Don't trifle with spirits, said my American friend as we enter this weird syncretic Brazilian sanctuary in the outskirts of Brasilia, called the Temple of Dawn.
I am wearing my white Brazilian dress with big black Brazilian ants on it, and I cover my bare shoulders with a colorful silk shawl with tiny celebrity faces: from Hitler to Jesus.
It is about to rain outside, one of those tropical storms is coming. But inside the barn-like temple, it is stuffy and misty with incense, like a science fiction movie-set from the 1930s. My eyes are burning, my nose is running, but I am glimpsing incredible figures and paintings on the walls, on the brick labyrinths, numerous thrones, veil like fabrics…. The Temple of Dawn worships UFOs, Tutankhamen, Jesus, the disembodied spirit of an Indian chief named White Feather… name it. "Aunt Neiva," the cult's prophet and founder, created the church in a trance some 50 years ago.
Neiva used to be a truck driver married with four kids, before her spiritual gift descended on her and she became a prophet. She founded this cult community, and, advised by spirits of the dead, she dictated the cult's highly elaborate costumes and rituals. Our spiritual guide is a very warm pleasant church functionary in a complicated black, white and orange uniform, with a sash and a white surcoat adorned with crosses, badges and stars. He is telling us this elaborated story, without much philosophical or religious consistency. Every logical question makes him wriggle.
They don't need to seek answers, says my American friend, they have their dogma and faith.
I guess that goes for all religions. As I try hard to understand the incomprehensible, it strikes me that, in this gaudy, rambling UFO temple, I feel exactly as I feel in a Catholic cathedral or an Orthodox church. It's the same situation, only with less transparency.
So I decide to surrender and go with the spiritual flow. A procession of cult women of all ages, dressed as Disney queens with hooded capes and billowing skirts in cartoon-bright colors, is chanting and marching though the brick labyrinths. They smile at us and ask us to stand aside. This ritual marching and toneless singing goes on for hours every day, while two other religious orders, costumed differently but just as strangely, carry out other tasks, such as washing in trough-sized baptismal fonts and hailing shrouded idols with stiff-armed salutes. This ruckus seems agitated and messy at first, but some firm military structure underlies it. They are calm, focused and persistent, like hospital orderlies.
The high priests of two orders, doctrinaires and mediums, perform the purification of souls of the patients (as they call us, the non-believers). The cult doesn't lack for clients. Many common people are there in the temple, sitting on painted cement benches to watch the cultists meditate on colored thrones and fly into trances. Some are poor, simple local people, some are on crutches or in wheelchairs. Of all ages and races. Rich ambassadors come over from Brasilia sometimes, I am told. Tourists come to gawk. Culturologues film them and study them.
Every day, the cult offers spiritual guidance to those who have not yet realized that they are incarnated from other planets. Our guide is a former general who has been reincarnated nineteen times, and he confesses shyly that he needs to help people because of the large numbers he slaughtered in his former military career. People, says our guide, are continually pestered by ghosts, whether they know it or not. His general keeps coming back to him, asking for this and that, and struggling to find a new order where he can purify himself through good works. The spirit of the dead man is doing that now, in the body of the priest. It's not fun, it's demanding and suffocating work. But it is rewarding: these kind people don't ask for money. They even refuse donations. It's unclear how they manage to eat, much less built their private lake, cement pyramids and giant plywood Jesus effigies. One never sees them doing anything but performing their sacred duties. The mediums sometimes writhe, moan and gasp in woe as the spirits of the dead take direct hold of them. This elite group seem to have life especially hard.
There are 670 temples all over the world, they tell us, and about 36 000 believers here in Brasilia. Even though a woman founded the cult, only men become the priestly "doctrinaires," who go out among the public to preach and proselytize. The spirits have never called another woman to be adequate to that job, I am told.
The temple is full of dreamlike imagery: of the Sun and the Moon, in the middle an arrow, framed faces of ghostlike creatures and big-eyed spirit guides, six-sided stars pasted all over with mirrors, crosses draped in cloth, pillars, veils, and painted flames. It reminds me of my grandmother' s stories from inner Serbia, when the dead used to come back and ask for justice, or their earned reward, or sometimes even for peace.
Although I feel uneasy, I don't feel endangered. I look at a young, very thin boy with a bandanna on his head: obviously he's come here in some pitiful hope to get well again. Will faith healing help him in his plight, or just speed him to the grave?
All these New Age cults have some vague aura of criminality. When Radovan Karadzic, the Serbian war criminal was hiding as a guru of alternative medicine, disguised in a weird costume, I met sick people who believed his cover stories. He never cured them.
Although we are in rather good health, when our guide presses the issue, we volunteer to get a diagnosis by trance mediums.
My personal medium has a hard time with me. We have no language in common, and four different spirits take over her body and then run away as she tries to give me good advice. My Brazilian friend has a different problem, his medium is speaking ancient Portuguese to him, through a spirit who is several centuries old. Nobody can get his true meaning, as he urges my Brazilian friend to drink plenty of water and bang on the earth with a cane.
Outside it is storming and getting cold in the summer: the women are chanting on the cult's private lake. Other women sit in specific cement thrones inside the temple, in immobilized silence, gathering spiritual power. We're warned not to touch them, or even the barriers and chains that surround them. When fully charged, they rise unblinking in their starry cartoon costumes and go sit in another chair somewhere else. Nothing much happens.
The droning songs, endless marches and reeking incense are leaving us tired, empty and badly in need of a drink. The calm chaos has come to seem normal; it's the everyday Brazilians, in their summer shorts, Tshirts and rubber zories, who seem exotic now.
We are urged to purify ourselves though long ritual procedures in brightly-painted antechambers, but we don't feel up to the challenge. We'll try that next time, we promise gratefully. Kindly they salute us, with good wishes for the foreign wanderers. Many have come before us from all over the world, they confide. Some have come back to the Temple of the Dawn. Some join us and stay.
This prospect gratifies our eccentricities. It makes us feel humble and grateful for the wonders of our life as it is. Religion can be soaringly inspirational as it becomes impossible to describe.
(photographs: Jasmina Tesanovic)