„Brazil is not for Beginners“ people like to say when they realize that living in this beautiful country can sometimes be painfully complicated. Brazil is a giant and diverse and rich and beautiful and incredibly unequal country, and even after having lived and worked in Brazil for 2,5 years I had to find out that there are big and important aspects of life that I was still unaware of. Let’s take religion for example.
Brazilians do not get tired to point out that Brazil is one of the most important catholic countries on this planet. With all the negative side-effects like criminalizing abortion etc. But there are also the very influential Evangelic churches who seem to have a great influence politics and run strange and depressing tv channels. But there is also Umbanda – what I would like to call the most Brazilian religion, because it is a quite unique mixture of Catholicism and Spiritualism – and Candomblé – a religion derived from Africa worshipping different deities calles orixás. Once when I was in Salvador de Bahía I took the chance to witness a Candomblé ritual and it was very impressive. Of course there is still more in Brazil, for example Santo Daime, a syncretic religion from the Amazona region whose believers ritualistic drink a “holy beverage” with psychoactive ingredients to connect to their deities. This was about my “religious map” of Brazil. But I was wrong.
It all started when a student of mine wanted to talk about Allen Kardec, the French founder of Spiritualism. I had to admit that I had not heard of Allen Kardec before and that I was only vaguely familiar with Spiritualism. I soon found out that spiritualism is quite popular in Brazil, actually it seems to be one of the countries with most active spiritualists and many (many!) books about that topic. But this still was not my revelation, this happened when another student told me about Chico Xavier. Who? Yes, that was my reaction. He was a Brazilian medium, practitioner of spiritualism and has written more than 450 books in his life which sold an estimated 50 million copies. The revenue generated by these books was channeled into charity work. Impressive. Since I had never heard about this guy, I asked more Brazilian friends, if they knew this guy. The typical reaction was like this: “Yes of course, he is as famous as Jesus in Brazil.” I guess I must’ve missed out on the Brazilian Jesus then.
Chico Xavier (1910-2002) was a spiritualist medium and philanthropist and he was named “The Greatest Brazilian of all time” by a popular TV show in 2012. In the 1970s he could be seen on one of Brazilian TV in a popular interview program which made him even more popular. The 400+ books he wrote were psychographies – messages from spirits to which he connected as a medium – and they covered topics from science to literature and personal letters from deceased people to their loved ones. Spiritualism claims that humans are embodiments of immortal spirits and that spirits can influence the physical world through a medium.
And if this does not seem crazy (and I mean this in the most positive way possible) and interesting enough, most conversations with my Brazilian friends soon took a direction where he or she admitted freely: “my whole family believes in spiritism” or “my uncle is a medium and talks to spirits” or even “yes I’ve seen a medium frequently when I was younger”.
Sounds interesting? I am curious that in Brazil people did never talk to me about this freely, which I guess has something to do with me being the “rational German” (which I am not, at least I like to think that) or since Spiritualism is still a kind of taboo topic for many, because of the strong influence of the Christian Churches. But now I am curious and I want to find out more about it. And it is one thing I love about Brazil: it’s always good for a surprise and you can mix things in Brazil, that you couldn’t mix anywhere else. I am talking of course about the people who are somehow Christian and at the same time Spiritualists. But this is also true in other aspects. Have you every tried the very German schnapps Steinhäger with Brazilian fruits like star fruit or passion fruit to make a Caipirinha? Yes, this is a quite popular thing in Brazil. But it is also a different topic.
Correction: An earlier version of this post accidently featured this photo of Chico Mendes and has since been removed (that’s how little I know about Brazil…. hahahaha).