|Durham Anthropology Journal
Volume 13(2) ISSN 1742-2930
Copyright © 2005, M.E.L. Bezerra
Maria Enedina Lima Bezerra1
The focus of this paper is to trace the reasons that lead people to seek and join the Spiritist movement in Brazil. I contend that people seek Spiritism to help find solutions to everyday personal problems as well as to find answers to existential questions that confront them. I argue that the desire for a doctrine or philosophy of life that is problem-solving and is able to answer a great number of questions about everyday life and existence are the main factors that make Spiritism the religion of choice of many Brazilians today. This article is based on data collected at Spiritist centres, mainly at Grupo Espírita Paulo e Estevão (GEPE), in the city of Fortaleza, Northeastern Brazil. Over a period of six month I gathered information on Spiritist philosophy, ritual and practice by daily participation and observation. I also conducted open-ended interviews with members, leaders, and employees of the Spiritist centres. Additional data was derived from Spiritist social artifacts such as newsletters, copy packs, books, and magazines that circulate within the centre. Information was also taken from outside sources, such as television programs on Spiritism and Spiritist events that I attended, such as seminars and workshops.
1.1. Spiritism2 is one of the many religions that make up the patchwork of religions in Brazil. It emerged in Brazil in the late part of the nineteenth century and through the years it has attracted the educated middle sectors of the population because it caters to their specific needs and wants. According to Peter Berger, in modern society "human beings continue to be stricken by sickness and death; they continue to experience social injustice and deprivation" (1974: 185). He contends that religion plays an important role in making meaningful the painful experiences of the human condition, whether the experiences are caused by natural or by social events (Berger 1974). For the anthropologist, Geertz, the problem of suffering, when seen as a religious problem, becomes not a question of avoiding the problem but of "how to make physical pain, personal loss, worldly defeat, the helpless contemplation of others' agony something bearable, supportable," (1973: 23) something Geertz calls "sufferable".
1.2. Adherence to Spiritism may be analysed in the following framework. People go to Spiritism centres looking for answers to existential questions that confront them as well as for solutions to everyday problems that afflict them. In such centres they find several types of activities that are tailored to their needs. The Spiritist centres provide a self-help mechanism that can fit the schedule and the needs of those who attend them. The typical Spiritist centre has several activities intended not only to help people deal with their problems but also to help them understand the origins of these problems.
1.3. In my conversations with people at the Spiritist centres, one thing that struck me was the fact that most people went there first looking for solutions to their everyday personal problems and a philosophy of life that could explain well how the cosmos really works; in other words, many people wanted to understand their place in the cosmos and how they could have some control over it. Health problems emerged as the number one problem in my survey population who had sought Spiritism looking for solutions to problems. According to Melucci (1996) Popular medicine and spiritual healing have always represented an alternative to institutionalized medicine because there is a component in people's structure of needs for healing that traditional medicine ignores but that parallel practices address, which goes beyond the question of clinical effectiveness. It equips people with capacity for symbolic elaboration.
Religion does not heal only the body and purifies or saves the soul of the faithful. It works to heal and re-heal the spirit of the afflicted through one's internal or external artifice... Religion can always heal. Even if it is false, it is a system of meaning. And when it is believed to be true, it is the only, and the purest and most effective repertoire of indispensable meaning given to people (1994: 28).
2.1. The relationship between healing and Spiritism has been very strong since the early times of Spiritism in Brazil because the medical profession, especially psychiatry, was not firmly established in Brazil when Spiritism first took hold. Many medical doctors had an active role in the primordial days of Spiritism in Brazil, and some became well-known in the Spiritist movement, such as Joaquim Carlos Travassos, Antônio Pinheiro Guedes, Antônio de Castro Lopes, and Adolfo Bezerra de Menezes. The fact that so many well-known doctors embraced Spiritist doctrine helped legitimize the concept of the power that spirits held over people (Santos, 1997).
