A pilgrimage is thought of as a spiritual journey taken to address a calling from our heart. It is a part of many religious traditions; Muslims make the Hajj in Mecca at least once in their lifetime, and many from Christian and Jewish traditions are drawn to places like Lourdes in France or to Jerusalem. But there is also a kind of pilgrimage that invites through loss or illness, and may not have anything to do with religion. This is what recently led me to Abadiania in central Brazil.
My mentor once counseled a friend of mine to avoid a tour-guided trip to sacred sites in Europe, which was imagined as a pilgrimage. My mentor remarked that “It might be enjoyable, but isn’t a pilgrimage, unless it stretches you”. I now know what he means. Pilgrimages may require physical exertion, like the 800 km walk to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain described by Paulo Coelho in his book “The Pilgrimage”. In Coelho’s journey of several months, we also learn of another kind of stretching that left his understanding of love and spirituality completely restructured. My own pilgrimage wasn’t about walking. It started with a two hour cab ride from Brasilia to the tiny town of Abadiania. I only walked for a mile or two each day while I was there, but I was eventually stretched to find something unexpected within my own interior.
Illnesses may lead us on pilgrimages to find a cure. Hospital systems, and tertiary care centers like the ones in which I have worked, attract the sick with promise of relief from a life-threatening condition. It is not rare for a cancer patient to start a pilgrimage from one cancer center to another, seeking expert advice, experimental treatment, and scientific answers for an incurable disease. From all over Brazil, and indeed, all over the world, a healer and medium known as Joao de Deus (or “John of God”) has also been a magnet for the sick and suffering, seeking healing in Abadiania. To me, Joao offered something more. He inspired me to ask questions about his work, which were really questions about myself. The central question that formed on my pilgrimage was, “What is healing?”. I always thought that I knew the answer to this question, but all my answers began to shift, as I faced my own personal work on my unlikely retreat.
As a physician scientist, I found myself outside of my comfort zone in Abadiania. The healing process at the Casa is framed by a Catholic Spiritism belief system that is common in Brazil. Inside this belief system, it is quite plausible that the spirits of deceased spiritual icons, like St. Mary, St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Rita of Cascia, Brazilian physicians Oswaldo Cruz and Augusto de Almeida, or even King Solomon might be channeled through a human medium Joao (as he prefers to be called). It is also widely held that these deceased entities might offer healing to anyone who ask for help. Of course I had no place to put this. But in my group was a fellow health care professional from the US who suffered from a severe and often fatal disease known as scleroderma, that affects the skin and lungs. This was her second trip to Abadiania. She was on her second trip because the first trip helped her so much. I had no place to put this, either.
Here in this tiny village in central Brazil, is found a spiritual center known as the Casa, which was created by Joao to help the sick in their quest for healing. The Casa was unlike any hospital that I had ever seen or worked in. The Casa grounds are open to all, with no admission fee, and they contain a labyrinth of meeting rooms, gardens, and meditation spaces which are populated by hundreds of local volunteers and employees. One central goal for these workers is to hold space for the thousands of pilgrims that come here every day to do the personal work of healing. Like the pilgrims and their illnesses I have to admit that I thought about my own (mostly inapparent) CT-detected aortic heart valve problem, and brain circulation maladies. I certainly had a few things wrong with my body that were not very easy for western medicine to fix. I found myself wondering if I could find a physical cure too.
On the second day at the Casa, I walked in a slow line to see Joao. We passed single file through a room that was filled with hundreds of silent meditators, sitting in rows of benches. They all faced us with closed eyes, This is when I first felt something that is still difficult to describe. In this great silent room through which every pilgrim passes, I felt an unexplainable deep sense of kindness, safety, and warmth. I felt that I was sensing some sort of a tremendous power. I could not understand it. I was beginning to sense something that I could not scientifically explain. I felt myself being stretched.
The celebrated leader of the healing work of the Casa de dom Inacio is medium Joao, who avoids identification as a faith healer. Instead, he reminds everyone that the healing (for which he is credited) occurs only because he is a medium for the “Entities”, as they do their work. Even though Joao sees himself as a mere human (and a channel for supernatural healing that occurs), healing is certainly the focus of his work. Although I understand his insistence that he is a conduit, I still noticed a few things within the Casa that seemed to contain the elements of faith healing. For example, there is a room full of crutches on display, not unlike what is found at the healing chapel known as El Santuario de Chimayó in New Mexico, or like the discarded crutches displayed at Lourdes. Skeptics note that such displays never include the prosthetic legs of amputees. You might walk again after a spinal injury, but you probably are not going to grow a new leg after visiting the Casa. There must be limits to the kind of healing that could be expected here, but I honestly have to admit that there are many limits to western medicine too. Sometimes in my profession, we like to say that a treatment is ‘life-saving’, but is that really true? After all, anyone who might be healed (back home, or in Abadiania) by a life-saving intervention is still mortal.
