John of God sure seems like a nice man. He even gave me a hug on the veranda of the Café at the Omega Institute where I, like my former partner, was attending a four day event. Even so, I’m a skeptic, and John of God is a faith healer. What follows is a recounting of my experience at the John of God event as one of the few who was not a true believer.
About John of God
Who is John of God, some of you may be wondering. In short, John of God, also known as “João de Deus,” is a Brazilian faith healer in the “spiritist” tradition. Born on June 24, 1942, he is arguably the most famous medium and so-called “psychic surgeon” in Brazil today. Originally from the village of Cachoeira da Fumaça, he is currently is based in Abadiânia, a small town in the state of Goiás, southwest of Brasília, where thousands upon thousands travel to appear before him. Not just Brazilians, but also Americans, Europeans, and other people from all parts of the world.
According to his authorized biography, João Teixeira de Faria was brought up in the town of Itapaçi,in the Goiás state of Brazil. It’s centrally located in the middle of nowhere. And not far from where João is currently located at the Casa de Dom Inácio de Loyola. João is reported to have begun working as a cloth cutter in his father’s tailor shop at the age of six. He attended primary school for a few years before he abandon his studies to go to work as a well digger and a bricklayer. In addition, he earned pocket money at the local pool hall. João never finished school, and it is reported that to this day he can neither read nor write. This man definitely came from humble origins.
According to his biography, João showed “paranormal” abilities at age nine when he correctly predicted exactly which houses were going to be damaged by a storm. Seven years later, at age sixteen when a beautiful woman by a river told him to go to a particular Spiritist Center, where he fainted and while unconscious, incorporated a number of entities, including “King Solomon.” When he awoke hours later he was told that he had “healed over fifty” people who happened to be at the Center. João was asked to return the following afternoon so that King Solomon could continue his work. An intense period of spiritual instruction and guidance by various “entities” followed over the next few months.
About Spiritism and Allan Kardec
In her book “Spiritual Alliances” Emma Bragdon, PhD, a “transpersonal psychologist” and supporter of John of God, provides insight into John of God’s relationship to Spiritism, a movement popular in Brazil. Spiritism, a close cousin to Spiritualism, was inspired by the books written by French educator Hypolite Léon Denizard Rivail (under the pseudonym Allan Kardec), and especially “the Spirits’ Book.” Kardec reported “séances in which he believed to be conversing with incorporeal spirits.” Although Spiritism and Allan Kardec are virtually unknown in the United States, they are very well known in Brazil. According to Emma Bradgon, there are some 6500 “Kardecist” community centers of Brazil, following in Kardec’s tradition of Spiritism. Bragdon claims that “Kardecist Spiritist Centers function like alternative healthcare centers, community centers and ecumenical schools for spiritual development, all wrapped into one.” Moreover, an estimated 60,000,000 Brazilians, or a third of the population, go to Spiritist Centers “at some point in their lives for healing and inspiration.” Of those about 20,000,000 go to centers in the Kardecist tradition.
John of God is not, strictly speaking, a Spiritist or a Kardecist. For one thing, he does not advise people directly in spiritual matters. Another difference is that Spiritists practice healing with a group of practitioners; rarely is healing done by an individual, working alone. Moreover, João asks that people coming to him for consultation do not follow the advice of other healers while they are following his treatment protocols.
Preliminaries to the John of God Event
Prior to coming to the John of God event, we received certain instructions from Omega. These included the suggestion, as the event approached, that we “try to avoid any disruptions in your work or personal life.” More particularly, we were informed that “the Entities request that you wear white, loose-fitting clothing.” In addition we were informed that the “results of the spiritual treatment you will experience while at Omega are likely to unfold over several months.” Participants “often feel worse before they feel better.” We were also told hat if we have a “spiritual intervention” during the event, we would receive specific instructions that we would need to follow. For 40 days after a treatment, we wold also be required to observe the following restrictions:
- Abstaining from sex and the “arousal” of sexual energy.
