by Iya Melissa
“What happens most today is that people initiate into Candomblé, and then begin to question our dogmas – the hierarchy, manners, and comportment. No Orixá temple is going to adapt to you, so search for the one where you’ll find your values [and] convictions; seek to understand what it means to be of axé before initiation, because the alliance that we have with Orixá is not a game, it’s for life. Don’t go through initiation because [it] excites [you], nor because [of its] beauty; do it for love, and to be a better person.” – Babá Diego de Odé
In the United States, we’re often looking for markers that say we belong; religion is no different. We want an external symbol to show what we believe and to help others identify us. We want rituals to go through that solidify the commitment we’ve made to that religious sect and that bond us to a specific community. In the United States religion has been, for the most part, something you do and not necessarily something you are.
Many Americans belong to religions where we gather in a centralized location on a regular basis to hear from someone else how we should connect to the divine. We see ourselves as faltering, and as such often hold ourselves to lower standards of morality and behavior because we are the sheep and not the shepherd. We often don’t see ourselves as active participants in maintaining the fabric of a religious community or its tenets. We often see ourselves as the recipients of blessings, healing, salvation, etc…instead of living in the work that brings these things to fruition. Candomblé is none of that. Initiation is much less.
Over time, I’ve encountered many people who have done their research on the various branches of Yoruba religion and have decided, for one reason or another, that Candomblé calls to their heart. Many people fall in love with the beautiful clothes and decorations. Others become mesmerized with the dances of Orixá when they join the feast. Still others appreciate the organization and structure of public drummings and are attracted to that aspect of the religion. These external markers are, indeed, exciting and beautiful – exactly what Baba Diego warns against in his meme.
Being in the US with neither ties to Brazil nor the wherewithal to get there can make it difficult to take the search from paper to practice, especially when it comes to developing an understanding of the rules, manners and hierarchy. As such, it can be challenging to develop the love that the meme points out as a prerequisite to initiation. Development of self, however, can happen no matter where you are.
The initiation period in Candomblé is probably the most time one will ever have to participate in self-reflection. Being completely unplugged from the world for nearly a month provides a unique opportunity, not just for the process of initiation, but for gaining a deeper understanding of who you are as an individual and how you connect with the world. Many people (mistakenly) view the Orixá as magic bullets that will help them navigate certain situations, and therefore come to initiation ready to receive.
I believe that, among other things, initiation enhances what we already bring to the table. Happiness, depression, satisfaction, insatiability, or whatever sentiments are part and parcel of our being become magnified. The process has very little to do with receiving, but rather everything to do with the process itself.
Are we willing to be open to change (of mindset, behavior, perception, etc.) to be able to recognize the blessings and healing when they arrive? Are we willing to step outside of our egocentric worldview to learn to see ourselves as small pieces of a structure much larger than ourselves? Are we willing to humble ourselves? Are we able to differentiate between acting with humility and feeling humiliated?
Many people come to initiation for a sense of belonging, to be able to sport the markers that say, “Here I am, here’s what I believe, here’s where I belong.” Initiation, however, is a commitment that we make to serve Orixá – often no matter the cost (which isn’t just about monetary cost). Initiation connects you to the divinity within in ways that make sermons seem strange. Initiation makes it clear that you are connected to community, that you are part of the fabric, that you have a role and will forever be learning.
Expect to give more than you’ve ever given before, and receive in ways you had no idea were possible. Don’t come because it seems exciting and beautiful, but rather come because of your love and commitment to Orixá; come with your willingness to become a better person in the process.