2.2. Spiritism deals with health-related issued in a holistic way. In doing so, Spiritism has a strong influence on its followers. For Spiritists, health has a moral component that is related to the spiritual evolution of each person. They see illness as a form of expiation of wrongful deeds committed not only in the present life, but also in past ones. It is believed that illness is not to be understood only as times of trial; through it people receive a chance to evolve spiritually, as one of my interviewees, Dona Margarida, a 55-year-old spiritual medium, explained:
I came to the Spiritist centre, as most people do, to try to heal the emotional pain I felt. Some of the pain derived from the fact that my son was born mentally disabled and that was very hard for me to accept. One day I was invited by my neighbour to go to a Spiritist centre, but I resisted going there because I thought that I would be punished and sent to hell. This fear was rooted in my Catholic faith. It was very hard for me to give up my Catholic faith, but after getting to know the Spiritist doctrine, I could not deny that it made much more sense to me. Through the Spiritist doctrine I was able to understand my role here on this planet and my mission as a mother. I slowly understood that my son's disability was actually a blessing because this was a chance I had to redeem the wrong I had done in a past life. I believe I had an abortion in a past life, and in this present life my child came back with a mental illness in order for me to pay for what I had done. This gives me a chance to improve my spirit and have a better life in the past incarnation. I believe that whatever wrong we do, we have to pay for it sooner of later. I must say that my life improved a lot after I became a Spiritist: for the first time I understood and accepted the fact that I had a child with a disability. At the Spiritist centre I also discovered that I am a medium and that I have the ability to receive messages from the spirits and write them down during the Spiritist sessions. I feel that I can help many people with my work as medium. Working at the Spiritist centre gives me a chance to contribute with the gift of mediumship, which I was given by God. This way I am an instrument of God to help people better understand the world they live in.
2.3. For those able to embrace such religious symbols, they provide a cosmic guarantee not only to comprehend the world but also give precise meaning to their feeling, a definition to their emotions that enables them to endure (Geertz, 1973). As seen by Dona Margarida's testimony, the notion of karma, which is part of the Spiritist doctrine, helps her make sense of her difficult situation. It provides her a reassuring sense of her place in the cosmic order that enables her to deal better with the pain and suffering of having to care for a mentally disable son. The doctrine of reincarnation, which proclaims that people have successive existences, is also for many people the only way that they can be sure of the justice of God. It provides them with a framework of meaning and purpose, as Ellis pointed out:
People in search for certainty invent Gods and devils that supposedly govern our lives; ideas of universal harmony and the oneness of all existing things; spirits and deathless souls; these provide a false sense of security, a "logical" explanation of the way things are, and then hold on to them mightily, even though they cannot confirm or deny their existence. This need for certainty explains why virtually all people in all times have created and tend to dogmatically believe in gods and religions (1977: 39).
2.4. Kardec said that one who is conscious of his own inferiority derives a consoling hope from the doctrine of reincarnation. According to Kardec, if one believes in the justice of God, one cannot hope to be placed, at once and for all eternity, on a level with those who have made a better use of life. The knowledge that one's present state of inferiority will not exclude him/her forever from the supreme happiness and that one will be able to conquer happiness through new efforts revives one's courage because he/she will profit from the present experience in a new corporeal life (Kardec, 1989).
2.5. Weber contends that the Indian doctrine of karma is the most complete solution to the problem of theodicy3. Through the chromic law the world is viewed as a completely connected and self-contained cosmos of ethical retribution, and within this world guilt and merit are unfailingly compensated by fate in the nest lives of the soul. According to the doctrine of karma, what may appear as unjust suffering in the terrestrial life of a person should be regarded as atonement for a sin in a previous existence. In summary, each individual forges his or her destiny (Weber 1963).
2.6. Besides functioning as a school for Kardec's doctrine, the Spiritist centres provide their members with a place where they can work as volunteers, which gives them purpose in their life and a chance to practice charity. There they can be trained to perform various tasks: mediumship, healing through the laying on of hands, guidance in spiritual treatment, teaching the doctrine of Spiritism, counselling lost spirits, and doing volunteer work for the community. Dona Margarida's work as a medium in her Spiritist centre gives her a sense of power and effectiveness through her belief in contact with the spirits, which is a benefit from her choice of Spiritism as a religion of practice.
