Monday, October 4, 2010


There has been a lot of discussion in our home lately about spiritual traditions. Some traditions in our home have been kept relatively unchanged for thousands of years between many generations. Others have changed the moment they entered our house, or our altar. We’ve come to the conclusion that this is a healthy activity to do.

Some things are meant to change. The traditions of our parents, grandparents, previous generations or other communities are not necessarily the ones that will work for us. Sometimes we need to update and reorganize things to keep their underlying meaning and increase their relevance.

This may sound frightful to some, disconcerting to others. They might say tradition is something that is supposed to remain unchanged. I believe you can update things without losing the meaning behind the tradition. It’s the meaning, the reasons behind tradition that are important to keep, not necessarily the tradition itself.

Put the Cat in the Box

There’s a story told in our family about a guru who used to sit down in his temple for his daily meditation. This particular master had a cat that used to do what cats do when he sat down to meditate, namely rub himself up against him. The master found this was not helpful to his meditation.

So each day, when the master sat down to meditate, he would put his cat in a box. (Don’t try this at home kids, it was a special box with adequate holes in it for the cat to breathe.) As the guru grew older, he had his disciples put the cat in the box before sitting down to meditate with him. Eventually the master left his body, but the disciples at this temple remained. Each day before sitting, they would faithfully put the cat in the box. In turn the cat itself passed away. The disciples in a moment of great crisis, went and got another cat so each day before sitting to meditate, they could continue to put the cat in the box.

Putting the cat in the box became a tradition in this temple. The reasons behind putting the cat in the box had lost their original meaning. It just became their tradition. For many generations, the disciples would have a cat around to fulfill their ritual; it was a thing you did before sitting down to meditate.

I have heard a similar story about cooking a Christmas meal. There was a family that each year used a certain small cooking pan to make this special dinner. The pan was passed from mother to daughter. One year the pan finally aged beyond use. The daughter was struggling to find a similar replacement. When the mother came for Christmas one year, she asked why her daughter was using such a thing. The daughter responded that the meal was always made in that type of pan to which the mother replied; it was the only one that would fit in my small oven.

Traditions have a way of going on. Sometimes we lose their original intent or meaning. It’s just something we continue to do. These are the traditions that need examination, the ones that need updating.

Reformations in the Church

The Catholic mass isn’t done in Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke; nor is it largely done in Latin in this country. It has been updated to the times and the languages the church-going people speak. People have a hard time understanding Latin these days, it’s not widely taught. To keep a connection between the people and their religion, the Catholic Church adapted and changed their ceremonies to have them remain relevant to the celebration taking place.

This kind of reinvention is healthy. It keeps the religion fluid enough to change with the times. Without it, it will die as Latin has, and the Church would eventually be dead.

Vodou Traditions

As we start to organize how we will do Vodou in Minnesota, there are things that are going to work and things that won’t. We don’t have a peristyle. We can’t perform a Vodou ceremony outdoors year round, the snow, ice and cold will not be kept at bay (no matter how much we try). So we’re going to have to change some things to make it all work.

There are some things that are essential, and some things that have to be flexible.

When considering how to organize a Vodou ceremony, there are certain traditions we will keep, and others that must evolve to match our environment and our times. In New Orleans, we sing the songs in Kreyòl (or Creole if you prefer). This we will keep. The songs are beautiful. It should be obvious that this is not the language that is used in African Vodou, but it is how Vodou has evolved as the traditions were transformed in Haiti. We strive to keep English translations handy, so the meaning of the songs is not lost.

While the Lwa (spirits) we worship with those songs remain mostly unchanged, the way we nourish them, their care and feeding, has been updated to reflect the way our community lives. That tradition that has changed is animal sacrifice. We don’t practice it. We’re vegetarian. Some of us are vegan. We don’t habitually kill and dress animals for our daily meal, that part of our lives is different than others where it is part of their daily or weekly routine. Instead we give the spirits that which we give to ourselves, home cooked meals. Our diets and our food chain are different in the US. We get our food from farms to processing to the grocery store (sometimes the farmer’s market). In other parts of the world, people raise their own animals, kill them, and then feed their families and their community with them. We cook and feed our community with what we eat ourselves. That part, that meaning remains the same, but the tradition has updated to our way of life.

Our value system is different as well. In the US, we often value money and time above many other things. That means our money and time are our greatest sacrifice. A sacrifice is something we’re giving up, something we’ll miss. This is a sacrifice that can be given and shared in our community. Whatever it is that gives the sacrifice meaning, the sacrifice must change for it to stay relevant. The sacrifice must be updated to fit the times and the community.

So in practicing Vodou in our home, with our new Minnesota community, some changes have to be made. We will likely do ceremony in a special reverent space for now, our basement. We feel the need to stay connected to the Earth, the ground; the cement floor is the closest thing we can get to it while making ceremony practical for year-round worship. We will decorate and fashion it to become our sacred space. It will be both private and public; private because it will be reserved for worship, public to be shared with our community that worship there.

Other parts have to be refashioned to work for our community. This keeps it alive and fluid. It maintains the relationship between worship and the spirits.

What to Keep

It’s not that we toss out everything we’ve learned. This isn’t supposed to be changing or re-inventing Vodou and traditions just because we want to put our stamp on it; this isn’t for the sake of our own ego. But traditions have to change with the times, and the community to maintain their meaning. They are meant to strength our connection with the spirits through our celebration. They have to change because we, as a society change. The Lwa may be the same, but they come to our parties as we’re throwing them today. Life has changed, they’re mounting new horses altogether.

If traditions don’t change with the times, we risk loosing the meaning behind what we do. We will be putting the cat in the box – there will be no reason behind why we do it. I believe it creates a deeper understanding of the underlying meaning to examine our traditions and update them to make them relevant to our community. It’s what I’ve seen done very successfully with our house in New Orleans. Of course there will be those that don’t agree. They’ll say what we’re doing isn’t genuine. We’re not doing it they way others did. But I’d rather deepen the understanding of their meaning, try and strengthen our bond with the Lwa. And I know if I get it wrong, the spirits will certainly let me know.

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