- Abstaining from drinking alcohol, eating any pork, or eating any “hot, spicy food” or anything containing black, white, or hot peppers.
- Abstaining from lift anything heavy for 8 days or from exercises like weight lifting, yoga, running, power walking for the entire 40 days.
- Drinking only large quantities of “blessed” water.
- Continuing taking any medications you are currently taking and continuing any medical treatment already underway.
I confess that I hadn’t really read this part of the directions until just before arriving and well after my former partner had signed up for the program (somewhat unwillingly). I immediately realized this would cause a bit of a problem because, while I was willing to check out the John of God experience, I wasn’t necessarily willing to commit myself to 40 days of abstinence from sex, alcohol, pork, pepper and strenuous exercise.
The other thing we were required to do before coming to the John of God event was to release Omega and the organizers of the John of God event from certain liabilities. These releases included the following, among other provisions, that Omega would not “be liable or responsible for providing or arranging for medical or other treatment” for participants, and that the event “shall not be a substitute for, replacement of, or adjunctive to, any existing or proposed medical treatment” for participants. Moreover, Omega and the event organizers “have not and do not promise, suggest or imply the cure, improvement, or alteration of any illness, deformity, disability or medical or psychological condition” that the participants may be suffering from.” In addition, participants had to “acknowledge that no pressure, influence or encouragement has been applied” to “persuade or encourage” them to participate. (In my case, there had been some persuasion from my former partner but I don’t think that’s what was intended.)
While I appreciate the need for an organization like the Omega Institute to have participants sign releases, it also struck me at the time that the event organizers did not seem willing to express much confidence that John of God would be able to effectuate any healings. At least not without the aid of treatments or medications that the participants are already taking. It’s been awhile since I’ve been to my doctor, but I don’t remember having to sign those kinds of releases before getting treatment.
The John of God Event at Omega
My former partner and I arrived at the Omega Institute on Sunday night shortly before the 9:00 p.m. deadline to register that night. We had found accommodations in nearby Tivoli. We had been told that the John of God workshop was sold out, and that 1200 people were attending the four day conference. Cost of the conference was $145 per person, not counting the cost of food or lodging. That’s $696,000 in revenue, right there, not a bad haul for an illiterate faith healer from Brazil for a four day workshop. I mean, I realize there are minions and hanger-ons that would need to be paid, but still, that’s not bad.
On Monday morning we arrived bright and early at the Omega campus, parked our car, and made our way up to the location of the event. With 1200 participants, this event was significantly larger than most events at Omega. To accommodate the number of participants, Omega had set up a gigantic event tent right next to their main hall. The walk up from the parking lot was short — no more than five minutes — and we found ourselves among a procession of white-clad participants. That everyone was clad in white did give the whole proceeding a bit of a cultish feel, and made me a bit uncomfortable.
The event was kicked off by Skip Backus, the Executive Director of the Omega Institute. Backus gave us a little background on Omega and the event, and introduced Heather Cumming and a Norberto Krug, who would get the proceedings started. With them were Bob Dinga and Diana Rose, as well as Rosa Machado, who would serve as the official translator for John of God and, at times, for Norberto Krug. Each of them said some introductory things, including covering what would be happening, giving a little information about the “entities,” until, shortly before 9:00 a.m., John of God himself arrived. Looking a little older and portlier than his publicity shots, John said a few things, translated by Rosa, none of which were memorable. They were mostly statements of appreciation and gratitude. After no more than a few minutes, John of God departed for the main hall where he would be stationed to do his work.
At the introductory session we had been informed that people attending would be divided into four groups:
- First Time Line: for those participants who have never been before John of God, nor had their photograph taken before him;
- Second-Time Line: for those participants who have already passed before John of God or had their photograph taken before John of God either at the Casa de Dom Inácio, or on some other occasion;
- Spiritual Intervention Line: for those participants who have been instructed by John of God to have a “spiritual intervention”;
- Revision line: for participants who have had a spiritual intervention that have not been re-assessed, including all those who had a spiritual intervention in Brazil who had not bee re-assessed since.
