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Promoted by Pre-Synod Documents: Spiritual Refuge for Modernized Indians, or Lifesaver for Urbanites Having an Existential Crisis?

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Cardinal Baldisseri

There is no doubt that the Synod on the Pan Amazon region will have a universal dimension. So say its organizers. “One writes ‘Amazon’ and reads ‘world,’” is how the Osservatore Romano summarized various interventions by Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary of the Synod of Bishops, and Cardinal Claudio Hummes, rapporteur of the coming synodal assembly. “The Synod represents an important opportunity to ‘Amazonize’ the world,” states the sociologist Marcia Maria de Oliveira,[1] appointed by Pope Francis as one of the synod experts as a reward for her participation in the entire synodal process.

Marcia Maria de Oliveira

Universality comes from the global reach of the Synod’s pastoral proposals (opening the priesthood to married men and recognizing official ministries for women), from its ecological and social proposals (rejecting the Western model of development on the pretext of respecting the environment), and from the metaphysical foundation of these proposals (the holistic cosmology of the ancestral wisdom of indigenous peoples).

To these factors of universality of the Synod, one should add another that results from its religious dimension. We are not referring to the Catholicity of the Church. For the organizers, that would have had the bad smell of colonialism and the consequent destruction of cultures, with which European missionaries supposedly were complicit. Instead, we are referring to the universality of the shamanic religiosity and “medicine” promoted by the working documents of the coming synodal assembly.

Indeed, in its section on “Spirituality and Wisdom,” the preparatory document, titled “Amazonia: New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology,” promotes the “diverse spiritualities and beliefs” of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, which “motivate them to live in communion with the soil, water, trees, animals, and with day and night.” Moreover, it praises the “wise elders – called interchangeably “payés, mestres, wayanga or chamanes,” among others – [who] promote the harmony of people among themselves and with the cosmos.”[2] The second document — the Instrumentum laboris, which will guide the discussions of the Synod Fathers – praises the “indigenous rituals and ceremonies” that “create harmony and balance between human beings and the cosmos” and “protect life from evils that can be caused by both human beings and other living beings,” hence “the need to preserve and transmit the knowledge of traditional medicine.”[3]

Festival du Chamanisme 2017
Festival of Shamanism in Genac

The fact that this exaltation of shamanism in preparation for a Synod of the Catholic Church has coincided with the 12th Festival of Shamanism held in Genac, a small commune in French Aquitaine from April 25 to 28, is telltale. Organized by the Circle of Wisdom of the Union of Ancestral Traditions, the festival welcomed 180 shamans and “medicine men and women” from around the world; it welcomed nearly 4,000 visitors and served as a framework for “debates, evocations of Mother Earth, and ancestral ceremonies,” as the French newspaper Le Monde reported.[4]

Le Monde went on to write: “This craze for shamanism, which some anthropologists consider as the original religion of humanity, has been manifesting itself in Europe, the United States, and Canada for the last fifteen years,” hence “thousands of Westerners regularly travel to the Amazon to participate with healing shamans (curanderos, from Spanish curar, ‘cure’) in rituals to take ayahuasca (from the Quechua, aya, ‘deceased’, ‘spirit’, ‘soul’, and huasca, ‘rope’, ‘vine’) an indigenous hallucinogenic medicinal drink made from crushed plants … used by Native Americans for 2,000 to 4,000 years.”

In the print edition of Le Monde, the report by Frédéric Joignot is titled “Chamans de tous les pays …(Shamans of all nations…)”, a direct allusion to the Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels, suggesting their failed socioeconomic utopia is being replaced by another of a religious and tribal nature. Clearly, the focus of his report is very similar to that of the organizers of the Pan Amazon Synod.

The journalist explains that “many curanderos now travel to hold ayahuasca sessions in Europe and the United States. They come to explain their practices and philosophy at various symposia, such as the Sixth World Conference on Ayahuasca, which  brought together in Gerona (Spain) many researchers in human sciences, activists and shamans on the initiative of the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education Research and Service (Iceers) from May 31 to June 2.”

A quick search on the Internet teaches us that ICEERS is an NGO that has consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council and is devoted to “transforming society’s relationship with psychedelic plants,” that is, to the legalization of drugs, by seeking “a future where psychoactive plant practices are valued and integrated parts of society.” Their values are very similar to those of the editors of the Instrumentum laboris for the coming Synod: “Environmental sustainability/Honoring cultural diversity/Respect for indigenous and spiritual traditions/Human rights approach.”

