I really need to learn to keep more cash on me. I’m normally a card-type of guy, but in the right circumstances (and in increasingly more ones every day), cash goes a lot farther a lot faster than credit.
One of the main reasons for me to keep more cash on me, or at least staying in the habit of having a few bills on me at all times, is religion. In La Regla de Ocha Lukumí (aka Santería—I wonder when I’ll stop feeling obliged to give the alternate, perhaps more common name), cash is customary for donations for any number of reasons, not least because it’s legal tender and proof of payment in itself. When we establish the celebratory throne for an orisha, when we set up the drummers’ seats for a dance, even when we visit a priest’s house for their anniversary of initiation, it’s quite acceptable to leave a few dollars as a respectful donation (often in conjunction with an offering of fruit, flowers, candles, and so forth). My checklist for going to an event now consists of making sure my whites are clean, I’ve got my offerings ready to go, and stopping by the ATM for a few extra bills.
One of the unusual things, however, is that there is a process for giving cash in the religion (always processes for everything, after all). This one isn’t difficult; simply cross yourself with the money before dropping it into the basket/basin/jícara/etc. Making the Sign of the Cross is a natural motion for many people in the religion, and it helps in sanctifying the donation with a holy reverence and respect.
Well, I didn’t realize how ingrained in me that habit had become until I went to a winery this past weekend. The husband and I went to see one of his good friends play a gig there, and we got a bottle of fruit wine while we were at it. It was a lovely, cloudy, pleasantly mild Saturday in early May, and we enjoyed ourselves (even through all the pollen). Our friend, a guitarist and singer, had his guitar case opened up before his station, and a few people had already dropped some cash in there. I followed suit to support our friend, so I reached into my wallet and—well, my first instinct was to cross myself with the money. I laughed about it with my husband, and had to remind myself that this wasn’t a religious function and there’s no need to do that here, so I didn’t, and just dropped the cash in his case anyway. I made a joke about it on Twitter, too (along with a few others).
But…well, I realized after the fact that maybe that wasn’t a habit I should suppress, and a few replies on Twitter had really brought that conversation to the forefront of my mind. After all, we cross ourselves with the donation in a religious setting to sanctify the donation and show our respect to the ashé of the orisha or drummer or priest or whoever-else. As an initiated priest in this religion, not only do I show my respect with this act, but I’m also blessing that offering on-the-fly with my action and intent for the sake of whoever-it-is. It’s not just a show of support or well-wishing at that point, but a spiritual act to lend my grace, support, succor, and help to whoever-it-is, as well as a physical prayer made to express my hope for their grace, support, succor, and help in my own life, as well. Such is the nature of blessings.
Could I have donated money as a spiritual act before initiation? Absolutely! That wasn’t something that was held off for me, especially given all my other practices going on. But here’s the thing that’s slowly dawning on me in truly profound ways: I can never stop being a priest. Yeah, intellectually I understood that; orisha live on my head now, and they see what I see and hear what I hear, not to mention seeing and hearing me at all times. That’s one of the reasons why good conduct is paramount for initiates. Yet, even in the little things, I don’t stop being a priest. Why, then, should I not bless something when it’s already a habit for me to do so in an innocuous way? Why would I not do what is essentially my job at a perfect opportunity just because the context is different from what I’d expect for my job? I don’t have to be in the Ocha Room in order to work Ocha; Ocha is in me, Ocha is around me, Ocha is part of me wherever I go, whenever I go. I do not stop being a priest, so why not act accordingly?
This isn’t, of course, about proselytizing or trying to force initiations onto others or try to sell orisha out on discount. Priesthood is still something I’m coming to terms with and figuring out in all its emanations, but there are a few things I do know, and one of them is that I want to make the world better. For myself, to be sure, but also for my loved ones, my family, my godfamily, my colleagues, my friends, my coworkers, my teachers, my students…everyone. In a very real sense of Buddhist emptiness, we’re all in this together, because I can’t exist without you nor can you exist without me, so if I’m to truly do well, I need to make sure that you’re also doing well, as well, because, at its core, I can’t really cease suffering myself until all suffering is ceased. Sure, there are ways I can prosper at others’ dire expense, but even an ounce of shame would keep me from really enjoying such wealth because it’s not justly earned; only if that wealth is justly earned, the exchange is fair, and everyone has at minimum what they need without worry is it a state I can enjoy. Extend that notion, then, to everything, everywhere, and everywhen. It is not true that everyone needs to be a priest to make the world a better place, but it damn well sure helps me in that undertaking. I have the tools and, slowly, the techniques and the knowledge to work what I can for myself and for those in my world to make the world a better place, and I don’t have a reason to not do that, so there’s only one real choice: do it. In a sense, it’s a kind of theurgy, no matter how small the individual acts are. The Great Work isn’t done in a day, after all.
For anyone involved in spiritual practices, there is no reason to separate out the mundane from the spiritual. Context and consent matters, absolutely, but if you have the chance to infuse a mundane act with a spiritual force in it, why not do it? If nothing else, it’s practice, and can ensure your own success later down the line. Ideally, doing so would make things better for the entire world with a simple act that sets of a chain reaction, even if it’s just a minor set of coincidences. But for those who can give their blessing—and you don’t, strictly speaking, need to be a priest for that—why not give it freely at every opportunity? If you can call upon the power of the dead, the gods, the elements, the angels, or whatever else it is you work with, why not back up your hopes and well-wishes for the well-being of others with the power that you can direct and work with, especially if it’s in the moment of a trivial action you were going to do anyway?
I have to admit, now I wish I had crossed myself with that money before I dropped it in our friend’s guitar case. Lesson learned, then. There are some habits that really should be kept up.