2.7. The Spiritist centre is not only a school where people go to learn about Kardec's doctrine or a place where people can find work as a volunteer, but it also functions as a small hospital or clinic where various types of healing practices take place. When arriving at a Spiritist centre, newcomers are immediately interviewed and private files are opened under their names. Most often they are directed to a room where they will start the study of the gospel according to Spiritism. Spiritists believe that it is through the assimilation and practice of the doctrine that they will eliminate their problems and attain a better life now and in future incarnations. Healing can be achieved through several methods: indoctrination of the spirits, laying on of hands, studying of the gospel according to Spiritism, and drinking fluidified water4.
2.8. Kardec suggested the possibility of healing through the help of the spirits who can manifest themselves through mediums. For example, Spiritists believe that spirits, through a medium, can diagnose illness as well as prescribe adequate medicine. Mediums do not need to be medical doctors in order to be able to contact spirits who are knowledgeable about the medical field. One interesting characteristic of the medical prescription done by medium is that the patient does not need to be present during the Spiritist session; instead, he or she is instructed to come and enrol in the sessions of studying the gospel according to Spiritism, which the Spiritists call Spiritual treatment and which is offered at the Spiritist centres.
2.9. In the intimacy of a small study group of the Spiritual treatment, people gather and read the gospel according to Spiritism and talk about their personal problems in light of the gospel and of the doctrine of Spiritism. As part of the Spiritual treatment, a prayer is said before and after the reading of the gospel followed by some relaxing music. Overcome by their own emotions, many participants talk about the problems that afflict them and ask for guidance from the leader of the study group. The leader is a volunteer who is very familiar with the gospel according to Spiritism and who has most likely finished the three-year course on the Spiritist doctrine. Spiritists believe that people who attend the Spiritual treatment have a chance not only to evolve spiritually but also to receive "good fluids" from the spiritual world. Some centres have several classrooms where the study of the gospel according to Spiritism is offered several times a week. The Spiritual treatment may last from seven to eight weeks, but if the instructor of the Spiritual treatment sees that the patient needs to continue the treatment, he/she may let the participant attend for a longer period of time. Spiritists also believe that during the Spiritual treatment many errant spirits can come and benefit from the teachings. Therefore, Spiritists believe that the treatment is an activity that benefits not only the living but also the spirits of the dead.
2.10. In addition to being one of the most important roles played by the Spiritist centres in Brazil, healing also has become a very commendable activity in Spiritism because it is seen as a form of charity, which Spiritists consider the most important virtue. One must not forget, however, that besides being an important feature of the doctrine because it exemplifies the highest form of virtue, medical assistance is in fact very much needed by the majority of Brazilians because they cannot rely on a good public health care system. The public health care system in Brazil is poorly funded and tries to cope with the needs of 60 to 65% of the population. The government invests little in basic health care, leaving the population with little choice but to try alternative methods. In 1992, for example, the Brazilian government spent an average of $50 per person on health care, while the United States spent 56 times more ($2,840) per person, even though the Gross Domestic Product that year in the United States was only 13 times larger than Brazil's (Eakin 1998). Chesnut explains that:
According to a report presented by the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, the ratio of beds in public hospitals to the general population dropped from 1.03/1000 in 1984 to 0.87/1000 in 1990. Even private hospitals that attend the middle classes and the affluent have seen their number of beds shrink from 3.21/1000 to 2.85/1000 during the same period (1997: 55).
2.11. The World Health Organization recommends a hospital bed ratio of at least 3/1000. In addition, access to clinics in Brazil is restricted by limited hours of operation and enormous lines of people waiting to be seen by doctors (Chesnut, 1997). In Brazil, where public health services are limited, any religion that offers healing is easily accepted by those who have limited access to medical assistance. The lower echelons of society, with no formal education or scientific background, are more easily drawn by the fast-expanding Pentecostal churches that offer hope of healing all forms of illnesses. Educated middle-class Brazilians who can afford some private health services also seek help for their ailments outside of the medical field. Instead of seeking help in the Pentecostal churches, they tend to seek it in Spiritism because of its rationalistic, scientific framework that is based on positivist philosophy. In summary, for those people in Brazil to whom Spiritism has become a system of meaning, Spiritist centres can function as small clinics where they can seek healing.
