. It’s a religion that’s much older than all the others we’ve already explored. Some anthropologists say that it’s been practiced for as many as eight thousand years, making it truly primal and aboriginal.
Today our focus is the the Yoruba religion of West Africa and its many spiritual descendants around the world: Candomble in Brazil, Santeria in Cuba, Shango in Trinidad and Tobago, and the Ifa priesthood in Nigeria and the Americas. In all, there are between 75 and 100 million adherents of some version of Yoruba religion, which are numbers placing it securely among the world’s top six global traditions.
Top six! No less than this!
But now let me ask you: How many of you know about Yoruba religion? Ever studied it before?
It’s time we got acquainted. If your ancestors came from Africa, you have a personal stake in wanting to know more—to reclaim your heritage. Or perhaps you or your family came from Brazil or Cuba or Venezuela or other countries infused by some version of Yoruba spirituality—this religion is part of who you are.
And then, for all of us, whatever our racial, ethnic or cultural heritage may be, Yoruba religion offers a richly spiritualized example of our Unitarian Universalist Seventh Principle of the Interdependent Web of All Existence, because (says Yoruba religion) what connects us and interpenetrates us are the energies of divine beings known as Orishas, each with a unique identity and way.
And then there’s the energies of our ancestors in spirit, the dead who are not dead but live with us still and connect us to our family past and family future. It is just as our Unitarian Universalist hymn entitled “Breaths” says:
Those who have died have never, never left.
The dead are not under the earth.
They are in the rustling trees,
they are in the groaning woods,
they are in the crying grass,
they are in the moaning rocks.
The dead are not under the earth.
Both ancestors and Orisha comprise what Yoruba religion calls “ashe,” which is an energy that is like the Force in the movie Star Wars, which surrounds us and interpenetrates us and connects all things together. Therefore, wisdom in this life is learning how to more consciously interact with this ashe, so we as individuals and communities can be put on the path of our destiny and can fulfill the purposes for which we were born.
Yoruba religion is eight thousand years old, but it never stops speaking with beauty and power to the world today.
Now, having mentioned Orishas and ancestors and the ashe of both, we are already into Yoruba metaphysics. But let’s press pause just a moment before we go even deeper. Let’s take a look at a bit of the history. For here, too, we find something absolutely compelling: tragedy and eventual triumph. How, over a period of 450+ years, the Yoruba nation and Africa as a whole suffered under the brutal hand of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. 10 to 12 million human beings were taken, torn from families and everything they knew and held dear, forced to cross the Atlantic in the dark bellies of ships, made to serve strange masters in the New World.
Just as in our story for today, in which we saw Eshu testing the two friends with his double-sided hat, here he comes again, the Trickster, the Orisha who serves a law beyond our knowing–but this time to test the very heart and soul of the religion that honors his name, to test its strengths and test its weaknesses.
Would it be strong enough to survive the very worst?
And, in fact, it was strong enough. Says religion scholar Stephen Prothero, “Yoruba practitioners did what the Yoruba have been doing ever since their Orisha of iron, Ogun, forged a path for the gods from heaven to earth: they adapted to difficult circumstances with courage and creativity.” While their masters absolutely forbade them to observe their religious traditions, Yoruba practitioners found a way to walk the fine line between obedience to the letter of the master’s law and loyalty to the deep call of the Spirit.
In primarily Catholic countries, like Brazil and Cuba, and also Catholic areas like New Orleans in what would become the United States, what Yoruba practitioners did was practice syncretism, or the blending together of separate traditions. In other words, the Yoruba religion married itself to Catholicism. After all, the similarities between them were striking. Stephen Prothero illustrates: “Both operate in a cosmos with a Supreme Being at the top, human beings at the bottom, and a host of specialized intermediaries in between facilitating communication and exchange across the divine/human divide.” Stephen Prothero continues: “And while intellectuals in both speculate about the afterlife, each is heavily invested at the popular level in everyday life. It is not beneath the Orishas (or the saints) to care about our toothaches, our children, our promotions, or our lovers.”
And so, in this way, Candomble was born, and Umbanda and Macumba and Santeria and Voodoo: traditions which hid the Orishas out in the open. Olorun the Supreme Being became Jesus Christ, Ogun the Orisha of iron became Saint Peter, Eshu the Trickster became Saint Martin, and on and on—all the Orishas which were not lost in the horrors of the Middle Passage found an equivalent in Catholic saints. Nothing would stop the ancient traditions from continuing forward. Go to any botanica today, common in Latino communities here and elsewhere, and what you’ll find are religious candles and amulets that everywhere reflect Catholic imagery, but underneath are the undying spirits of the Yoruba Orishas.
Syncretism with Catholicism was relatively easy, but this was not to be so with Protestantism. In Protestant majority countries the way forward for Yoruba religion was more difficult. Lacking the saints and angels of Catholicism, Protestantism just did not make for good marriage.