But the displays of healing go well beyond the discarded medical devices. Stories that celebrated the healing facilitated by Joao (also known as “John of God”) could be found everywhere in the books, photos, dvd’s found in every bookstore in Abadiania. One trademark of his healing are the physical surgeries which he occasionally carries out on stage before hundreds of onlookers. Each week, Joao carefully chooses a few recipients (out of the thousands that come to him with illnesses) for such a demonstration of physical healing, which reportedly involves scraping of the eye with a knife, the insertion of forceps into the nose, or an incision on the chest or abdomen. I have not personally witnessed any of these procedures, but there are numerous recordings of his surgical moments to be found on the internet, and there are at least as many independent stories of healing after such operations performed by Joao. There are surprisingly fewer (I couldn’t find any) claims of injury or malpractice as a direct result of his “surgical procedures”. But here is the thing: Joao himself frequently teaches that physical surgery is unnecessary for healing, and that he only performs physical surgery on occasion in order to help strengthen someone’s faith. Faith is the commodity that Joao seems to value the most. And for him, the surgeries are really a dramatization of something that occurs invisibly inside everyone who comes to the Casa for healing. To me, it seems that Joao believes that for some, surgical dramatization has the power to create a faith that can heal.
As a western physician scientist over my career, I have often been asked to evaluate the skill of physicians when they perform a procedure. When I evaluate the competence of a surgeon, I have to be in close physical approximation with them before, during and after the operation. For this reason, I am unable to pass any medical judgement by watching Joao’s Youtube videos. Furthermore, as a scientist, in some ways I am actually trained to not believe in the supernatural. I will confess that when I see videos of John of God doing surgery, I find myself thinking of the illusions created for the movie industry that are found at Universal Studios. But I do not mean this in a bad way.
In my own life, I have also found that drama does have the power to heal, and there are many movies, illusions, and plays that I have watched over the years that have shifted my very soul, and have completely changed the way I think about my self, and the life that I live. I think that Joseph Campbell might agree with me on this. Campbell might even say that ‘Faith Healing’ itself is an old Myth. Not ‘myth’ as in a lie or fabrication, but “Myth” as a metaphor for a greater truth about the unseen universe. Healers have been a part of all human culture for thousands of years, and the Myth of healing is one metaphor for the human journey, and a universal Truth that predates the greek god of medicine, Asclepius. Campbell’s Myth known as ‘The Hero’s Journey’ is a backbone for much of the spiritual work that is available for both men and women in workshops and retreats. I think that in some ways, Faith Healing could also be a kind of metaphor for our own spiritual transformation.
Western medicine with its curative intent often requires a kind of faith. We require that our patients trust us when we operate on them, and we ask that they trust us to take the medication we offer them. We ask them to have faith in us, and to have to have faith in medical science. They have to have even more faith in us, in order to stop smoking, to change their diets, or to exercise. To go even deeper, it requires perhaps even more faith to trust in a therapist, and to enter into personal work within our shadow space. There are many who simply do not have enough faith to do this kind of work. It is a special kind of faith that gives us the courage to explore the unknown parts of ourselves. This kind of faith is difficult for western medicine to inspire, and it is often impossible to find for many.
Interestingly, my own personal experience with addiction unexpectedly boiled down to a matter of faith for me.My experience of addiction did not seem to relate to molecular pathways and receptors in the brain, and did not seem to be something that would be solved by a prescription. My experience of healing from addiction was metaphysical and required a kind of faith. Several decades ago, when I felt that I was facing certain death from my own chemical dependency, I was told by treatment professionals that my only hope was to find the faith that is highlighted by twelve-step programs. I needed to “turn my life over to a power greater than myself: a power that many people refer to as ‘God’.” As an atheo-agnostic, this seemed impossible. In my own desperation, I eventually found a kind of willingness to do something that that made no sense to me at the time. At the suggestion of drug counselors, I began to trust in a nameless benevolence, which I pictured as the life force of ‘goodness’ that enabled grass to grow between the cracks in the sidewalk. This was the force that helped life to flourish in difficult places. This proved to be a turning point in my life, and I have been in recovery for 24 years, since I shifted my own worldview. This is the also the same kind of faith that eventually led me to do a deep kind of personal work within my own shadow space, which literally saved my life. My point is that, for me to be healed from the illness of addiction, I had to find a kind of willingness that was really created by my own sense of desperation. I sense that this might also be the core of faith that is found within places like the Casa.