2.12. According to Stack, religion offers social support that includes emotional, cognitive, and material benefits that can lower the risk of depression. Religion can lower depression through fostering a sense of optimism and reducing a sense of fatalism. Religion can even alter potential negative perceptions of suffering, even viewing suffering in a positive light (1992: 93). In the case of Spiritism, in addition to providing its followers a theodicy that helps them make sense of the world they live in, it also provides them treatment for emotional psychological wounds in its centres as well as in hospitals operated by Spiritists. With his doctrine, Kardec not only hoped to teach his followers about the influence of the spiritual world on their lives, but he also hoped to educate the medical professionals. For him, the medical establishment needed to develop a more sophisticated understanding of mental illness through Spiritist doctrine (Hess, 1991: 77). Many psychiatric hospitals in Brazil are owned and operated by Spiritists, who also control their administration (Hess, 1991: 20). Kardec's doctrine teaches that spirits can directly influence one's thoughts and actions and even entice one to have evil thoughts and do evil things. The centre provides counselling to these earth-bound spirits, through a process Spiritists call indoctrination (doutrina_ão), so that they can leave the person in whom they are causing suffering. Very frequently one finds a Spiritist centre next to the hospital where mediums work at indoctrinating spirits who they believe are causing the mental illnesses in some of the patients. Even though indoctrination may be viewed as a form of therapy, Spiritists tend to see it as a type of education and counselling for the spirits which will help them achieve a better state in life (Hess, 1991: 20).
2.13. Given the expensive treatment options for depression and mental illnesses and the inability of other religions to provide personalized treatment, Spiritism has become a major source of hope among educated Brazilians. Also, a predominant value held by Spiritists is their belief that Spiritism is scientific. An example of this type of discourse can be found in my interview with 40-year-old economist, Maria Teresa, who related her search for a theology that would answer her questions and heal her depression:
When I was a teenager, I started questioning many things in my life, and even though I had been raised in a very Catholic family, I stopped going to church when I entered college. Right after college I had to deal with many difficult issues: I got pregnant out of wedlock; my mother passed away from cancer; and I left my hometown of Fortaleza to look for work in the large city of São Paulo. There I felt a tremendous burden, almost like a heavy weight on my back. I was indeed depressed. It was then that a cousin of mine took me to a Spiritist centre in São Paulo. At that centre I participated in the Spiritual Treatment for eight weeks and slowly I felt much better. The heavy weight that I had carried for so long slowly started being lifted off. At the Spiritist centre I found a doctrine that made sense. To me, Spiritism is a logical way of looking at the world and goes much better with my rationalized way of thinking. I believe Spiritism is scientific because it is based on the law of cause and effect, which makes a lot of sense to me. After understanding the world I live in, I felt much better. I understood that the anguish I had inside me could be rooted in past lives. Later I became a volunteer at the centre. My volunteer work there helped me a lot because I felt good that I was able to help people understand how the law of karma works and how their daily actions can cause them both suffering and happiness. Through the teachings of Kardec, I can help others understand the reasons for their suffering and help them get better. To know that I can help others is a most satisfying thing to me.
2.14. Besides searching for healing, Maria Teresa was searching for meaning when she first went to the Spiritist centre. She had already stopped going to the Catholic Church, the faith of her upbringing, when she sought out Spiritism. Her dissatisfaction with Catholic theology at a particular time of stress in her life and her attraction to Spiritist beliefs, marked her affiliation with Spiritism. Maria Teresa explained to me that before becoming a Spiritist, she was never able to understand how the world she lived in could be so unjust--why some people were rich while others were poor, why some were healthy while others were sick. To her, the belief in the doctrines of karma and reincarnation was the only way that she was able to accept and understand the world around her. Geertz explained that the problem of meaning is "a matter of affirming, or at least recognizing, the inescapability of ignorance, pain and injustice on the human plane while simultaneously denying that these irrationalities are characteristic of the world as a whole" (1973: 108). For Geertz, the problem of meaning is one of the things that drives people toward belief in gods, devils, spirits, totemic principles. Maria Teresa's conversion to Spiritism fits well Geertz's theory because she sought Spiritist centre out of a need for meaning and healing.
