Six months ago, rumors began circulating about an orphan who could heal, raise the dead, and perform exorcisms. And what better place for a second coming than a region plagued by sorcery, witches, and the devil himself? Thousands of pilgrims came to weekly masses in a tiny village with no water and no electricity, in the heart of the land where Voodoo was born.
The young woman spoke of terrible things, accusing the clergy of hypocrisy, Benin’s leaders of thievery, and claiming that national heroes were burning in hell for witchcraft and the murders they committed during their lives. Despite her fanatic following, she was soon chased out of the village, not by the inhabitants, but by the Catholic Church. Heresy is not looked kindly upon by the Vatican.
Today, she resides in another small village, still in the heart of Voodoo. The Catholic priests that raised her and guard her have built a makeshift church… nothing more than a tin roof large enough to cover two thousand kneeling souls. It’s not large enough, of course, and there only enough pews (desks borrowed from a nearby school) for a few hundred.
The first thing that struck me about the church and its surroundings was the cool breeze, as if we were under the constant threat of rain. During the hot season, where breathing is almost too much effort, the refreshing wind was surprising in and of itself, more so that it lasted our entire visit.
The second thing is the multitudes of pilgrims, both healthy and not, sprawled out on mats under the tin roof of the church. Every few hours, a priest would stand at the alter, with a choir to his right, and exhort the praying to get on their feet and praise the Lord through song and dance. They did, enthusiastically.
Despite the hundreds of people praying, dancing, milling, eating, and living on the small church grounds, a spirit of tranquility prevailed, rather than the cheerful noise that usually pervades Beninese gatherings.
We were lucky to be accompanied by a friend of a friend, who was an intimate acolyte of the Holy Spirit. Our friend had met the young woman while she wasn’t possessed by the Holy Spirit. Surprised by her loneliness, she comforted the girl. I too would be lonely if I were visited by thousands of supplicants a day, who could only be satisfied with a painful manifestation of another spirit.
Would we be able to speak with the Spirit Himself? Apparently, He gave personal audiences. He turned us the way the first day, because we took too long to arrive. The second day, we arrived at the priest’s home, where the young woman also lives. We waited outdoors in our SUVs until the young woman arrived. Our friend informed us that she was currently possessed by the Holy Spirit, and we would be able to see Him.
“Do not tell Him why you’re here!” she admonished us. “Just ask for a blessing!” God, after all, already knew what we wanted. We entered the sparsely furnished house to find the Holy Spirit seated on a couch, giving orders on a cell phone. He calmly hung up, and stood to greet us. We took our seats. Our friend then instructed us to kneel to receive a blessing. The Holy Spirit placed his hands on our heads, one by one, whispering words only He could hear.
Later that night, we gathered in the church, curling up on mats to wait for that night’s Delivery Mass. The sick would be healed. Demons would be exorcised. Sorcerers would be cast out. And so on and so forth. Singing and dancing began at 10 o’clock, The mass started at midnight and continued until six in the morning. There were over five thousand people in attendance for the mass. I was the only foreigner, but there were many many SUVs that arrived between 8 and 10 in the evening.
There’s a large part of me that wants to retreat into the cynical irreligiousness that I’m comfortable with. God doesn’t manifest Himself (Itself!) through miracles. That men and women who claim to see Him, to experience Him are charlatans. That Christians, Muslims, and anyone who believes that they will be Saved is delusional, using the comfort of religion to escape their own responsibility to make the best of the life they have.
There’s another part of me that recognizes that I witnessed something special, if not something that I can easily distill into a thousand word blog post. Do I believe I encountered the Holy Spirit? The second coming? Those I went with are absolutely certain that we were blessed by the hands of the Lord. That the Grace we received will allow us to do any and all things that are God’s will. I am less certain, although I am convinced that the young woman who claims to be inhabited by the Holy Spirit is special. Whether it’s sheer force of personality, or wisdom, or the Holy Spirit Himself is beyond me. In any case, to judge is for God and God alone.
Her priests toe the Catholic line theology wise, although their sermons focus on two things: the importance of faith and how the rich should not be surprised when the poor rise up against them. Inciting revolution? I don’t know. I do know that she incites love and not hate. She accepts no differences between classes, race, and rank. “We are all children of God,” our friend says. “God doesn’t recognize the titles men give themselves.” Rich or poor, everyone prays together and everyone waits in line together.
Whether or not the woman is whom she claims to be, she is giving hope to many who live every day of their lives without it.