Friday, April 12, 2019

Rough Ashlar No. 27: Paraphrasing an Old Adage for a New Day.

In recent months I have watched discussions in various Masonic forums. Perhaps things are indeed spiraling downwards toward new levels of ridiculousness within the craft, or perhaps it is simply that with the increasingly serious level of dystopia that passes for our public lives these days, I simply am seeing more absurdity in everything. I'm not at all certain which is the case, though it seems completely credible to me that it is a bit of both.

Whichever is the truth, today I have witnessed several conversations online that leave me more than a little bemused. I am accustomed to non-masons being attracted to open Masonic groups like moths to a flame. Some come with a sincere desire to learn and more than a few legitimate questions. Others post, often incoherently about Illuminati, and similar themes.

It has always saddened and puzzled me why the legitimate Masons seem all too often as uninformed about such topics as the crackpots are. Gradually, I've come to the conclusion that between the ignorance and the all too often crude behavior displayed by brethren online, that there are as many crackpots within the lodge as without.

On more than one occasion in the past month I have found myself offering the observation in such groups that "You may lead a brother to wisdom, but you cannot make him think."

I am just going to leave that there.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Rough Ashlar No.26: I'm Just Saying!

When Masons begin to concern themselves with how well they themselves are mastering the lessons of the Craft and stop judging Masons of other Obediences, the decline in membership will end. Then, and only then, will Freemasonry prosper.

The sectarian bickering which has become the mainstay of Modern Freemasonry is its own demise. There is an old saying which all who know anything of American history should be familiar, which states "Together we stand, divided we fall." If we cannot learn to ignore minor differences of protocol, nobody has reason to call us anything but old fools.

We are in the 21st Century, folks. When will we begin to wake up and smell the coffee? I'm just saying!

Friday, February 8, 2019

More Visionary Art from Jens Rusch

If you are at all connected to contempory Freemasonry, you are certain to have seen the artwork of Jens Rusch. It has justifiably gained much attention and praise, and he continues to be the most visionary and skilled artists to focus on Masonic themes.

 It's hard to get enough of Jens Rusches art, and and harder still too tear your eyes away from it when you start looking.

So when he contacted me the other day about some of his art that graces the blog page, I asked if I could do a post to highlight his work. He graciously sent me some samples to post. So, I am happily posting some of his wonderful Masonic Art.

I also took the opportunity to visit his website again today. I should note that for those brethren who are unaware of it, Jens also has some amazing non-masonic art.

Do yourself a favor, go check it out. I know he has some good opportunities available for you to own one of his pieces! You should!

Jens was born on April 26, 1950 in the fishing village of Neufeld/Dithmarschen, in Germany. He pursued craft vocational training from 1964 to 1967, and  studied under  the tutorship of Norman Rockwell and Robert Fawcett.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Unrequited Hope: Freemasonry & Spiritualism in Reconstructionist New Orleans

In the Caribbean world and in Brazil, at the least, the encounter between Freemasonry and African Diasporic spiritual traditions and practices sparked interesting and profound exchanges. These took different forms in different places.

 In Hispaniola, after the revolution had transformed Saint Domingue into Haiti, some Masonic rituals found room to invoke the Loa or spirits of Vodou within the lodge. In Cuba, significant elements of Masonic ritual found their way into Palo Congo initiations, and others incorporated African divination into fraternal orders. To this day, the top leadership in Masonic organization are often the leaders of Afro-Cuban religions. In Brazil, there have been close connections between Candomblé and especially Umbanda and Freemasonry.

The connection between Spiritualism (or Spiritism) and Freemasonry is often a bit more subtle. Since Spiritualism is less inclined to iconographic representation than African traditions, (with a few exceptions) the fusion of these traditions tended to be less expressed through ritual merges than in the overlap of memberships and community, which emphasized mutual social and political concerns.

This was especially the case in pre-revolutionary Saint Domingue and in French speaking New Orleans, most notably in the latter during the unfortunately shortlived Reconstructionist period after the US Civil War, when government and the social efforts of the Creole free people of color strived to develop an unprecidented egalitarian society.