2.15. Maria Teresa's choice of a new religion was a rational one that represented a religious gain rather than a loss, and one that suited her needs. Her faith was no longer inherited from her family, but it was individually achieved. This individualization of the person corresponds with the pluralisation and differentiation in modern society, where individuals are compelled more than ever before to free themselves of the received social orders and make personal choices. This results in the privatization of religion, which means that it is no longer supported by a public sense of values and norms. In a country like Brazil, where a pluralism of religions exists, "the religious tradition, which previously could be authoritatively imposed, now has to be marketed," as Berger (1990) explained in his classic work, The Sacred Canopy. Spiritism gained popularity among those who not only are dissatisfied with the religion of their upbringing but also are looking for a theology that is more compatible with their lifestyle. It has broad appeal in the urban areas of Brazil, where 80% of the Brazilian population lives and where traditional ways of life have changed in many respects, including religion.
3.1. As we have seen, Spiritists come from the middle and upper-middle segments of Brazilian society, which Eakin defined as a "vague and amorphous group of people, sandwiched between a very powerful minority and the largely powerless majority" (1998: 187-188). In regard to the world of material goods, frustration can easily be experienced by the Brazilian urban middle class, who has seen very little growth in their buying power during the last 20 years. Religion in Brazil emerges as a psychological "first aid" when one thinks he or she has failed in any aspect of life. Spiritism is a religion that can easily function as a first aid because it gives immediate answers, through the law of karma and the doctrine of reincarnation, to the plight of those who suffer from the ailments of modernity; it provides ultimate meaning to the world one lives in.
3.2. Spiritism also emphasizes changes in one's lifestyle, which range from turning away from alcoholism and from places conducive to bad behaviour to treating their spouses in a compassionate, caring, and faithful manner. The moral code of Spiritism is entered on the individual and on his or her duties to others. Spiritism focuses much more on the individual and less on the group. Therefore, it is less of a corporative model, which is the hallmark of Catholicism. The personal model adopted by Spiritism is similar to the one used by Pentecostalism, which focuses on personal salvation and is a process of individualization for both men and women. In attributing greater autonomy and responsibility to the individual, Spiritism teaches its followers that they are the creators of their own destiny through the choices they make. Spiritism works helping the individual attain inner reform, which will bring a better life in the present and in future incarnations. In providing counselling, support, and guidance to its members, Spiritism helps those afflicted by domestic problems to restore their relationships, thus relieving them of the heavy burden of their problems. Through the practice of Spiritism many people in Brazil are able to maintain a form of religiosity as well as finding comfort and hope for their problems and ailments. At the same time they are able to follow the fast pace of a modern and quickly changing society. Angela, a 30-year-old journalist, explained to me how her domestic problems led her to seek help in Spiritism:
I was born and raised in a Catholic family, but when I grew up, I started to notice that the priests in my Church were not able to answer many of the questions I had. Slowly I stopped going to Church because my experience there was not a fulfilling one. Later when I was already married and going through many financial and marital problems, a friend of mine gave me The Spirits' Book. I was fascinated by it because it had all the answers to the questions I had about life--where I came from and where I am going. My friend then invited me to visit a Spiritist centre, and I was struck by all the books they had available in their bookstore. I love to read, so I bought all the five books of Allan Kardec and several books by other authors, hoping they would help me deal with my problems at home. I read all the books voraciously and found answers to many of the questions and problems I had. Another thing that I really liked at the centre was the fact that they offered lectures almost on a daily basis. Those lectures helped me learn more about the spiritual world. At the end I was not able to save my marriage. I got divorced but I found a lot of peace and consolation in the gospel according to Spiritism and in the knowledge of a future life. The gospel according to Spiritism guided me to become a better person, and I was able to understand what was wrong inside me that made me depressed. To know where I came from and where I was going took away the emptiness I had inside me. Before I found Spiritism, I lived a life surrounded by problems. I was often very aggressive with people and was very unhappy. Now I am a much better person, but I still need to keep studying because a Spiritist does not cease to study and learn about what it means to be a true Spiritist.
