On November 2, 2002, Joyce Thompson, writer, divorced mother, and a white former Episcopalian, was initiated as a priest in the Afro-Cuban religion Santeria (also called Lucumi). This excerpt recounts her first encounter with Lucumi, through the man who is now her husband, and her initiation four years later as a priest of the orisha, or guardian spirit, Obatala.
It was clear from the start that Schuyler was different.
He followed up our first date with an invitation to dine with several of his closest women friends. In order to feel less singular, I invited my daughter, then sixteen and always an astute judge of character, to come along. The parties sniffed and circled, discovered people and experiences in common. For a brief stolen moment, Schuyler and I sat quietly on the front-porch steps and smoked. My daughter liked him, with reservations. After our third date, cheap Vietnamese noodles and a long walk with Cecil B. DeMille lighting diffuse over Puget Sound affirming the grace of God, he kissed my cheek. On the fourth, in the mountains with our boy-children, we succumbed to curiosity and surrendered our virtue into one another's keeping.
Finally, he invited me into his sanctum sanctorum. Against one wall of his writer's office, he had created an altar for his ancestors. In their photos, they were a stern and mostly handsome bunch of WASPy eastern Washington settlers, merchants, dentists, whose eyes regarded me with unsmiling speculation when Schuyler introduced us.
He called the altar a boveda. It was covered with white cloth, lighted by white candles.
White flowers blossomed in a clear vase. A clear glass bowl held water. On one corner of the table, a single white blossom floated in a glass of water. A small white cup held golden honey.
"I put that there to attract you," Schuyler said.
I asked him to explain.
Some months before, in the course of performing a misa blanca for him, Rosi, partner of Maria, a gifted medium and priest of Eleggua, had seen a woman with two children, a boy and a girl, coming toward him. Rosi had told him the relative ages of the children and added that he would be an important force in the life of the boy. She had told him he would experience both spiritual connection and sexual pleasure with the woman such as he'd never known before. The woman, Rosi had told him, would reveal nothing more about herself. She would not give her name. But the honey would draw her to him. If he put it on his altar, she would come.
"I guess it worked," he said, with a smile that might have melted diamonds. "Here you are."
When I saw that Schuyler and I would be together for a long time, I sent an email to Maria, his godmother, whom I had never met. I introduced myself as the woman with two children she and Rosi had seen coming into Schuyler's life. Now I was here. My name was Joyce. I said I didn't know if his spiritual path would ever be mine, but that I would always respect it and would do nothing to hinder him on his way. This seemed like the proper, courteous thing to do. Whether I did it for Maria's benefit, or for my own, to speak out loud both my acceptance and my intention, I can't be sure. She responded promptly and tersely, with her blessings. The email was signed Madrina.
Even in an impersonal electronic font on a computer screen, that word-godmother-was enough to incite prickles of longing and fear. Any word that flirts with mother, with all the things a mother is and is not supposed to be, is almost like a living thing to me, irresistibly appealing, but dangerous, too-a wolf cub with small sharp teeth, an unpredictable nature. It is a word that calls up all of my defenses, then scurries past them. Put the words god and mother together and you hold my heart in your hands. I have found no way to protect myself from my need. In the end, all I can do is have faith in my own resilience.
It took me four years to decide.
What was I doing in Oakland, anyhow? he asked.
I told him I'd come for an initiation.
"In that religion Schuyler belongs to? In Santeria?"
"Uh-huh. But not because he belongs. Because I want to."
"It's paganism," Michael said. "Isn't It?"
"It's an ancient and very wise spiritual practice. It makes sense to me in a way no other religion ever has."
"You didn't answer my question. Is it pagan or not?"
"Earth-based," I said.
"Not Christian," Michael said. "Without Christ, there can be no salvation."
"There are many roads to God," I said.
Michael kept smiling, but he shook his head. When he spoke, his voice was stern. "We can't both be right," he said. "There is only one Way."
As a good Christian and a good brother-in-law and a good host, Michael let me eat lunch at his table, with his family. He let me borrow his car. The only thing he denied me was admission to the heaven he planned to attain himself.
The next day, when I came back to return their car dressed all in white, Michael was home with a head cold, but he did not choose to leave his room.