Remarkably detailed records of Spiritualist sessions in New Orleans survive, especially from the Cercle Harmonique, an Afro-Creole Spiritualist Circle led by Henri Louis Rey, François "Petit" Dubluclet and J.B. Valmour. Just as before the Civil War French Masons and Spiritualists were often at the forefront of Abolitionism, during Reconstruction they made strong efforts to create a truly egalitarian society. 

These men were both mason and spiritualist and saw both as paths toward individual and collective perfection.

It was unfortunately, the destruction of Reconstruction policies, that undid the efforts of these French-Creole Masons, bringing along with that the supremacy of English language Freemasonry and Jim Crow racial supression.

A few titles may help uncover some of the most interesting Spiritualist and Masonic history in the United States:

Bell, Caryn Cossé. 2004. Revolution, romanticism, and the Afro-Creole protest tradition in Louisiana 1718-1868. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Clark, Emily Suzanne. 2018. Luminous Brotherhood: afro-creole spiritualism in nineteenth-century new orleans. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Daggett, Melissa. 2018. Spiritualism in Nineteenth Century New Orleans: the life and times of henry louis rey. Jackson: Univeristy Press of Mississippi.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Spiritualism: Sensing Spirit

Having noted before certain aspects relating to divination in Espiritismo, I come back to it at least briefly in this post. For the Espiritista, divination is not so much a learned mechanical procedure with certain constant registers or meanings as it is an experiental process or phenomenon. It is, according to Espírito Santo, not so much "read off" as "read in." 

I view it perhaps somewhat differently as being a process of extracting understanding or interpretive possibilities from experience. That experience may be mental, emotional, of bodily sensation, or worldly observation.

One may simply become aware of answers when focused, or the medium may find it necessary to somehow translate a range of emotional feelings or physical sensations into meaning. Alternately, the medium may see in the world "beyond their own body" interpretable signs, be they originating from everyday occurances in the world or by looking at a set of object that the medium interprets, such as shells, coconuts, cards, etc.,

The means by which these are interpreted as noted in other posts, may not be formulaic. Rather, they are often fluid and inspirational in origin, often through a process that the medium may intuitively understand, but be incapable of explaining or reducing to a series of steps or instructions.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

The Relationship between Espiritismo and Afro-Cuban Religions

Just as there are different Afro-Cuban Religions, there are a number of forms of Espiritismo extent in Cuba today. These include Cordón (Orile), Caridad, and Cruzado, the last which may also be described as Espiritismo Popular Cubano.

In discussing the unique connection between Espiritismo and Afro-Cuban Religions, the majority of our attention will be given to Cruzado, and the reason for that will be made clear.

Apart from among a few people, notably in the US, where Afro-Cuban Religions have gained some small popularity,, Espiritismo is closely tied to all the Afro-Cuban Religions and plays an integral, supportive role in the spiritual development and practice of their adherents.

 Converted communities outside Cuba may on occasion have Cuban origins, but often are non-Cuban whether Latino or not. Many of these groups of necessity, rely on the interpretation of one or maybe two individuals augmented by literature, and as a result may lack a broader experiential sense of what is  understood as normative within the native Cuban context. I often hear positions defended with the explanation that "my godfather said that..." or "we do/don't do that in our house." Both of those are perfectly fine explanations for why you may practice a certain way. They are not a basis for extrapolating an overarching value which privileges any given practice over others. In other words, just because you do it that way doesn't make your way more correct, nor ever more rational. It just makes it your way.

In contrast I have inquired in Cuba, the home of these traditions, as broadly as possible, what people do, and don't do. Some of that concurs with the practice in my own lineages, and some contrasts with them. What I get from this is that while there are some small numbers whose practices may vary in significant ways from the norm, and some may offer negative opinions of these more significant variations, there are many more minor variations in practice and in attitude, and such minor variations seldom are commented upon. The upshot of all that is that it is possible to charactize, at least in broad terms, what is the most common practice.

The following comments explain how Espiritismo came to be closely associated with Afro-Cuban Religions, and why it both makes sense and is a valid practice.