We had also been told that there were three possible “outcomes” in terms of what John of God might direct that happen with us. These were:
- That we could receive a “special blessing”;
- That we could be asked to sit in one of his “current rooms”; or
- That we could be recommended for a “spiritual intervention.”
We had also been told that passing before “the entities” is an extremely powerful process and that an “energy transference” takes place on many different levels. We were also told that dressing in white clothing allows the entities to “view our bodies more easily” as it “enhances the visibility of the auric field.” We were told that the entities “view us as a hologram” and “know exactly what the specific needs are for each person.” We were told not to cross our legs or our arms at any time, as that “interfered” with the energy work of the entities.
Once João was situated and ready to go to work, the first group of people was called to go and see John. In this instance, the first group was the “second time line.” People began to line up for walk from the tent to the main hall. It quickly became apparent that this would be slow-moving line. In the meantime, Bob Dinga and Diana Rose began leading the assemblage in a guided meditation over the strains of new age music. To be honest, this guided visualization wasn’t doing much for me — it felt more like something out of a Saturday Night Live parody of a new age event (Stuart Smalley for the masses!) — than something that should be taken all too seriously.
It took over an hour for the “second time line” to finish, at which point the “first time line” was called. My former partner and I were in the second section, and it was easily another half an hour before we made our way into the Main Hall to be seen by João. The Main Hall was divided into three sections: two “current rooms,” in the second of which João was receiving people, and a third room for special blessings.
We shuffled through the first of these current rooms and then slowly to the second, where João was set up in a corner. It was hard to see him until you pretty much on top of him. Heather Cumming and a few other translators were assisting him. We had been instructed, before appearing before him, to write down what it was that we wanted him to heal, on a card. It was my understanding that one could ask him to heal as many as nine different things, and these could be physical, psychological or in effect spiritual ailments. I had decided that, in order to be a tad scientific about this and not dilute my message, I would ask for only one thing: the elimination of the tinnitus that I’ve experience for the last thirty-five years. (Tinnitus, for the uninitiated, is a “ringing in the ears.”) While I could not measure it objectively during my attendance at Omega, I could measure it subjectively in that it’s always there, and has a fairly constant volume. So, while others had written a number of things on there cards, on each card that I presented before João I wrote only one word: “tinnitus.” That way, it should be clear to both him and the entities what it was that I was asking for.
When I came before João I handed my card to one of his assistants. He sort of looked at me, although not into my eyes, and mumbled something in Portuguese. This was translated to me as “special blessing.” It involved going into the next room, where there were two sections of seats, neatly divided in half. As one group was leaving, we were seated in the left half of the room; in the meantime, the people in the right half of the room were receiving their special blessing. After we sat down, someone began speaking in Portuguese, giving us our special blessing. In the meantime, the other half of the room was filing out, and a new group was filing in. Consequently, there was a lot of shuffling to be heard while we were being blessed. After our blessing we returned to the big tent, where Bob and Diana were still leading the masses in guided meditations.
The daily schedule for the event, as posted by the Omega Institute, was as follows:
- 8:00–8:30 a.m. Arrive at Main Meditation Hall to receive instructions
- 9:00 a.m.–Noon Morning session
- 12:00 p.m. Lunch
- 1:00–1:30 p.m. Arrive at Main Meditation Hall to receive instructions
- 2:00–5:00 p.m. Afternoon session
After lunch, I made my own way over to the Bookstore, as I was curious to see what they had. My partner, in the meantime, made her way back to the big tent. She appeared before John of God a second time, and this time he referred her for a psychic surgery the following day.
The other curious thing that happened was that in the evening, as my former partner and I were sitting on the veranda for the Omega Café, discussing our divergent experience of the event, up walks João himself, a small entourage in tow. Like a politician, he begins to say hello to the people on the veranda — although very few of them seem to be in any way conversant in Portuguese — and he gives most of them a hug. Eventually he comes around to us as well. I can report this: he’s a little chunky now, but he sure smells good.
