On Demons and Witch Hunts

Yesterday I received a deeply painful shock.

A woman that I’ve been very close friends with since I was ten years old wrote me an e-mail saying that she can no longer have contact with me because she feels that I am going deeper into work that she thinks is demonic. She apologetically touched on her recent re-conversion to the Catholic Church. Her e-mail was both clear, and indirect. There seemed to be no beginning to her feelings of discomfort, no cause for this very sudden shift. I had been visiting her in Warsaw; we were planning a celebration for my 30th birthday as well as a baby shower for her third baby boy. My work, what I believe, and what she believes, have been marginal to our relationship. I had thought our friendship was based on love and mutual support. Rarely did issues of agreement or disagreement come up, unless it was opinions about music, or a movie. We knew we didn’t agree on everything. Agreements and disagreements would melt in the long rivers of deep conversations. When she told me she was going to church again, I told her that anything that makes her feel good, I support. When I told her I was doing Ceremony she had also seemed supportive – anything that you feel helps you, I remember her communicating. What we shared was a seeker’s approach and a sense of humor. What else can I say? Any words won’t do justice to a twenty-year context.

I don’t want to be doing this,’ she wrote me yesterday, ‘but I need to protect myself and my family.’

Friendships, relationships, and even the stars have an ending. Maybe there is no reason for me to feel more or less surprised than if we have simply drifted apart, or if, indeed, one of us found the other unpleasant to be around, or if I was allergic to her cat, or if our partners were at odds with one another. Beginnings and endings are a part of life. What hurts is that overnight, an intentional love flipped an arbitrary coin and arose anew as metaphysical suspicion. “Last night I felt something try to come into my body,” she wrote, “and then God told me clearly that any contact with you is dangerous.” 

I don’t blame her sentiments, even if they are painful. People everywhere seem threatened by ceremony, or a living world. Why, though? Recently, another friend of mine – from what I know an atheist who fervently practices yoga – told me that the idea of ceremony triggers fear in her. She has no way of relating to the idea, and so it frightens her. One of my Uncles, a marginal Christian, told me that Ceremony and talking to Plants can be interpreted as demonic in the confines of the Church. Still, he loves me no less. 

This is not a question of sides – my side, her side. Right or wrong. Friendships dissolve for many reasons. For me, however, this is a story about fear and the strange result of religious colonization. I’m currently in Poland, where the Catholic Church dominates both the spiritual and the political landscape. The Polish Pope never died – simply transubstantiated from human to saint. Abortion is practically illegal. Village Priests drive expensive cars, and the largest statue of Jesus in the world sprouts from the Earth like some strange mix of concrete plant and Soviet-Religious fantasy.

Why does Christianity find traditional faiths to be so dangerous? Why did Christianity weed out the mbira – a traditional instrument used in Ceremony – in Zimbabwe? Why does Christianity find animism demonic? Why do Church leaders in Zimbabwe tell people to stop taking plant medicines, and take pills instead? Why does the Catholic Church say birth control is a sin? Why are women in the Catholic Church barred from the priesthood? Why does the Catholic Church in Poland warn its members from practicing yoga and reading Harry Potter?

In a word: what are we so afraid of?

Let me ask this:

Is talking to Ancestors demonic?

Is singing songs for trees demonic?

Is learning about the healing properties of plants demonic?

Is telling stories demonic?

Is honoring mountains demonic?

Is listening to people’s troubles demonic?

Is helping people who are hurting demonic?

Is writing about my experiences demonic?

Is paying attention to dreams demonic?

Is practicing honoring, remembering, and creating beauty in Ceremony demonic?

Is playing the violin for all creatures, seen and unseen, demonic?

Is feeling called to the priesthood as a woman demonic?

What are these demons that plague our imaginations? And why, again, are we so concerned with anesthetizing our environment of any disagreement or diversity, and playing good little boys and girls to institutions that – as much as they can hold and host beautiful things –  they cannot have our best interests at heart, because at the heart of every institution is the desire for its own longevity? (This is not to say that there aren’t people within institutions who do wonderful work, and who act in the interest and well-being of others…)

I know one traditional healer in Zimbabwe whose wife told me of the ridicule and scorn they face: “during the day, people come and tell us this is demonic work,” she said as she was walking me to a kombi station in a Harare as crowded as a can of goats, “and then those same people come at night for help and advice.” What have religions done to us that they make us afraid of telling the truth about ourselves, and how we feel? Why do we see evil everywhere except for where it truly lives – in the big and small ways in which we persecute, oppress, demean, destroy, and abuse each other and the Earth that is our mother? Why do we see demons in Ceremony and not in consumerism? Why do we see demons in prayers for the Earth, and not in cutting down trees and killing lions? Why do we see demons in talking to our Ancestors with love, and not in politics that perpetuates lies and corporate interests?