Afro-Cuban Religions, as they evolved into their contemporary forms in the late 1800s shared a variety of similar social and political experiences. All of them, as a result of the experience of slavery, had effectively lost the cult structures of their various African homes related to the veneration of both the recent dead and familial dead. West African Egungun traditions survived in one single location in Brazil, but not at all in Cuba. Traditional Kongo ancestral veneration required both family elders and the accumulated remains of the dead in their traditional homeland, which of course could not even be approximated in the new world. In both those examples, veneration of the generah and ancestral dead had always been a separate cult with a separate priesthood.

The arrival of espiritismo provided a widely available and flexible substitute which Afro-Cubans found appealing and adaptable to their needs. It had the added advantage of being perceived as socially acceptable.

North American Spiritualism arrived in Cuba in the 1850s with Kardecist Spiritism arriving a decade or more later. It was soon noticed and emulated by Afro-Cubans, who embraced the practice, as did slaves and Free People of Color in other parts of the Americas, most notably among Haitians, Creoles in New Orleans, and in Brazil.

The early development of Cuban Popular forms of Espiritismo, folk or Afro-Cuban Espiritismos if you will, cannot be charted or dated with certainty. While it might be tempting to speculate about what the earliest predecessors of these Espiritismos looked like, barring the discovery of new documentation, such speculation would consist of equal parts guess work and wishful thinking.

It is safe to say that modern uniquely Cuban forms of Espiritismo, while probably coming into existence a few short years after the documented arrival of Espiritismo in 1856, did not come to be a documented movement before the foundation of the first Templo Cordonero, in Monte Oscuro n 1905. Named Buscando Luz y Verdad; it was founded by Salustiano Olivera, a veteran of the Cuban war of independence.

At what time the Espiritismo often called cruzado or cruzao came to approximate its current forms (because it is a varied and idiosyncratic practice) it is impossible to say with certainty. Even its proper name is debateable. The name was apparently coined by Cuban anthropologists to describe any form of Espiritismo practices being performed in conjunction with any Afro-Cuban Religiion, a practice which seemingly was normative and not new enough to deserve comment within the religious community as early as the 1920s.

Many who practice Espiritismo Cruzado simply refer to their practice as Espiritismo. Although some have no problems embracing the term Espiritismo Cruzado, other object, due to the multiple meanings the word "cruzado" has. While it was coined by Cuban academics to describe an Espiritismo which is perceived as mixed with Afro-Cuban Religion(s), and in that sense the term is both correct and neutral, being devoid of value judgement, the word also has a coloquial meaning used to describe something which is mixed-up, messed up, or incorrect. Those who object to the term assert that there's nothing wrong with the way they practice Espiritismo, and of course, they are correct.

Until a better and catchier term presents itself, Cruzado or Cruzao is a convenient name. It represents those forms of Espiritismo used in concert with Afro-Cuban Religions. As long as we keep in mind that this refers to a range of practices and not a monolithic tradition with a fixed set of rules, we will remain on target.

Errors and misunderstanding occurs when we try to define fixed boundaries based upon narrow definitions and visions.  If you cannot be comfortable with a degree of contradiction, then none of these traditions are right for you.
Misas are the common group ritual, and almost the only one that most in North America are familiar with. They're also often quite different from what North Americans are exposed to. In spite of that, most work in Espiritismo is done at the boveda and or in consultations.

Cruzado has its own pantheon of spirits and also may deal directly with ancestors. It's connections with Palo should need no explanation, as the most common and numerous spirits in Espiritismo Cruzado are the Congos and Congas.  The logic which gives Espiritismo a presence and infuence in Ocha comes from Ocha itself which maintains that Iku lobi Ocha, the dead give birth to the saints.
Cuban culture is distinct from those of other Caribbean nations, even the Spanish speaking ones. The nation that comes closest to Cuba in its multiplicity of African ethnicities and religion

 Brazil, is still very different due to its geographical expanse. For all the sense of "shared experience" and sympathy, the culture and traditions of Cuba are not those of the DR much less Puerto Rico. Cuba had to develop ways of speaking across ethnic divides that Puerto Rico never had to, and that the DR largely has failed to do.