Yet even then, “the African soul was not extinguished but simply transfigured to meet the Euro-social pressures under New World bondage.” That last sentence comes from Baba Ifa Karade, in his Handbook of Yoruba Religious Concepts. “The Africans,” he says, “maintained the ‘Africanness’ or religious being through spirituals; getting the holy ghost (a form of possession); shouting; speaking in tongues; intense preaching”—all forms of religiosity seen in many black protestant churches today. In these churches, worship is all about the full participation of every person, as far as possible. They are clapping and they are singing and they and dancing and they are grooving in the pews or elsewhere. Preacher says something, and people say all right, they say praise the lord, they say amen. But the basic pattern of Yoruba worship is underneath all of it. It’s all about raising up ashe, moving it, channeling it. Yoruba worship invites the Orishas to come and manifest themselves personally, but if everyone’s not singing and everyone’s not clapping and dancing and getting into the spirit of things and the worship is feeling dry and dull then the Orishas won’t come, and that’s not good!
“No matter how far a river flows,” goes a Yoruba wisdom saying, “it never forgets its source.” And that has proven true. Yoruba religion has more than met Eshu’s test. It has survived and thrived. “No African group,” writes Yoruba scholar William Bascom, “has had greater influence in New World culture than the Yoruba.” Absolutely, what we have here is a story of triumph overcoming the worst of tragedies.
A great story, from a great world religion.
But now let’s turn again to Yoruba metaphysics—its spiritualized vision of the Interdependent Web. Perhaps the best place to begin here is with the following creation myth, which I’ve adapted from Tobe Melora Correal’s telling in her fantastic book Finding Soul on the Path of Orisha. Here’s the story:
In a time out of time, in the highest heavens, one day, Olorun, the Supreme Being of Yoruba religion, wanted to create all that is. So, She went to her water pot, which was a gigantic pot, full to overflowing with divine water, water constantly overspilling the sides and yet always remaining full. Olorun took that pot and tipped it over, and the divine water rushed out into the heavens. Olorun thought that this would begin the creation, get things started, but the first time She did this, the water ended up scorching the universe before anything had a chance to develop. The water from Her pot was simply too full of glory. It was just too full of energy, too full of ashe.
It happened the first time, and it happened every time, until Olorun despaired of ever creating all that is. But then She remembered something. She remembered the existence of another water pot, slightly smaller, which she had made eons ago in a time out of time, and given to her eldest child, Olodumare. Immediately She sent for Olodumare to visit her, and when Olodumare came, She shared Her plans. “Olodumare,” said the Supreme Being Olorun, “when I pour out the water of my glory, stand right here and catch it in your pot. The water in your pot will combine with mine and cool it so that it’s just right for creation.” And that’s what they did. The combined waters of Olorun and Olodumare flooded the heavens, and because the temperature was just right, stars began to wink into existence, the creation began.
Now, in the time out of time, Olodumare had given birth to Her own children. So Olorun said to her, “Olodumare, I have another task for you. See that spot over there? I want you to create a place called Earth, with people on it, and each person with a special destiny for creating goodness and truth and beauty in their lives. This is what I want. So create this place called Earth. Give it the proper rhythms and cycles it needs to grow and develop. And share this great work with your children, the Orisha. Let them drink from the water which has cooled down in your pot, and then send them to Earth to pour it into everything. Let each one do it in his or her own unique way. Let Obatala pour the creative waters in simplicity. Let Orunmila pour it in harmony and stability. Let Oshun pour it in beauty and sensuality. Let Oya pour it in storms and hurricanes. Let Shango pour it in flamboyance. Let Yemoya pour it in maternal love. Let Eshu pour it in a way that tests and disrupts. Let each Orisha pour our creative waters into all nature and all life, in his or her own special way. So may the creation be rich, and diverse, and ongoing.” Thus spoke Olorun, and it was done. To this day, Olodumare remains in the lower heavens, fulfilling her promise to Olorun, creating and taking care of life on Earth. Her children, the Orisha, still drink in Olorun’s magic waters and still pour that magic into everything. Olorun, the Supreme Being and Source of All, still continues to oversee all from Her place in the highest heavens, and her water pot never stops, never stops overflowing.
That is the Yoruba creation story—and from it we can learn so much. That, first of all, spirit which is energy/ashe comes first, and matter is a manifestation of Olorun’s creative intention. Love holds everything together. Love is not the end result of millions of years of physical evolution but right at the beginning, and it’s why evolution got started to begin with. Because of Love.
Nothing is more real than Love.
Then there is the fascinating paradox of divine creation, the secret of it. Creation is not so much the coming into existence of something new but the mysterious cooling or contraction of Olorun’s ashe. The theme here echoes insights from other world religious traditions. For example, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, explaining Jewish wisdom teachings, says that “all the worlds—and indeed any separate realms of being—exist only by virtue of the fact that God makes Himself hidden. For when the divine plenty is manifested in its complete fullness there is no room for the existence of anything else. A world can exist only as a result of the concealment of its Creator.” That’s what he says. And it opens up a peculiar predicament, for sure. Listen to this carefully. The proof of God’s existence is simply the fact that anything exists at all. Yet in order for anything to exist, Olorun must cool down Her sacred waters, God must hide His face, and therefore it can be hard to find God. People ask, Where is this God you talk about? People want the answer to look like a discrete thing to be pointed to, so they can say, There it is! But, again, should Olorun or the God of Judaism in all glory appear, the universe we know would burn.
