The Pocket of Ala | May 21, 2023 Rev. Dr. Kathryn Benton
The opening music is about grief…about a grief so deep that it makes a human being wish they were never born. This is a song about the kidnapping and enslavement of indigenous Africans from their homes to the Americas. It is a lament…a prayer. There is a sense of disbelief that is, I think, akin to the grieving process…the initial stage of shock and disbelief that often accompanies a loss or tragedy. This is a problem for all of us at some point in our lives if we make space for it. Imagine if we could actually sing about it! How healing that could be.
I work with many people that are experiencing grief on many levels. For some, it is a personal loss of a loved one. For others, it is a loss of good health, of a job, of a relationship. On top of this personal grief, people are experiencing a sort of “collective grief” associated with current realities, including violence, hatred, climate change, war. What I have discovered is that people do not have an outlet for this grief…they do not have a way to express it. Despite the deep traditions of our ancestors, we seem to have come to a place in this culture where we are left alone with our grief. And this grief then becomes “complicated” …that is, our grief becomes stuck. We, in this society, have made even this into an individual “disease” that needs to be “cured” individually. It is even “our responsibility” to heal it…to get rid of it and move forward with our less complicated life. But life is complicated.
I’d like to think for a moment about an important figure in our history, Malcolm X, whose birthday was this week. In thinking about his life from the perspective of both a minister and a mental health professional, one is struck by his ability to live authentically. This meant that he was a living, breathing contradiction. But what did Thurman say about the contradictions of life? He said they were neither final nor ultimate. We are all collections of contradictions, as is this life. Here is a moment Malcolm X spoke of upon seeing his mother in a mental hospital. He wrote:
Eventually my mother suffered a complete breakdown…
My mother remained in the same hospital at Kalamazoo for about 26 years. My last visit was in 1952. I was twenty-seven. But she didn't recognize me at all. She stared at me. She didn't know who I was. I can't describe how I felt.
The woman who had brought me into the world,
and nursed me, and advised me, and chastised me,
and loved me, didn't know me. It was as if I was trying to walk up the side of a hill of feathers.
This is a description of a profound grief…the loss of his mother as she could have been…the loss of a person with whom he could have shared so much…with whom he was meant to share so much. I love his description of trying to make sense of this reality as…trying to walk up the side of a hill of feathers. Isn’t that what the journey of grief can be? We seem to get part of the way up the hill but then slide back down. We seem, at that moment to have nothing to anchor us…no foundation upon which to stand tall. And this was certainly something that Malcolm X and so many others have been searching for…a kind of foundational belief system…something to support them in times of trouble. Malcolm called himself Malcolm X because he wanted to reject the name of the slave master. The X was a placeholder for some unknown name from the homeland of his ancestors. In search of a sense of his identity he found, I think, some peace in his, what were to be, last years.
This peace is, I think, what so many of us seek…a kind of cradle…a nest…a womb to rest in when we feel the intensity of grief. A mothering spirit to comfort and guide us in times of need…a spirit that gives us life and shows us our next steps. Marvin Gaye called on this spirit years ago…
It is the comfort of the mother…the Holy Mother of All who brought us into the world and who will take us back when we die; much like the Igbo belief in the Goddess Ala…
Holy Mother Earth
She who guides those who live upon Her,
She whose laws the people of the Igbo follow,
living in the honesty and rightness
that are the ways of Goddess Ala;
it is She who brings the child to the womb
and She who gives it life,
always present during life
and receiving those whose lives are ended,
taking them back into Her sacred womb,
"the pocket of Ala."
The Goddess Ala draws us back to her sacred womb…the place from which we have come…back to the pocket of Ala. This belief can support people in their grief…it can provide a framework with which to understand the vicissitudes of life. Still, I sense that people also need the rituals that go with this framework…the death of a loved one, the loss of a person, an opportunity, a pet, an ability, good health. People need tangible reminders of the spiritual and human supports available to them in times of need. This is a basic human need that we seem to be burying inside our individualism…our belief that we can “take care of ourselves”. The Igbo people have traditionally had a more communal vision of life and death…of spiritual and human world. It is said that…
Throughout the Igbo region, Ala is worshiped in large square houses with open sides. These structures, called Mbari, contain life-sized mud figures of the goddess painted in bright colors. Usually, Ala is surrounded by sculptures representing other deities, animals, and humans.
These structures provide tangible evidence of a belief in the Goddess. Much like other worship spaces, the square house contains representations of the Goddess but this house also includes sculptures representing other spiritual beings, including animals and humans. Perhaps the most interesting thing about these structures is that they are not permanent…they are not made to last “forever” and they are built with the support and guidance of the spirit itself…
According to Igbo tradition, Ala sends a sign such as a snake or a bee's nest to tell her priests where to build a Mbari. Groups of men and women work together to assemble and decorate the structure. Construction can take years and is considered a sacred act. However, once built, the Mbari houses are left alone to decay. For this reason, new houses must continually be produced, which ensures that the Mbari tradition will be carried on by younger members of the group.
This is the way in which we can know our connection…our dependence on the mothering spirit and upon each other. Without the spirit, we would not feel a sense of security and love and without each other, we cannot heal our grief and we cannot build the world we need to build…a world that will be a better world than we have today...so that, in the words of Sue Bailey Thurman, there will be no past greater than our future.
To ensure that this aspiration from Sue Bailey Thurman comes true, we need to care…to care for each other and for the ancestors of our past, as well as the coming generations. I leave you with an Igbo Folk Song about the process of guiding and teaching a new mother to care for her new baby. It is a practice that supports the tender, fragile days after birth. May we remember the sacredness of that time and of life itself and may we become a society that cares for its people in both spiritual and tangible ways.