The way in which Espiritismo Cruzado bridges the divide between secular, non-initiate, and spiritual sectors of popular culture and Cuba's various ethnic subcultures, is very much a part of this Cuban accommodation of ethnic difference while asserting a cultural commonality called Cubanidad.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Commissions: A Bantu Influence in Cuban Spiritism

There are certain elements within a number of religions with Bantu influences that are often not recognized as being representative of Bantu origin. One of these is the association of spirits in "filial" groups. Such groupings are not by any means universal, nor do they present themselves in exactly the same way even when they are present. While common in Brazilian Umbanda, they are absent in Cuban Palo. It is none the less, possible to identify this phenomena in several especially Bantu ethnic tradiitions in Africa, and in both the Caribbean and South America.

In southeastern and southern Bantu traditions among the Shona, Swazi, BaTonga, Xhosa, and others, certain categories of spirits are identified by ethnicity. A similar structure is visible in certain forms of Mbundu religions in Angola, and these are likely the source of the Falanges of Umbanda and the Comiciones of Cuban Popular Espiritismo, also called Cruzado.

While different sorts of spirits existed and exist in Spiritualism and Kardecist Spiritism, including for example spirits of Indians (Native Americans), Mariners, and Hindus, these are individuals and there is no sense of these identities representing a formal group or class of spirit possessing certain functions specific to their identity.

This characteristic is present in certain Bantu traditions in Africa, and in Umbanda and Cuban Popular Espiritismos, both of which bear evidence of strong Bantu influence. Kardecism does have spirits who belong to professions such as doctors, teachers, and even lawyers, but they remain largely individuals; where ethnicity is highlighted, it does not usually play a strong defining characteristic associated with the role the spirit plays.

In Brazil, Umbanda evolved as an African derived religion with a strong Bantu core, having to varying degrees depending on the escuela or school (read type) of Umbanda, influences from Kardecism, Native American, or Orixa religion. Umbanda evolved falanges (falanxes) or groups of spirits usually with specific identity type such as Pretos Velhos (black slave spirits), Marinheiros (mariners), Caboclos (Indians), Ciganas (gypsies), etc. In many versions of Umbanda, these groups are headed by a specific Orixa who while sometimes invoked, none the less does not usually appear in possession. Umbandas falanges are large and their attendant spirits often presented as being almost limitless in number Despite this, the majority of Terreiros de Umbanda (temples) work with a very limited number of spirits as a rule.

In the popular or Cruzado form of Espiritismo of Cuba, the term for such groups or families of spirits is usually referred to as Corrientes or Comisiones. Since the term "corriente" has another meaning as well, I choose to refer to them only by the term "comisiones." These families of spirits are at once less formally constituted and less densely populated than their Brazilian counterparts. It should be understood that Umbanda and Cruzado are not versions of each other, but distinct traditions which demonstrate some common influences. While dogmatic Kardeclsts may refer to them as "baixo espiritismo" or "bajo espiritismo" respectively, they are far from being versions of each other. While Cruzado may legitimately be viewed as a popular, perhaps heterodox form of espiritismo, though Umbanda demonstrates many characteristics emblematic of its early influence by espiritismo, it has long since become a religion distinct in its own right.
Comisiones in Cuban Cruzado, are not standardized. There are certain ones which are fairly universal and at least two or three which tend to dominate, most notably the Congos, but the membership and characteristics of such comisiones may be fluid. The names of some may vary, and certain espiritistas may have distinct comiciones for spirits that another may fold into a single group.

Comisiones tend to be identified by either ethnicity or profession, such as Congos, Indios, Gitanas, on the one hand and Medicos, Mariñeros, and Monjas on the other. One reason why the number of comisiones in Cuban Espiritismo are fewer than in Brazilian Umbanda, is that Cruzados comisiones tend to reflect the cultural elements that contributed to Cuban society, either literally, as in the case of Congos, Españolas, and Haitianos, or more mythically as in the case of Indios and Gitanas. It should also be noted that these groups are all described in stereotypical ways based upon 19th century perceptions. Modern PC sensibilities concerning both names and common behaviors carry no weight here. These may be in some cases real ethnicities that existed or exist in Cuban society, but their real function is more archetypal than literal.