The predicament I am pointing out here—the extreme irony—is this: that the very condition of creation becomes a reason for denying the creator.
Isn’t that something?
In the highest heavens, then, Olorun remains: remote, distant. But Her creative waters are abundantly poured down by a succession of intermediaries: Olodumare and Her children, the Orishas. But now what or who exactly are these Orishas?
Fundamentally the Orishas are energy, they are ashe. But they are energy directed in certain ways, infusing nature and human life with order and pattern. Add to this the Yoruba religion insight that each ashe has two aspects—a building up aspect and a breaking down aspect, a yin and a yang—and that further articulates how each Orisha manifests.
Take the Orisha known as Oshun. Here I’m quoting from Tobe Melora Correal. Oshun “manifests in the fresh waters of the river. In her creative aspect, she is present wherever life-sweetening activity exists: springtime, new love, dancing in the streets at carnival, laughter. In her destructive role, she is the vulture stalking the dying, devouring decaying flesh, and picking the bones of the dead.” Tobe Melora Correal continues: “Though we may take greater pleasure in Oshun’s energy in its warm and inviting life-giving mode, Oshun in her guise as vulture is God working to keep balance in nature. In Yoruba tradition, we value all facets of Oshun’s personality, because the buzzard’s activity in the realm of death is as integral to life’s processes as the birth of a child.” That’s Tobe Melora Correal.
In all this, perhaps you hear an echo coming from the mythologist Joseph Campbell, or from psychologist Carl Jung. For the Orishas are like archetypes of the collective unconscious. They function just like that, in nature and in human life. They are in our bodies, our dreams, our stories. They are the very structure of our human being and doing.
So, it is imperative that we become more conscious of them in our lives, how they manifest, how they move. Part of it is simply a matter of living vitally and richly. If we are too fearful of the vulture and of death, then Oshun’s other side of springtime and new love will have a hard time manifesting in our lives in a healthy way. Or take Eshu the trickster. Eshu will keep coming in and putting test after test in our way until we start paying attention.
Yoruba tradition also teaches that, before we are born, each of us chooses a destiny to live out. We also choose a particular Orisha who will be like a guardian angel for us, who is most healing and balancing for that particular destiny. And then we are born. Then we endure the trials of life, and all of it can cause us to forget. We get off track. We start to wear a false face. Which is why divination, for Yoruba religion, is of central importance. To help us remember.
When I say “divination,” I am talking about a system of knowing that helps a person see the spiritual pattern of their life. Think Tarot cards, which are Western in origin. Think I Ching, which, in origin, is Asian. But in the Yoruba tradition, what happens is diviners practice what is called Ifa. Invoking the Orisha Oronmila, who knows the destiny of everyone, the diviners use sacred kola nuts placed upon a special divination tray, and, in the end, the person coming for a reading is able to receive some clarity and guidance, enabling better life choices.
It’s about remembering who you really are. Besides Ifa divination, there’s Yoruba worship and ritual, which invokes the Orishas and invites them to show up personally. Music and dance are key here, to raise energy/ashe. The rhythm of drums gives praise to the Orishas and also invokes their power. Each Orisha has its unique rhythm. For Obatala, it is slow and concentrated; for Ogun it is strong and rooted; for Yemoya it is like the tides of the ocean; for Oshun it is all gracefulness; for Shango it is like drawing lightning from the sky; for Oya it is like the whirlwind or hurricane; for Eshu it is all balance. Whatever Orisha is invoked, if the worship energy/ashe is sufficient, then what happens essentially is that the dancing worshippers channel the God. “Through dance,” says Baba Ifa Karade, “spiritual forces materialize in the phenomenal world. The god is said to mount the devotee, and for a time, that devotee becomes the god….”
This is a profound Mystery. Catholics may speak of the Mystery of the Eucharist, where the bread and the wine are transubstantiated into the actual body and blood of Christ. But Yoruba tradition is about worship where the Gods’ characteristic personalities and energies come through the worshippers. You can see it happening. It is profound.
It is about aliveness, even rapture. And as we conclude, I am reminded of something that Joseph Campbell once said about the search for the meaning of life. “People say that [that’s what we’re all seeking—meaning–but I don’t think so.] I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances without own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.” And that, to me, sums up Yoruba spirituality perfectly. The rapture of being alive. The source is originally the high God Olorun’s pot which overflows with ashe, and this ashe is given shape and form by the Orishas, who live in our midst and touch our lives in countless ways. Nowhere in the interdependent web of all existence is there an absence of aliveness. No one ever need feel alone or bereft in this universe of love.
Tested in the worst way, with 450+ years of slavery, Yoruba religion stayed strong and proved that its message was not a flash in the pan.
Whatever your beliefs about God and the spirit, know that there’s power here. There’s something happening here.
It is the rapture of being alive.