This May, Meghan, a 21-year-old San Franciscan student at the University of Southern California found herself wearing a white robe in a white-walled room in a remote village of central Brazil.
“It was my third day in Brazil and I felt like I had to participate... I waited for hours until it was my turn. When they called I could barely stand up but I felt two hands pushing me. My hands were shaking, and I started crying when I handed him my piece of paper. John of God said something in Portuguese, and the hands pushed me into a white room where I sat for four hours, unable to move.”
To avoid future disappointment: this is not a smuggler’s kidnapping or some spring break reality competition gone wrong. Meghan came to the Casa de dom Inacio in Abadiania, Brazil as a skeptical medical student observing and participating in the community of patients and mediums surrounding the spiritual healer John of God. She was not alone. On average, 500 people a day (and at times as many as 1000) present themselves before John of God. The hours they wait are nothing compared to the length of their journeys from rural Brazil, North America, Europe, and Australia. In the minds of these pilgrims, many of them terminally ill, this 20-second encounter could be what heals their chronic depression, their addiction, or their cancer.
John of God, or João de deus in Portuguese, was born João Teixeira da Faría and is by all factual evidence an illiterate 53-year-old Brazilian farmer with neither medical training nor formal education. John claims that he communicates with the spirit of Dom Inácio, the 14th-century Spanish saint who founded the Jesuit order. And he is not just the resident folk healer. He is Abadiania's biggest attraction and only major industry.
In 1978 John settled his spiritual practice in the town—a decision inspired by the “entity” Dom Inácio. Since then, the farming community has exploded in size. New hotels, restaurants, Internet cafés, an herbal pharmacy and a crystal jewelry shop have emerged over the last twenty years as large numbers of tour groups and pilgrims began to arrive. John of God has an enigmatic popularity among the international pilgrims. Many find themselves returning several times a year, writing testimonials about their experiences, and even organizing their own tours of the Casa for their friends and family members.
The healing proceeds as follows: every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday beginning at 8 until the last patient has been seen, the Casa de dom Inácio communicates with the spirits of past healers. John of God enters into trance, unconsciously incorporating what he calls the “entities” of famous medicine men, healers, and spiritual leaders. There are 33 entities in total, among them some VIPs: King Solomon, Saint Francis of Assisi, and Dom
Inacio, for whom the Casa is named.
The Casa is something between a hospital and a temple. Patients enter dressed in all white and form long lines that weave through meditation rooms to John of God’s altar, where the patients present him their request or illness on a piece of paper. Later they meditate and pray in these “current rooms,” joining into currents of love and transcendence that link them to other patients. According to Emma Bragdon, an author and filmmaker who conducts research on spiritual healing, “The treatment of disease is entirely integrated with spiritual community.” Bragdon insists that without this nurturing community, John of God’s healing could never work.
The Casa also contains “intervention rooms,” where patients undergo something called spiritual surgeries. If you were to sit in on these operations, it wouldn’t seem like much—10 people sitting around a sick patient, with John of God coming in to say a prayer at the end of the pro-
cedure. Depending on the illness, there may be a physical component. John will often lightly scrape a patient’s cornea with a razor or make a small incision on whatever area of the body is afflicted. The patients feel no pain. There have never been any cases of infection or medical complications, and John’s volunteers allegedly keep scrupulous records of all treatments administered.
Bragdon, who also works in the Casa as a medium, gives a completely different explanation about what is going on. To understand spiritual surgery, she says, we have to realize that “the Casa is a portal area on the planet Earth where benevolent spirits from the other side can come to assist people.” John of God and the mediums meditate to hold the portal open as they essentially guide the spirits (which John’s entities are a part
of) who then heal the patients. If there are any physical results of the surgery, it’s because the benevolent spirits succeed in changing the patient’s “etheric body,” more or less what we would call his spirit, which in turn can clear up physical symptoms of disease. John’s method is a complementary treatment (not a primary method of curing), which works on a person’s spiritual realm—the part responsible for things like love, religious consciousness, and for chronic emotions like anxiety or fear. For him, disease carries across the physical, mental, and spiritual.
For Meghan, a neuroscientist in training, the idea that physical ailments could have mystic origins undetectable by scientific research was a pill near impossible to swallow. “When the anthropology department proposed the
trip to Abadiania to study alternative medicine, I signed up because I was curious to find out why anyone would turn away from biomedicine.” Meghan assumed that her visit would allow her to observe alternative healing without having to participate directly in it.
Her meeting with John of God turned out to be overpowering. Skeptical about the testimonies she had heard over the past days but anxious to meet John, Meghan’s wait in the Casa was filled with anticipation. When the
volunteers guided Meghan into the currents room and told her that she would have to stay for four hours, she began to sob. “I felt alone and trapped—forced to participate in this community that I in no way felt a part of.”
At the same time, Meghan couldn’t fathom why she had reacted so strongly to emotions she was used to controlling. “After the fact, everyone kept telling me how visibly I was affected by the energy. After a while I started to consider it.” Unable to explain her own breakdown, Meghan couldn’t decide whether she was being opened up to a new belief system or being brainwashed.
Today, Meghan considers her experience to have been a reaction to the cultish climate at the Casa. Other skeptics have also criticized the intimate community as using ritual and performance to win over believers. Healing occurs before an awed audience, in a temple filled with meditating mediums and the alleged spirits of dead doctors, in a remote town in a country few of the patients have ever visited. For anyone accustomed to Western medicine, the scenario at the Casa seems like an untrustworthy, if not a completely outlandish one. From a skeptic’s perspective, the Casa certainly blurs the line between cult and community. (The word "cult became especially loaded after the infamous Jonestown mass-suicide, which left almost 1,000 dead.) Nevertheless, Bragdon claims that this nurturing community is the foundation of the spiritual awareness at the Casa.
The other problem for the skeptics is that there has never been a large-scale scientific study performed on John of God or on former patients. There is no way to prove that the treatment is bogus if there is no scientific evidence. The same rule applies to all forms of faith and prayer. Furthermore, the goals of John of God and those of an MD are entirely different. He doesn’t claim to cure disease, only to heal the spiritual problems that could be at its origins. Arguably, to ask whether the treatment “really works” puts his brand of healing in Western terms, reducing a subtle spiritual process into a question of yes-or-no efficacy.
So when John of God’s patients begin to improve physically, as they have in the past, is this merely the placebo effect? In fact, both critics and supporters might agree.
As phenomena that function outside the physical realm, the ‘placebo effect’ lies more on the side of spiritual healing than biomedicine. While skeptics use the placebo to reign the inexplicable into the boundaries of the familiar, the mechanism of the placebo remains a mystery even within the scientific community. Tests haven’t revealed concretely whether the physical effects of placebos are due to a patient’s conditioned experience, expectation, or emotional state. At the very least, it shows that there is a strong connection between physical effects and our mental perception of them.
For Jessica Randall, an acupuncturist and former medium at the Casa, the placebo effect points to something that alternative medicine has known for years—that “there is some part of a person that can heal themselves,
given the correct parameters and guidance.” Would it be so strange, then, to consider that John of God’s method of psychic healing could in certain cases improve physical illnesses?
Ultimately, the question is impossible to answer. What we can be sure of, however, is that the enigma of John of God’s popularity is neither due entirely to some kind of magic magnetism nor to a desperate gullibility on the part of the sick. John attracts patients and succeeds in keeping them because his healing fills what is lacking in western medicine: compassion, community, and a holistic consideration of the non-material side of illness.
ALICE HINES B’11 feels the currentes.