Tuesday, the second day began much like the first. Although one unusual thing takes place at breakfast: my former partner and I sit with Norberto Krug, the Brazilian businessman and confidante of John of God, he of the halting English. We begin to talk a little bit, hesitatingly, and somehow we discover that he speaks German. Fluently, it turns out, as do I. This discovery animates Norberto considerably, and we have a lively discussion during which he tells me several funny stories.
After breakfast we go up to the big tent for the days proceedings. I can’t remember which group was called first this time — I think it may have been the group for spiritual intervention — because my former partner went off to receive her psychic surgery along with others. As the day before, I hand his assistant my card with my single word — “tinnitus” — and as before, I don’t spend more than three seconds appearing before him. He sure doesn’t look like he’s in a trance. To me he looks like he’s wide awake, and if anything has him hypnotized, it’s not the entities but the endless processing of people marching in front of him.
This time instead of receiving a special blessing I am asked to join in his “current room.” We’ve been told this is an honor, to be asked to sit in his current room, where we are asked to meditate to contribute to the psychic “current” that is underlying the whole proceedings. In any case, I find a chair and, following instructions, sit down, close my eyes, keep my arms and legs uncrossed, and meditate after a fashion. I spend almost an hour in the room with João and his assistants, while people continue to shuffle through. There is, not surprisingly, a fairly constant murmur of noise, the rustling of clothes, the quiet voice of João giving his ministrations, and the translators instructing people on where to go. At some point I almost fall asleep. What I don’t sense are the entities or, for that matter, any “current.” If there is a phalange hovering around me and my fellow pilgrims, they have eluded my detection completely. It is my feeling that I don’t sense the entities, or the current, because I am not looking for them. We all know about the Placebo effect, of course — the phenomenon in medical science that people can be “healed” by an “inert” substance that the patient believes is medicine — and likewise, it’s a known phenomenon that medical students will often “experience” the symptoms of diseases that they are reading about. My guess is that if I went into that room expecting to experience a phalange of entities, expecting to feel the current of other people in meditation, I would have felt it. But, as much as possible, I’m trying to stay “neutral” in this environment. As much as possible I’m trying neither to expect anything to happen nor to expect anything not to happen. I’m trying, as much as possible, to live by the motto, “whatever happens happens.”
At lunch, I find my former partner, who has had her spiritual intervention. She is resting in a large cabin filled with approximately thirty beds, about half of which are occupied by recovering patients. It’s dark in the cabin. My former partner has been advised that she should sleep at least 24 hours, that she should not lift anything or do any vigorous exercise, and that she should not drink alcohol, engage in any sexual activity, or consume anything with pork or pepper for the next forty days. She has enough strength to attend lunch with me, and afterwards I walk her back to the same cabin. I pick her up there again at the end of the day and drive her back to where we are staying in Tivoli, and she rests for the remainder of the day.
Wednesday, Day #3, is pretty much a knock-off of the first two days. My former partner and I receive more special blessings, and spend the late morning back in the tent, listening to Bob and Diana to their guided visualization thing. At lunch, we meet a nice French couple, let’s call them Claude and Pierre. Claude, it turns out, has previously been to Brazil, seen João, and actually spent two months at the Casa de Dom Inácio. Claude waxes poetic about the scene in Brazil, talking about how powerful the energy is in Brazil — he calls it “a skullbuster” — and how he’s seen João perform these amazing surgeries that include scraping the eyeballs and sticking forceps up someone’s nose. Claude claims that he himself had a “surprise” psychic surgery while watching someone else get their eyeballs scraped. I ask Claude a few questions about the mechanics of a trip to Brazil: how many people does the Casa sleep, how is it getting there if you only speak English? I finally ask whether Claude has had any “symptom relief.” To that question he answers “no.” He says that “healing has to begin from the inside out.”