3.3. Modern society confronts people with an ever-changing kaleidoscope of social experiences and meanings. It forces people to reflect and make changes (Berger 1974). According to Berger, religion is "a cognitive and normative structure that makes it possible for man to feel `at home' in the universe" (1974: 79). Once one's religion does not fulfil this function, one will migrate towards another religion that has a belief system that will make him/her feel at home.
3.4. Faced with problems and having lost touch with her faith of upbringing, Angela sought a system of beliefs that made sense to her and that could help her overcome her problems. Angela was in search of this cognitive and normative structure, about which Berger talks, in order for her to make sense of the world she lived in. She was, first and foremost, seeking a religious system that made sense to her and through which she could be in touch with the sacred world.
3.5. Religion promotes encounters with the sacred world, bringing people out of their worldly universe and projecting them into a world different in quality, transcendent and holy (Pals, 1996: 165). Indeed, many people come to the Spiritist centres seeking help for their problems, but they want this help to come from the sacred realm and not from an institution. When people lose touch with their faith of upbringing, as was the case with Angela, they tend to migrate to a place where they can feel in touch with the sacred and where the sacred can help them solve their problems. Angela lost touch with her Catholic faith as her religious experience through the Church became an unfulfilling one. In Spiritism, she found the answers to her questions, and her encounter with the sacred became a fulfilling experience. The Spiritist centre provides a number of activities tailored toward helping people. As a result, Spiritists go to the centres much more often than they went to their previous religious institution.
3.6. In summary, through its doctrine and the many activities provided by the centres, Spiritism helps people who have either partially or completely left their faith of upbringing to re-establish a relationship with the sacred realm. Spiritist doctrine gives the sacred realm the power to cure, guide, and help those who are willing to change and become better individuals under the banner of the Spiritist doctrine. For Spiritists it is not the centre that helps them, but the doctrine that was given to them by God through the help of the Spirits and mediums. Therefore, their experience at the centre is not with the institution, but with the message given to them by the sacred world. Spiritism then becomes the promised consoling message sent by God because it teaches that any overwhelmingly difficult situation that one is going through is part of a much bigger plan that one chooses before incarnating. Spiritism teaches that nothing in the universe happens by chance. Therefore, one's problems and ailments might be the road that leads to achieving the model of perfection taught by Jesus during his brief stay on this planet. Through all of these practices Spiritists are able to experience the sacred in a very personal and privatized way.
3.7. Spiritism conceptualizes affiliation as a transformation of social behaviour. Individuals are taught to change their lifestyle and to avoid gathering places of low spirits, such as bars, areas of prostitution, and drug zones that are conducive to inappropriate behaviour. Spiritists believe that in turning away from such places, people can get away from low spirits and start a new way of life that helps them restore their physical and mental health. Afonso, a 50-year-old medical doctor, explained how a spirit started obsessing him and how this event led him to seek Spiritism:
In 1974 when I was a student in medical school, I witnessed a car accident near my house, and since then, I noticed that my life changed. I had always been a good student, and all of a sudden I was not able to concentrate anymore. I also started drinking heavily and became quite depressed. My mother decided to take me to a Spiritist centre. There the medium told me that the spirit of the person whom I witnessed dying a year earlier had attached himself to me. Since he had had such a sudden death, he did not know he had died. Without knowing he was attached to me, he made me drink because he liked to drink. I then started attending the indoctrination sessions (mesas mediúnicas) at the Spiritist centre, and the medium explained to the spirit that he had died and that he had to leave me alone. Once he left me, my life went back to normal--slowly I stopped drinking so much and was able to concentrate on my studies. Everything in my life improved after the spirit of that guy left me. I was amazed at the changes that occurred in my life after I went through the sessions of indoctrination, so I decided to learn more about the Spiritist doctrine. I bought all of Kardec's books and started reading them. Immediately I identified myself with Kardec's writing. Even though I had been raised Catholic and had always been a very religious person, I must say that Spiritism was the doctrine that answered all my questions about life, and I found a lot of comfort in it. Spiritism turned my life around and really gave a direction to my life. To me Spiritism is an oasis of hope that appears in one's desert of afflictions. I found a type of comfort and consolation in Spiritism that I was not able to find in my religious upbringing. Spiritism gave me hope through the doctrine of reincarnation and the law of karma, and through it I understood all my trials and tribulations.