My Aunt Kasia, whom I loved, and who loved me, was as devout a Catholic as anybody. Hers was a true faith in the love of God. She firmly believed everyone would end up in Heaven, and that my calling was true. “There are many ways,” she would tell me, “and not everyone is called to the same path.” (I do think she hoped that Jesus would make a case in my life, but bless her heart, she let me flourish in my own way and celebrated every little human achievement that I made on my path.)

What have religious institutions done that they make us so afraid of demons that we stop acting in a human way? And why is it that despite a rationalist renaissance, demons still figure in our imaginations in such a powerful way? Why is it that years after the supposed death of faith, we still act in fear towards everything around us that we think of as Other – people, practices, faiths, ways of dressing, ways of eating, ways of being? What materialism did was pretend demons don’t exist at all. That didn’t stop people being afraid of them. Instead of eradicating demons, let’s look at our relationship to them. Let’s look at Fear itself.

Fear is gleefully experiencing a new renaissance. It lives in the meat we are told to eat or stay away from. It converges in the politics we are told to agree or disagree with. It haunts mosques, synagogues, and churches – empty or full. It is perfectly natural. There are things to be afraid of in the world, maybe. Certainly, the more we have to lose, the more afraid we are. My former friend, who wrote me the e-mail, has a beautiful family. She told me recently how afraid she is, every day, of losing the family that she has. I myself fear losing the good health that I have recently gained back. We want to believe that the things we do, the people we hang around, will be safe enough that we will not lose anything we love.

The Truth is, however, that as beautiful as life is, it is also terrible in its nature – there is no such thing as safety.

The Church says – love the sinner, hate the sin. Really? What does that even mean, love the sinner, hate the sin? It means that we have a right to disapprove of people and judge them. I say love everything. Or don’t. Don’t force yourself to spend time with somebody you don’t like. Don’t force yourself to stay away from somebody you feel loyalty or love towards. Don’t preach. What’s the point? People respond only to love. That’s my experience. Illness responds only to love. Don’t tell people that some things are only in their heads – nobody likes to be patronized in that way. Do what you love, and what loves you. Spend time with people you love, and who love you. But to take a principled stand, and to say – I can no longer be your friend because of this thing that you are doing – does that help? Or make sense? Is this spiritual tough love? Is it necessary, really?

When I was in Peru a few months ago there was a man who came who claimed to be haunted by demons. He said he had made many pacts with them in previous lives, pacts that he now had to break. I sat in maybe two ceremonies with him. This man had a very, very difficult time in Ceremony. He would scream and cry; he found himself in hell. He told the Maestros that he had to break demon pacts, and he asked them to help him. They were troubled by his approach. They told him that Ceremony was not what he needed, and they put him on an isolated dieta, with only one plant. I remember thinking that more than anything, this man needed some love, and to go home. I remember saying, these demons don’t exist.

There are different medicines, there are different faiths, there are different times. There’s no reason to force ourselves to do or stay away from anything or anybody. There is no one way. The thing is, though, that what people think and feel is real. Whether they make it real, or whether it is objective in some other way, it is real. I am not saying that only good exists in the world. But I am very wary of these kinds of witch hunts. What are they really about? Why were witches burned in Europe? Why was mbira banned in Africa?

What does society gain from scapegoating? And why is it that the institution that seems to do the most blaming and condemning, worships a scapegoat hung on a cross? (Another way: why is it that the institution that seems to do the most blaming and condemning worships a generous tree that gave its life to give final comfort to a poor innocent man sentenced to death?)

In the end, we are all in service to the same, loving God. That’s what I believe. We are all fragile and unique flowers, jabbering on about our opinions during the short time that we are here. We are all wrapped in the same mystery, and subject to the same death. We all want love, and safety, and comfort, and good things, and we all cry human tears because we do not always have as much love as we need in our lives. That I do Ceremony and talk to trees is not because I want to convert anybody to what I believe, but simply because this is what helped me become myself and helps me stay human and heartfelt.

I believe that Ceremony in all of its guises can help people move through traumas in their psyches, spirits, minds, hearts, and bodies, through beauty and love and song. I believe that Love in all of its forms, and God in all of her incarnations, blossom in many ways, in the hearts of all creatures. Agree or disagree. We can still be friends.