James Randi and the Tooth Fairy Argument
If someone said to me that there are spiritual forces out in the world, a spiritual energy that, like gravity before Newton, we simply have not yet detected, I could buy that possibility. It might be true or it might not be true, but it certainly appears possible. If someone said to me that there are people — and John of God could even be one of them — who have the ability to tap into a spiritual energy that most of the rest of us cannot detect, I could even believe that. But that is not what we’re asked to believe. What we’re asked to believe is very specific: that John of God can incorporate thirty-three named entities, including King Solomon, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Francis Xavier, Dr. Bezerra De Menezes, Dr. Augusto de Almeida, Dr. Oswaldo Cruz, Dr. José Valdivino, as well as two dozen other particular persons. We have to believe that there is a literal phalange of entities that travels with John of God (and do not simply stay in Abadiânia) and that these entities go about detaching us from less well-intentioned unincorporated spirits. We have to believe that it matters whether we dress in white, because dressing in dark clothing would prohibit the entities from properly seeing our auras. We have to believe that it matters whether we cross our arms and legs. We have to believe that it is meaningful that we abstain from sex, alcohol, pork and pepper for exactly eight days unless we’ve had a spiritual intervention, in which case the time period jumps to exactly forty.
Why exactly eight and exactly forty days? Why only these four substances (or three substances and one activity)? Why not abstain from sex for 40 days, alcohol for 30, pork for 20 and pepper for only 10? Why is there no correlation between the illness and what you have to abstain from? If there are unincorporated entities out there powerful enough to see our auras, would they really care if we crossed our arms and legs or wore white? If there job is really to detach us from malevolent spirits, why would they have to see our auras? Wouldn’t it be enough to just see the malevolent spirits? If John of God can incorporate dozens of spirits, shouldn’t one of them be able to speak English? The point of these questions is simply that, in a rational world, the putative explanations put forward by John of God and his followers just don’t make sense. It all sounds like a fairy tale, something made up for and told to children. During a debate with my former partner I made the admittedly provocative argument that believing in John of God is not that much different than believing in the tooth fairy.
Consider what James Randi has to say about John of God. Randi claims that both of John of God’s most impressive feats of visible surgeries (i.e., the non-psychic variety), which are the scraping of the eyeballs and the putting of forceps up a patient’s nose, are “old magicians tricks.” Randi states that the forceps trick originates with the “Jaduwallahs” of India and was adopted from their repertoire by an American performer named Melvin Burkhardt. It’s now known as the “Blockhead Trick.” Randi maintains that the “eye-ball scraping” is a variation on another old magician’s trick, in which a knife-blade is inserted under the eyelid of a subject with little or no resulting discomfort. Randi writes that unlike the cornea, the sclera — the white section of the eye — is “relatively insensitive to touch.”
Now I’ve never met James Randi, and unlike João, he has never given me a hug. All I know about Randi is through his work, and that work seems, in my opinion, to be very credible. If it were not, Uri Geller and others would have taken him to the cleaners a long time ago. And here is where the point about the tooth fairy comes in. Let’s look at the story: a child loses a tooth, puts it under its pillow, and in the morning finds a quarter where the tooth used to be. It seems like magic. And what happens at a John of God event? A group of people come before this “medium,” they give him a card on which ailments are written, he mumbles something in Portuguese, and, on occasion, scrapes someone’s eyeballs or puts forceps up someone’s nostrils. Either immediately, or sometimes not until forty days later, some of these people start to feel better. It seems like magic.
Nothing magical happened to my tinnitus. It neither worsened nor improved. On the first day at Omega, I thought it might have been a little better. On the third day I thought it might be a little worse. But really, nothing has changed one way or the other. I’m glad I went before John of God. I’m glad I got to see him in action. But I wouldn’t go see him again because he’s not the right healer for me. It’s simply too difficult for me to believe what one must believe in order to be healed by John of God.