Every now and then at mass, if the drums are lively, the singing sweet and the sermon hot, somebody will go down. The body stiffens and lurches. The hands fly up. Shouts of "Praise Him" and "Alleluia" get louder. And down the worshipper goes. Neighbours hold up the body until the Spirit eventually subsides and returns it to its original possessor.
When I first came to Jamaica, I was nonplussed by a situation not covered in the rubrics for the mass, and felt the sort of embarrassment that comes when someone else has committed a social gaffe. After all, self-control is a good thing. I cringe at the thought of the humiliation I would feel should the Spirit decide to bring me down with spasms and shouts. I have been spared so far, but by now have become so accustomed to the event that, if a month of Sundays passes with nobody going down, I start to worry that the mass is becoming too boring.
Caribbean anthropologists identify spirit possession as a survival of an African style of religion. In Jamaica it is chiefly expressed in Revival churches (Zion and Pukumina), whose services are focused on inducing possession through drumming, singing, preaching, dancing and various rituals. But like belief in duppies (ghosts) and obeah (sorcery), this pneumatic spirituality pervades most of society, even making its way into the Catholic Church. Catholic churches regularly hold Crusades where, untrammeled by liturgical rubrics, a congregation can give full vent to singing, dancing and bringing down the Spirit.
One of the things I like about the Catholic Church (even though you are treated with suspicion if you like anything about it these days, especially if you are Catholic), is that it is large enough to accommodate all sorts of cultures and spiritualities. In Jamaica, there are some upper-middle-class parishes in the city whose liturgies resemble the staid, staged North American mass (St. Louis Jesuits and all), under the not uncommon misapprehension that such a service is more Catholic and civilized. Our Revivalist mass is less civilized (which doesn't bother me since nuclear bombs, genocide, slavery and other unpalatable realities have all been hallmarks of civilization), but it is no less Catholic. Indeed, I would be willing to go much further on the Revivalist route and add bottles of water and grapefruits to draw down the spirits, were not the congregants too well schooled in past ecclesiastical rigidities.
But it does feel somehow politically incorrect to encourage this type of charismatic religion. After all, there is no surer evidence of religion being the opiate of the people than religious experience looking like a bad trip. One feels that religion should be preaching about the feminization of poverty rather than allowing women to forget their troubles in spirit-filled fervor; or educating about neocolonial structures of oppression rather than letting congregants dance and drum their troubles away for an hour a week. I've read my liberation theology, and if religion does not lead to critical consciousness and political commitment it's likely to be just one more agent of exploitation.
But I suppose the Spirit blows where it will. And although I personally think a bit of infused conscientization would be more useful than mere emotional release, maybe the Spirit knows what it's doing. Sometimes when people are filled with the Spirit, I've seen tears of repentance, sometimes inner peace. Sometimes they have even come out of church as kinder, gentler people. And if under the hardships of everyday life, these things don't seem to last long, maybe the brief experience is all we ever get of heaven on earth.
Be this as it may, going down seems to be an experience I am barred from by virtue of early socialization. And I don't really regret it. But I worry sometimes that my rational, moderate and self-possessed religion is a bit shallow. Perhaps the flock is exceeding the pastor in holiness. Maybe I should be asking the Spirit to come and bring me down. I just hope it will do so in private.
Martin Royackers SJ works in a rural development project in Annotto Bay, Jamaica. He was Compass's managing editor from 1990 to 1994 and is now its Jamaica correspondent.
© 1996 Compass, A Jesuit Journal and Gail van Varseveld