Monday, August 17, 2015

How are you serving?

I am planning menus, making travel arrangements for a variety of people, and trying to fit a couple mattresses in the guest bedroom so people have some place to sleep. Tomorrow morning I will shop for meals like it's Thanksgiving, buy enough toilet tissue to serve a small army platoon, and hope my sewer lines don't back up on Saturday. I will lay in ice, soda and tea for both hot and cold beverages; make sure we have a couple pounds of Haitian coffee and a couple quarts of cold cream; tally up the candles, cakes, perfume and clean head scarfs. I will wash two sets of dishes (one for us and one for spirit) and lay out bed linens, white clothing, and table cloths. Nope, it's a not a holiday -- its the Lwa's service day and it's a big one. We perform our annual Lave Tet or head washing on the point (or "pwen') of the Marine Lwa (that's Agwe, LaSiren and LaBalen to the non-members.) It's a huge party to plan and execute and I try to make sure I've got all my t's crossed and i's dotted. But all this shopping, baking, cooking and planning has got me to thinking.

When one becomes an Asogwe priest, be it mambo or houngan, there is an inherent and unspoken command that comes along with the rank that says 'you will be of service.' What exactly, does that mean? "Of service..." Over the years, I have seen the term "of service" become interpreted as making fets, hosting Lwa parties and running Kanzos. That's all fine and dandy, but surely there is more to being a priest than knowing how to house and feed fifty people every month?

I am especially focused on that term -- of service -- as I am speaking at the KOSANBA conference in October about this very thing. I was chosen to speak because my husband and I run a large, international sosyete here in the USA.  It's particularly interesting to the Haitian constituency that will attend this conference as to how we are managing to be priests of Vodou when we aren't Haitian, don't have Haitian ancestors and don't live in Haiti. As I approach my 15th year of serving the Lwa, the foremost question I am asked by Haitians isn't why I am serving the Lwa, but how.  This line of questioning points out just how entwined the religion of Vodou is to the country of Haiti.  And these days, it is the same question I've begun asking myself.  How are you serving the Lwa?

I spend my days in ritual poise. That means I pray, I visit the sick, I offer a sympathetic ear, I make meals and I work on charity projects. Occasionally, I get art commissions which helps pay the bills. I also offer monthly fets to the Lwa. Big, elaborate, multi-day events that entail lots of planning, cooking, housing and singing for the 20 - 40 folks who come to the service. It also follows that I spend a portion of the following week cleaning, putting away and resetting my house back to normal, until the next month when I do it all over again. We have been doing this religiously (pun intended) for over 30 years; the first 15 years as ceremonial magicians, the last 15 as Vodouisants. It's fun, energizing and especially fulfilling to me personally. This past weekend we baptized two babies into the faith. It's a rewarding time indeed. But now as I approach my 15th year of priesthood, I want to do more.

I believe it is the job of every Asogwe of my age at least, to begin to prepare those who follow to take over the work. In Ceremonial language, we called it the Great Work. This is a reference to the idea of keeping the gods (God) appeased through ritual and propitiation. There is a long held belief that the world of men and the realm of the gods should not become intertwined. When these two places do intersect, trouble follows. And there is also an unspoken understanding that if you don't make offerings, propitiation or service, then the gods (God) will come looking for it, once again violating the Kalunga and intermixing the world. Calamity almost always follows. So the role of the priest is to help keep the balance as it were. I make an offering to Legba, and Legba agrees not to come looking for his stuff. Likewise, we make service for the Lwa, and they arrive safely and sanely through the act of possession into this realm. If not, imbalance reigns again.

I am taking the time to prepare my godchildren to be this kind of priest. To know the prayers, the langaj of the spirits. To make the right offerings on the right days, to the correct Lwa. To be able to set up a proper space to work in, and to help those who come to them for succor. And as I do this, I find my own role changing in subtle ways. We still offer service, but others now lead. I take the time to breathe on fet days, allowing them to step up and do their thing. My "service to the Lwa' is now formed by stepping back and giving others a chance to shine.

We have a whole new group of people who are learning to be servitors and they are all under 12 years of age. My "service to the Lwa" is now formed by creating a learning program for them - in clear and simple language so that they can become servitors. There is new life in the form of babies, baptized this weekend and beginning their own journey to the faith. I found it delightfully amazing that these tiny beings not only heard me singing while they were in their mommie's bellies but that they remembered. They both squealed in delight as I sang the opening stanzas to the Priye Ginen, and danced with utter abandon to the rhythms of the drum.

But the real moment came late in the night as Gran Ibo made her appearance. She was particularly focused on one of the babies, and danced before him, swirling and touching his face. He sat perfectly still, mesmerized by her movements.  His huge grin and wide-eye amazement stunned everyone present.  Not in the least bit afraid, he coo'd with delight as she stroked his face, telling him he was hers. Ayibobo - if the Lwa are pleased, then I am too.

My "service to the Lwa" is becoming more of an outreach practice. It is writing books about Vodou, speaking at conferences on my experiences as a Mambo leading a house here in the USA.  It's writing this blog so that others may find their way to the Spirits.  And it is in my artwork, my daily singing and my gardens to the Lwa. My "service to the Lwa" has expanded, moving beyond my abilities to plan parties and into the world as a real life practice. As it should be.

When I speak at the conference in October, this is what I will tell the audience. I came to Vodou because of a small black man who has always accompanied me in life. I stayed in Vodou because it gives me joy to sing to the Spirits. And I will remain in Vodou because the next generation is looking at me to learn how to be an Asogwe. I think that's what Asogwe really means - an example to follow. Its a big commitment, but then I've never been one to shirk away from big commitments.

For example, right now, I gotta go hang out those eight sets of bed linens, put away the place settings for 15 people and reset a temple back for regular use. An asogwe's job is never done. Ayibobo.

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