3.8. Spiritism provides a world view that is compatible with the rationalized mind. As a religious force, it helps those who have lost touch with another religious system to construct an image of reality in which everything makes sense and happens for a reason. For Afonso, it was comforting to know that his troubles had started when the spirit of the young man whom he witnessed dying attached itself to him. It was reassuring for him to know that it was not his fault that he was drinking so heavily and that he was not doing well in school. At the Spiritist centre, Afonso found an explanation for everything that was happening to him. The belief that once the spirit that was attached to him was indoctrinated and left him was a positive force that drove him to turn his life around.
4.1. Why do people go to Spiritist centres and what do Spiritist centres offer that makes people's experience there so fulfilling? As I discussed earlier most people whom I interviewed told me that they had gone to the Spiritist centre during a time of stress searching for ways to relieve their pain and seeking solutions to their everyday problems and or answers to existential problems. They reported that at the Spiritist centre they finally found comfort for their problems through Kardec's doctrine and through the numerous activities offered at the centre. Each day, from early afternoon until late at night, a stream of people arrives at the Spiritist centre in search of help for their everyday afflictions. Greeted and guided by volunteers who work there, they are interviewed and sent to their first encounter with the Spiritist doctrine that is presented to them through lectures and classes. If they decide to become a frequent visitor or a member of the centre, they may attend weekly classes and lectures about the doctrine of Spiritism, and their emotional and health status is checked on regular basis through interviews. The Spiritist centre becomes their home, their school, and their clinic. There, they are cared for as if they were at home by people who understand about their pain because they also arrived at the centre carried by the stress of problems; they are taught the Spiritist doctrine as if they were in a school, and the main principles of the doctrine motivate them to change; and they are treated as if they were in a clinic.
4.2. Spiritism plays a very important role in providing health care services for the Brazilian population. As I pointed out earlier, Brazil spends very little on health care, and even people from the middle-sectors of the society cannot afford long-term health care. The Spiritist centre offers on-going healing and counselling services that would be very expensive if people were to pay for them in private clinics. If Brazilians had higher levels of income and a good public health and welfare system, many people would not rely entirely on Spiritist healing and counselling. However, it is important to point out that, along with the healing and counselling services, people obtain a sense of community in the Spiritist centre because they can interact with other people on a regular basis. This interaction gives them a sense of community that helps them in the healing process. Thus, it would be erroneous to say that if Brazil offered adequate health care, there would be fewer Spiritists today in Brazil. I believe that many people who seek Spiritism during mental and physical health crises are, in fact, also seeking a community of people with whom they can interact. For those undergoing a time of stress, and who have lost touch with their religious system, Spiritism can easily become the religion of choice because, as the interviewee Afonso put it, "it is an oasis of hope that appears in one's desert of afflictions."
1. Maria Enedina Lima Bezerra (M.A. in English, University of Pennsylvania; Ph.D. in Anthropology, Univeristy of Florida) is professor of Anthropology and English at the University of Fortaleza-UNIFOR in Brazil.
2. The religious movement that adheres to the teaching of Allan Kardec (1804-1869), a nineteenth century Frenchman, who developed a doctrine about spirit mediumship and the spirit world. Spiritism doctrine arrived in Brazil in the late part of the nineteenth century and has become very popular among the educated middle sectors of the population
3. Theodicy is an explanation in terms of religious legitimations of phenomena of suffering, evil, and above all death (Berger, 1963). It is a religious explanation that provides meaning for meaning-threatening experiences (McGuire, 1987).