I think that the faith that is used to explore the unknown parts of ourselves is really the currency of all faith healers, including Joao, and it is just as vital to those of us who are western healers. Eventually, none of us will survive on this planet: we are all mortal as Atul Gawande articulately points out in his wonderful book, “Being Mortal”. There is even a tradition among those who believe in past lives that all of us are committing a form of suicide, when we choose to take on a human body. Dying is the inescapable end of every human life. Is it possible that the secret mission of faith healers is about something other than preventing death? Perhaps their mission is really about facilitating a spiritual healing, which may transform our physical bodies at times, but will always transform the way we live. Psychologist and author Wayne Dyer was treated by Joao in 2011 for chronic lymphocytic leukemia, and Dyer afterwards became a transformed man, literally giving of himself and his means to everyone he met. Even though Dyer died in 2015 from a heart attack, it seems that he was shifted in a powerful spiritual way by his healing. Interestingly, his post mortem failed to show any signs of leukemia. Just saying.
I continued to feel expansion with each day in Brazil. I was surprised to feel the same willingness that I first found 24 years ago. This was the faith that inspired me to journey into the unexplored parts of myself. I seemed to have just enough faith to be present in the Casa de dom Inacio, and to honor their traditions. I tried to open myself to the mysterious healing that many seemed to find there.
Healing in the Current
I admit that am still processing the unique activities of the Casa. I spent my first day on the grounds of the healing center, and in the morning I was one of over a thousand pilgrims. I listened to prayers in Portuguese, English, and French, with numerous homilies and instructions for those that had come for healing. There were long lines of people: lines for those visiting the first time, lines for those who wanted to be seen by John of God for the second time, lines for those to be evaluated after a healing intervention, lines for herbal supplements, and lines for free soup. There are many instructions coming from the stage, in many languages. But here’s one thing I have never heard on the Casa premises for the past two weeks: a request for money, or a request for a donation. Of course the Casa accepts donations, but they spend zero time asking for them. American televangelist healers, take note. (The Casa does have income sources, like the sale of healing herbs, and the sale of books and crystals, and these funds are used to support the mission and it’s employees).
Here’s another thing. On that morning, Joao sat, and saw about 1000 patients one by one, single file over three and a half hours. I was one of them. He held my hand briefly, smiled, looked me in the eye, and then scribbled something on a piece of paper for me to carry to the attendants. I felt that he had a kind, comfortable presence when we were briefly face to face. I paid nothing to see him. He is 74. As a physician at age 59, I sometimes feel drained after 8 patients in a day as a specialist consultant. I know that it is different, but honestly, I do not know any 74 year old physicians who would sit for 6 or 7 hours in a day, and see nearly 2000 patients per day for three days a week, for free.
When I searched for “John of God” on the internet, the following summary pops up in large characters: “João Teixeira de Faria, known also as João de Deus, is said to be a medium and psychic surgeon, who has been accused of being a confidence trickster and of sexually assaulting members of his staff.” Perhaps I am naive but he doesn’t seem very tricky to me, when he sees over 2000 patients in a day, for free. And he seemed to be surrounded by a staff that adore and protect him. I found it impossible to find any sexual assault allegations documented on the internet. I am not saying that such claims are impossible, but I find myself asking, why would unsubstantiated negative claims the headlines that surface on the internet for this man? What is it about Joao that inspires such contempt and judgement?
I think that one reason that he triggers such a response might be that Joao challenges our non-believing, educated, scientific world in a unique way. He is a beloved and successful healer who is illiterate. He cannot either read or write, but he is called a ‘psychic surgeon’ by many. He is the opposite of any western idea of a surgeon. After college, I spent 4 years in med school, and 7 years in residency and fellowship training to become a specialist. If I had any ego about it, I might be a little jealous that Joao is so celebrated as a physician, when he is unable to even sign his own name.
But in another way, illiteracy is perfect for Joao. It underscores that his work is not a manifestation of the intellect. I think that he instead appears to be working from his heart. He offers Herculean effort from what appears to be a profound sense of kindness. To me, Joao looks more like a common Brazilian local than a wealthy guru, and in his spare time, he can be found sitting on a couch in the front of his son’s tiny water and crystal store on the village main street in Abadiania.