In our ile, the first initiation is the receiving of elekes, cleaned and blessed beaded necklaces that invoke the protection of the orishas whom they represent. By giving me elekes, Maria was committing herself to me as madrina, Rosi as ayubona (a kind of spiritual midwife), and I to them as godchild, a reciprocal commitment meant to be at least as durable as a contemporary marriage. All this was understood, agreed upon before the ceremony made it formal. What was undecided until the day itself was the response of the orishas to my petition. Without the assent of Oggun [Maria's orisha], the ceremony could not proceed. Once that was given, it remained to ascertain which of the orishas would step forward to take me under wing for the next phase of my spiritual journey. Two other initiates went before me. When it was my turn at last, I prostrated myself on a straw mat before Maria's Oggun.
I was unprepared for the question. Not that I hadn't thought, more or less exhaustively, about my motivations. It was just that I hadn't expected to have to say it all out loud. If Maria had been standing just a couple of feet farther away, clearly out of earshot, I would have had less trouble being candid with Oggun. As far as I knew my own heart and mind, what I wanted most was to develop my own spiritual and psychic powers. I wanted to know more about those invisible, unnamed creatures I had long sensed were stirring in and around me. I wanted to know more about reality and the nature of time. I wanted to bring the shadows into clear focus. I wanted to live in daily commerce with the divine. Most of all, I wanted teachers to show me the way. It seemed like a lot to want.
I definitely didn't want Maria to think I was prideful or grandiose. To avoid offending her, I told Oggun a bunch of nambypamby, meant-to-be self effacing stuff, not too much different from what I parroted back to the starchy-collared priest in my Episcopal confirmation class when I was twelve, and hoped that, being orisha, he would be able to read between the lines. I wanted to be a better person. I wanted to make a better world. Blah blah blah. Maria cleared her throat. I wrapped it up. Then she threw obi. I might have been blessed, or I might have been spurned. As it was, the letter was itawa meji, with its promise of struggle. Possible but difficult-orisha's equivalent of a cosmic shrug. I couldn't help but take it as an editorial comment on my evasions. Again, at lightning speed, Maria prayed in Lucumi. She threw the coconut again. She muttered. Threw yet again. Made a noise deep in her throat. Then she scooped up the pieces of coconut and turned to me.
"Omo Obatala," she said. Obatala's child. There was something like apology in her round black eyes. "I was surprised, too," she said.
Ochun had not stepped forward. Instead of the mother's embrace I had halfway expected, I came into the keeping of a wise and distant king whom I didn't know or understand at all.
Obatala was put in charge of creating the world. One day when he was making people, he drank too much palm wine. Obatala loved his palm wine. The people he created in his cups were broken, missing parts, or badly made. When Obatala sobered up and saw what he had done, he was very sorry. He stopped drinking wine, and ever after he has treated his imperfect creations with great tenderness. Thus it is said that the deformed, the crippled, and the handicapped are his special charges. His children are particularly susceptible to the addictive properties of alcohol. It's better, really, if they don't drink at all.
Among the orishas, Obatala is chief, the king of the white cloth. He is pure, patient, wise, and in many of his aspects, very old. He is magically resourceful and-like the chameleon, who is one of his messengers-able to change his appearance easily. Obatala's head is high and cool. He prevails more by wit, by gravitas, than by force.
His stomach is easily upset, and he prefers bland foods, pale in color, as his offerings-meringues, bread pudding, eggs, white cornmeal. He is a gender-shifter; as many of his roads are female as are male.
To know these things about Obatala is not to know Obatala.
Schuyler found him mysterious and hard to reach.
Ian took confidence and pride from being the son of the king.
For me, Obatala is the filler of the hole at the apex of my ribcage, a hollow that has been there as long as I can remember. I don't know the precise physiology of self-loathing, but whatever acids it releases were neutralized as I came under the protection of Obatala's white cloth, and for the first time, I began to feel at home on the planet and in my own skin. The altar we made for him, with its white linen, its white elephants, its white candles, is a refuge when the senses are weary or confused. When I ring his silver bell and ask for favors, they are granted more often than not.
When Obatala rides his priests, they become ancient and joyous and gentle, tireless in cleansing and embracing the people.
My husband, my son, myself. Obatala picked us up and dusted us off. He smiled upon us. He showed us what a good father could be.