Virtual Spiritual Agency in Times of Covid

Dr Chloe Preece | Senior Lecturer | School of Business Management, Royal Holloway, University of London.

Dr Victoria Rodner | Lecturer University of Edinburgh Business School, University of Edinburgh

Zoom made my life much easier,” explains Mãe (mother) Fernanda, an Afro-Brazilian priestess from the coastal city of Santos (Brazil). 

Like many of us, facing an indefinite lockdown, Mãe Fernanda was forced to move her work online. Zoom, along with other video-conferencing platforms that mushroomed in the wake of Covid-19, may have made Mãe Fernanda’s life ‘easier,’ but the service she is providing is no typical consultation.

As an Afro-Brazilian priestess – or mãe de santo – Mãe Fernanda works as a medium, meaning that her faith centres on the practice of spirit possession and the channelling of spirit forces for the good of humanity. As a form of mediumship, we understand spirit possession to be the displacement of our conscious self by a ‘powerful, immaterial being’ be it a spirit, ancestor, or god, that temporarily takes control of our bodies and our minds (Seligman, 2014: 5). During these incorporations, the medium – who acts as a physical vessel for the spiritual entity – channels energies and offers counselling from the spiritual plane to our material world, sharing important oracular messages with official members of the temple (i.e. the ‘spiritual children’ who are initiated into the faith) and regular congregants alike.

Being momentarily stripped of her sacred space and in person contact with the congregation due to new, unforgiving social distancing measures, how does Mãe Fernanda – and other religious leaders – carry out her work as a medium and spiritual consultant? What does this new digitised faith look like and how does spiritual healing work in our ‘new normal’? Thanks to a small seedcorn grant from DOS, we set out to examine how spiritual leaders in Brazil – through their use of digital platforms – recreate the sacred space of their temple over the internet; how followers of the faith materialise healing rituals in their home environments; and how the embodied ritual of spirit possession is distributed across multiple planes, from the spiritual, to the physical to the digital. To do so we undertook 14 interviews with spiritual leaders and followers of Afro-Brazilian temples.

Although Afro-Brazilian services (or giras) may differ in format to other, more ‘traditional’ church services, this move toward a digitisation of faith is shared among many places of worship, including Christian denominations in the UK, as ongoing pandemic measures push religious leaders across the globe to go virtual. In her use of digital platforms, we see how Mãe Fernanda – like other Afro-Brazilian spiritual leaders – aims to recreate the rich, auspicious atmosphere and healing qualities of her terreiro (temple) sharing through our screens the highly adorned altars, the colour-coordinated candles, the smoky ambience of burning incense and sage, the luscious offerings to the entities, and – when there is live-streaming available – the rhythmic drumming, singing, and dancing that make up the spirit possession ritual.

Figure 1. Afro-Brazilian priests and priestesses use social media to connect with the faithful: Instagram posts of elaborate altars (left) and Facebook live-streaming (right) of a gira (weekly service)

As well as inviting followers virtually into their now-empty temples, spiritual leaders also show the faithful how they can recreate shrines and spiritual offerings (or firmezas) in the safety of their own homes.

Not unlike influencers, priests and priestesses of Brazil’s Afro-denominations use different digital platforms for different spiritual purposes: live-streaming through invitation-only Zoom sessions, private YouTube channels, or closed FB groups are geared specifically to the ‘spiritual children’ and mediums-in-training. During these private services, live spirit possession is common as spiritual leaders and their ‘children’ incorporate synchronously the various entities that are called upon during the ritual. Pai Fausto – of a downtown São Paulo temple – explains how simultaneous possession is possible – even via the web – because of the ‘spiritual (umbilical) chord that ties us together.’

It is during spirit possession that messages from the spiritual world are shared with the faithful. These spiritual messages can be of hope, patience, healing, love or even sense-making, especially significant in such uncertain times. A recent message from Mãe Fernanda’s guiding spirit – the Gypsy temptress Pomba Gira – explains how energy has “limitless” and “atemporal qualities” meaning that it can be accumulated and transferred when needed. Very much on trend with post-human theorising, Pomba Gira’s message encourages Mãe Fernanda to record her services so as to allow her ‘spiritual children’ to ‘play them back’ at their convenience and seamlessly tap into the spiritual agency captured online.

Figure 2. Live-streaming tarot reading on FB with a Pai de Santo (Afro-Brazilian priest).

Beyond these private sessions, other live-streaming sessions via FB, Instagram, or Telegram, in which spiritual leaders recreate the temple’s ambience but refrain from spirit possession, are more public and accessible, encouraging anyone to ‘like’, share and take part in the lively commentary online. Oracular consultations, including the popular tarot card-reading, can either be very public via FB live-streaming, or closed through individual Skype or Zoom calls. Online mediumship courses are run via Zoom or other video conferencing platforms and people are asked to sign up in advance. But it is WhatsApp that becomes instrumental for direct contact between the faithful and their spiritual leader. Like a real-time Agony Aunt, WhatsApp enables the faithful to share their troubles with the priest or priestess and receive instantaneous feedback via the ever-popular feature of voice messages. Noting how her WhatsApp became ‘very heavy’ since lockdown, Mãe Fernanda explains how it is ‘through this platform that people were able to overcome the lack of physical touch, the lack of hugs, the lack of face to face contact’.

Although mediatised religious services are nothing new, our interests lie not only in a new wave of mediatised faith (through the digital) but how consumers engage with their faith not merely through ‘likes’, shares or live commentary, but in an active co-construction of the healing on offer, from the recreation of shrines to the possession of spirits, all from the safety of their homes. It is through the digital, that spiritual leaders (temporarily) overcome the physical obstacles of life with Covid, distributing through the web the spiritual agency made available to them through the phenomenon of spirit possession, forming a hybrid constellation of a heterogenous network of activities, subjects and objects shaped by different forms of interagency. In a global pandemic where consumers find their agency constrained, they can use these digitised services to re-embed themselves in their faith through this distributed agency. 

Dr Chloe Preece is Senior Lecturer in Marketing at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her research focuses on marketing within the arts and creative industries and how this translates into social, cultural and economic value.

Dr Victoria Rodner is Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Edinburgh Business School (UEBS) and her research main interests are in value creation in the arts, religious and spiritual consumption, brand narratives and institutional theory.

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