Joao is a non-religious healer, but his mission is spiritual. He and his staff constantly challenge everyone to to work on their spiritual lives. There is no proselytizing here, and no one is asked to sign up, or join a cult. All religions are respected here, and those represented most often in this large group seem to vary from none (like me) to Buddhist, Sufi, Hindu, Jewish and Christian. All seem to be welcome. The spiritualist blend of the Brazilian catholic faith predominates in the services, and Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s are repeated in Portuguese. But there is absolutely no attempt at any religious recruitment. Instead, there is an invitation to all that comes from illness, as echoed by John of God, for us to look at our own lives introspectively. We are told that if we want healing, it is vital that we forgive people in our lives who have harmed us. And it is essential that we forgive ourselves. We are invited to do personal work.
This is not something that most of us western-trained physician scientists are terribly comfortable with. Many of us would prefer to think of illness in scientific terms, only. Joao would argue that there is nothing wrong with science, and there is nothing wrong with medical science. Joao encourages pilgrims to stay on the medications from their doctors, and occasionally sends them to a hospital or to the doctor for further treatment. Joao himself has had western surgical treatment for gastric cancer. If I am any judge, Joao seems to be a lot more comfortable with the realm of science, than Science is comfortable with his realm of spirituality.
Conversely, there is a consideration that Science itself can also be thought of as a religion, with its shared set of beliefs, and it’s own sacred objects. Among scientists and many western physicians, the scientific method, and the idea that everything can be objectified and studied is more tightly held than any belief from the most fervent religions. In terms of sacred artifacts, surgery itself could be thought of as a symbol of the ‘religion of science’. Over the years, data has refined our techniques for greater and greater achievement, as mortality has fallen and cure rates from have risen. But consider this. If the idea of doing surgery is a sacred thing to western physicians, then Joao’s surgeries might be construed as something sacrilegious, and might even seem to mock the idea of education and training. His surgeries also might appear to ridicule the idea of diagnosis, medical purpose, and sterile technique. No wonder that the western medical community is sometimes inflamed by his activities. Why would he choose to (seemingly) ridicule them?
I suspect that perhaps Joao is using his surgical demonstrations (done on a stage instead of an operating room) in order to make a spiritual point, and not a medical one. When someone needs spiritual healing, education might not be what matters the most. Technique might not be what matters, for spiritual healing. What matters the most is faith, and intention. It is the collective intention that Joao tries to build, for healing. For Joao, spiritual healing is not an inevitable outcome of a scientifically structured procedure. Healing is an unseen event that is accomplished by God.
Joao teaches that the healing that he is engaged in is powered by a ‘Current’. Current is the Casa term for the 350 volunteers who sit in silence next to Joao three days a week, in an adjacent room, for 3-6 hours at a time. They sit with eyes closed, in deep meditation, supporting Joao and the pilgrims who he is serving, as they file past. I sat in the Current for the first time for 3.5 hours with my eyes closed, and I can tell you: this is not an easy thing to do. But I found that there is also something profound and touching about this work. Together on these padded benches we are an eclectic band of individuals from all over the world, with all kinds of belief systems, and we sit together in silence as a gift to strangers who have come to Joao for help.
What is it like to be Joao, and receive this kind of support every week? I can only imagine. This must be at least partially how he manages to do this endurance work at his age. As a physician, I have had a fine, supportive staff at my hospitals over the years. But I have never seen 350 strangers gather and sit outside my surgery suite in silent meditation for hours on behalf of patients that they don’t even know. Social theorist Emile Durkheim first coined a term known as ‘collective effervescence’ in his book “Elementary Forms of Religion” in order to describe how communal gatherings intensify, electrify and enlarge a religious experience. Durkheim noted that when people are together in close physical proximity, they are able to ‘generate a kind of electricity that quickly transports them to an extraordinary degree of exaltation’. Even though the casa holds no specific religion, I could feel the power of such a shared intention as I sat with everyone.
As I sat in Current, I did became conscious of the teaching that I heard earlier from Sarah in our group meditations. The words, “You are NOT your body!” are repeated. In Current, we are reminded repeatedly to think of ourselves as spirit. Spirit is our identity. If there is one core belief system at the Casa, it is probably only this.
I saw none of the thousand or so patients that filed past me as I sat with my eyes closed, but I did sense their presence. As I meditated, I tried to be a part of their support. I held them, and held myself with kindness and without judgement. I imagined white light, streaming through my spirit, and into the room, and into Joao, and into the attendants, and into the unending stream of patients. I have been a healer all of my life, but I have never been part of anything like this before.
Sensing the Divine
As I wound my way homeward, I was vaguely conscious of how I have shifted in Abadiania. I remembered leaving home with the intention of finding some kind of physical healing for myself, when I first embarked on this trip to Brazil. I sense that like many, I found real healing in Abadiania, but the need for physical healing seemed to be an invitation for something much deeper. As the weeks unfolded, I found myself re-challenged with the question, “What is healing? What it that I really am seeking here?” The answer kept changing. But at the end, my answer became clear. I was really seeking a sense of the divine.
