Twenty years ago when people asked me if I would ever write about psychic phenomena, I always said “no”. I had already decided the dodgy realm of the extraordinary/psychic/exceptional was too uncertain and murky. Yet here I am. As expected, my process has been fraught with resistance. So I am constantly surprised when I discover a connection between the work I did for Spiritual Outsider and my current work with the extraordinary.
Back in the 90’s while I was writing Spiritual Outsider, I contacted the African Studies department at Xavier University in New Orleans asking to speak to an expert on Voodoo. For two weeks I left messages for the director of Black Catholic Studies, Sister Eva Regina Martin, and when I finally got her on the phone, I heard confusion in her voice.
“You’re calling from New York? You’d like to know what?”
I told her my story, my book project I had been dragging around for the last three years. I was a young, lapsed Catholic seeking powerful spiritual female figures in alternative religions. I remember her scoffing at the word “alternative.” I told her, according to my interviews, young women felt disenfranchised from mainstream religion, and I suspected the feelings partly came from a systemic invisibility of women in power.
I had read some about Voodoo, enough to understand the fear-based propaganda that began during the slave trade and was later exploited by Hollywood had clouded the actual practice. What I didn’t tell her, but perhaps she intuited, was that even though this religious and cultural territory was not my own, I believed the history of black women doing God’s work was necessary for me, and others, to know.
I can only imagine what she was thinking when she said, “If you come here we can talk.” That I was opening a very big can of worms; that I was coming a very long way to dip my toe into a deep pool. Both on the phone and when I arrived, she spoke in a kind, firm cadence I recognized from Catholic school. I had worn a gray skirt and white short-sleeved top when I visited, aiming for respect. I see now how my insistent phone calls and pursuit probably seemed peculiar and unclear. Because even with a professional intention, you can’t find out about Voodoo, or God, or any type of experiential mystery by asking questions. It is a world of doing, of practice.
When I arrived, she invited me in, closed her office door and, in a big-hearted voice, boomed “what is a white, Catholic, conservative girl from New York doing sitting in my office asking about Voodoo?” Then she laughed and laughed and laughed. I sat there and took it. From her view, it was funny.
In the end, we had a lot to talk about; the stereotypes of the Voodoo priestess, the mesmerizing, possessed temptress, and how it was connected to a deep-seated fear of black women. She herself was large and imposing, like many nuns I had met, but gregarious and light-hearted, afraid of nothing. She had earned her doctorate in African American Studies; she taught African literature and the ways in which African spirituality merged with Catholic rituals. We talked about women in the bible, the image of the‘crazy’ female mystic, and she scolded me for not knowing the saints better, especially the female saints, which I took to heart and later read up. Before we knew it, the afternoon had passed.
Somewhat spontaneously, she invited me to her convent to meet her sisters and Mother Superior. I drove with her across a bridge to Lake Catherine in East Orleans Parish. This was in 1999, long before Hurricane Katrina decimated the area. On the beautiful ride, she shared with me her early life rural New Orleans, as the daughter of a “treater,” a local term for a country nurse. She knew at a young age she wanted to serve God in a wider, socially acceptable way. She joined the first order of black Catholic nuns in the South, The Sisters of the Holy Family, founded twenty years before the Civil War by the now venerable Henriette DeLille.
I had asked her to repeat herself: twenty years before the Civil War?
Yes, she said. DeLille was a free woman of color who, in addition to creating the first creed for devout Christian women, including nursing the sick, caring for the poor, and educating the ignorant, opened America’s first Catholic home for the elderly. She also, Sr. Eva confided in me with a chuckle, was a distant cousin of the popular Voodoo queen Marie Laveau.
I had read about Laveau, a hairdresser, socialite, and Voodoo practitioner with thousands of followers in 19th century New Orleans. But Sr. Eva’s courageous mention of Voodoo in the same breath as Catholic ministering had clarified everything I had been asking about in one, staggering moment: Voodoo had a history of healing. At its heart was a service-based practice. It required prayer, and song and faith. It brought people into a place of courage, freed their minds, and affected change.
The point of connection I want to emphasize now, nearly 20 years later, is the practice of mental focus underlying Voodoo and Catholic prayer. For that matter, it underlies witchcraft and positive thinking, Sanskrit chant and Buddhist mantras. The mechanism through which one changes one’s mind, and then affects change in the wider world, is psychic influence. I know now, after starting the Extraordinary Project, the scientific word terms for this are distant mental influence or psychokinesis, aka PK.
Neuropsychologist Diane Hennessy Powell, author of The ESP Enigma points out that PK is not really ESP because it’s not perception based. Rather, it’s a force on the world. PK, also called intention, is more influential in systems already in a state of uncertainty. Don’t think of levitation or other magical feats, but more subtle, scientifically supported examples, such as distant healing. When you frame PK as distant healing, it’s not hard to make the connection back to prayer, and even back to my trip to the convent in New Orleans, where many generations of women devoted their lives to the prayer, healing and service for thousands. I can only imagine the type of intention it took for a free woman of color to create the first order of Black Catholic nuns in the US twenty years before the civil war.
When Sr. Eva and I arrived in the late afternoon, the sisters were tottering out of the modest building carrying long-handled fishing nets, on their way to go crawfishing. Never in my life had I ever expected to see nuns crawfishing. Sr. Eva led me up the steps to the Mother Superior, a tiny, older, blind woman. After she introduced me, the Mother Superior grabbed my hand, hard, and held it in both of hers for a long moment. I got the sense she was reading me, assessing my intentions. Would I describe their convent accurately? Would I explain the intermingled roots of Voodoo and Catholic service with respect? When she smiled and invited me to go crawfishing with them, I politely declined, a decision I now regret. Who knows what I would have come to understand while fishing with the Sisters of the Holy Family. So many insights come to those who spend their day fishing.