Their strategic plan also closely resembles the preparatory documents of the Synod Assembly: “Our vision is that of a future where these practices are integrated and valued parts of society – where every individual and each community is granted the right to pursue healing and self-empowerment, where indigenous cultures are respected, and where bridges are built between traditional knowledge and science.”[5] (To be entirely objective, the ICEERS is more moderate than the Synod’s prelates and neo-missionaries, who want traditional medicine to be recognized without the need for any bridge with science, considered as a rationalist and anthropocentric deviation which disturbs harmony with the cosmos…)

Corroborating Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira’s thesis that indigenous tribalism is the new post-Marxist face of the anti-Christian Revolution, Frédéric Joignot’s report highlights the support that shamans and their rituals with hallucinogenic plants receive in the academic world. The first author cited is the anthropologist Barbara Glowczewski, 2018 silver medal of the National Center for Scientific Research in France and author of Rêves en colère (Plon, 2004). This researcher has participated in the last three festivals in Genac and underlines the whole interest of such meetings: “Exciting debates were held in which community representatives and shamans, whose culture is threatened, were able to expound their situation, exchange ideas, and imagine alliances. The public experienced their collective rituals with kindness, often moved and enthusiastic about the individual care they provide.”

With language not unlike that employed in the Instrumentum laboris, the French anthropologist explains that the inhabitants of rich countries who refuse the “destruction of livelihoods by extractive industries and ecological disasters” (i.e., urbanites who vote for the Greens and pontificate about Amazon fires from their comfortable sofas purchased at IKEA), “seek sources of inspiration from indigenous peoples and shamanic cosmovisions for which land and water are alive and plants are ‘teachers.’”

What attracts them is a new relationship to the world, by which they “try precisely to experience the fact that we can be inhabited or traversed by natural entities, animal spirits, plants, fire or rain.” Like the editors of the pre-synodal documents, Mrs. Glowczewski discovers in that attraction “the emergence of new, more respectful ways of inhabiting the Earth in which humans seek to find spiritual links with all living forms.” And, as if wholly impregnated with Pope Francis’ Encyclical Laudato Si, she adds, “this is not about exoticism but about exploring what the West has lost, re-anchoring oneself with the memory of places.” (A re-anchoring so necessary that it led the editors of the Instrumentum laboris to consider the Amazon a “theological, epiphanic place”…)

Apparently, Cardinals Baldisseri and Hummes were publicly mistaken. They are praising shamanism to cater to indigenous peoples who, faced with the vacuum left by Catholic neo-missionaries who refuse to evangelize and baptize, have massively turned to Pentecostal Protestantism, as the bishop emeritus of the Prelature of Marajó, Most Rev. José Luis Azcona, recently denounced. They should be addressing young urbanites of the industrial society who used drugs in the 1970s in search of playful, festive, or sexual gain (dixit Le Monde). Yet they now find in shamanism “an enriching experience between wild psychoanalysis, a spiritual journey, and a visionary connection with nature: an ‘entheogenic’ experience,” that is, one which generates a modified state of consciousness for religious purposes.

Raphaël LiogierFor the philosopher and sociologist Raphaël Liogier, former director of the Religious Observatory of Aix-en-Provence, “shamanism has everything to please Westerners, who are losing their mythology and worried about the ravages of materialism because it symbolizes a religion which is non-misguided, more spiritual than religious, non-monotheistic, and therefore non-dogmatic or moralistic; ecological, because it sacralizes Mother Earth, and finally, visionary and ecstatic thanks to the taking of psychotropic plants.”

Believing to be “all shamans” themselves, “globalized individuals hope to escape from their finiteness and evade global risk by seeking new myths and a path of salvation in visionary experiences inspired by those who still believe in the regenerative power of nature and are not responsible for the environmental disaster.”

Is ayahuasca a new “eucharist” for urbanites with existential disturbances but eager to enter into communion with the cosmos at the hands of Amerindian healers? Then, why not recognize an official ecclesiastical ministry in the area of health to payés, mestres, wayanga or chamanes, who “transmit the knowledge of traditional medicine” and with their “indigenous rituals and ceremonies … create harmony and balance between human beings and the cosmos” and “protect life from evils”?

The Instrumentum laboris (nos. 87 & 88) implicitly proposes this vast topic for Synod Fathers to discuss during the Assembly in Rome from October 6 to 27. Among the expert witnesses, there will be no lack of some healer who can give them more details about what Mircea Eliade called humanity’s “primary mysticism” and “primordial religious experience” – disturbed by a certain Jesus Christ, Who cast out demons and had Himself called the Son of God.

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