Everywhere in Abadiania, in the hotels, in stores, at the Casa, and in our own pousada are pictures of the Entities. When our group first arrived, we viewed these with some uneducated amusement. There were over 25 commonly depicted saints and ascended guides known as the Entities that are said to assist those of us who come to the Casa. Many, like St. Ignatius, St. Mary, or St. Rita are familiar to catholic christians but many others are not. I am not particularly proud to admit that I found myself joking with my companions at dinner in our pousada about an Entity photo in the dining hall, and I remarked that one resembled Josef Stalin, and another one resembled Ron Jeremy, the porn star. My education awaited me.
A few days later as my intention for healing grew, I found myself becoming curious to discover if there were particular Entities that I resonated with, or even if there were any who had been assigned to my case. It turns out that such Entity assignments are a customary tradition at the Casa. When I reviewed some unread Casa emails from months ago, I realized that 3 Entities were personally assigned to me. One was Dr. Oswaldo Cruz, the legendary public health physician and bacteriologist who studied with Louis Pasteur, and who helped to eradicate smallpox from Rio. Soon afterward, I looked up his picture, only to find that his was the likeness was the one that I had compared to Stalin. I felt embarrassed inside. Perhaps it was my imagination but he only seemed to smile gently at me, from a tiny photo of him that I purchased of him at the Casa gift store. Perhaps it was his nature to reassure me of his kindness, and his sense of humor.
On the day before I was to go before Joao, I discovered the identity of another Entity assigned to my case. Dr. Jose Valdivino, the mysterious surgeon known as “the protector of families”, was from the same era. I will admit that it was a bit humiliating when I realized I had ridiculed one of my own Entities as an image of Ron Jeremy. But my lesson was about to be enlarged further, as I waited to come before Joao in the room for healing.
Like the current room, Joao’s surgery room was also filled with rows of people, all with eyes closed in silent meditation, intentionally holding in their consciousness those who passed silently before them, towards Joao at the end of the room. There were crosses, crystals, holy objects and paintings everywhere. As I advanced slowly and silently toward Joao in our line, imagine my surprise to find myself standing next to three giant paintings on my right. They were paintings of my own 3 Entities. I stood silently before Dr. Oswaldo Cruz, Dr. Jose Penteado, and Dr. Jose Valvidino. As I looked into each of their eyes, I felt no judgement. I saw only kindness in their likenesses. And finally, as I looked deeply at Dr. Valvidino, the shame from my own rude joke evaporated. When I looked in his eyes, I was surprised to recognize something more than compassion. I actually saw my own reflection. I been to feel forgiveness for my coarse sense of humor, my disrespect, and my absence of humility. As I forgave myself, I could see myself in him. I was beginning to sense something unexpected.
There is a French movie created by Luc Besson known as “Angel A” that I have loved for many years. In a scene that is shared on the internet, the protagonist Andre is struggling with suicidal despair when he meets Angela (“Angel A”), who is a beautiful towering blonde woman sent to help him. The angel leads him to look at his own image in the mirror and asks him what he sees. He struggles to even look into his own eyes in the mirror, but eventually, at her prompting, he begins to see love, and he weeps. In my final visit to the Casa, repeatedly I found myself living inside such an experience.
On the day of our departure, it was time for my final lesson, and I joined the group of meditators in the Current room for the last time. I sat for hours with my eyes closed, and as I opened my heart, many things came to me that I will not disclose here. But after all was done, and I sat with what I had experienced, I still held a seemingly unfulfilled desire: to somehow gain a sense of the divine. I asked for this remaining gift as I sat in trance, and it happened. Slowly and gradually an image materialized, and then came into focus. It was a most surprising image. The image was me. This was unlike anything that I had even remotely ever considered to be divine. This is the opposite of how I have always been taught to consider myself. But I saw my own image at my current age, looking back and smiling, and I was running like an athlete. As I ran and smiled back at myself, I was doing impossible forward flips, in yellow laser high-top sneakers, and then running faster and faster, until I disappeared upward in a comet stream of light. I had just been offered a new sense of the divine.
It’s funny how recognition of my own spark of divinity shifted the way I care for myself. It also shifted the way I see everyone else, too. After my pilgrimage, I found myself noticing a common light within everyone. In the past, I had learned that the greeting “namaste” was a verbal expression for, ‘I bow to the divine in you’. But when I see the divine in myself, words are unnecessary. Namaste is the healing found when we gain a glimpse the divine, within.