This year on Good Friday, April 2, Brazil is celebrating what would have been the 100th birthday of Chico Xavier. Xavier is revered by millions of Brazilians, particularly the people of Uberaba, where he lived in Minas Gerais. He is widely regarded among Brazilians as the foremost proponent of the Spiritist movement. The anniversary of his birth is also being marked by the release of a film biography.
Chico Xavier is one of the most famous and prolific practitioners of psychography, commonly known as spirit writing or automatic writing. Using this technique of transcribing without awareness or premeditation, Xavier produced over 400 books, some of them in foreign languages in which he was not fluent.
The respect for Xavier in Brazil is akin to the reputation of Mother Teresa in India. He was hailed as a living example of a true Christian, thanks to his dedication to making himself and his talents as a medium available to anyone who requested them. The wealth he accumulated from donations and the success of his writings was immediately distributed among the needy of Uberaba and numerous charities.
It was common for celebrities to visit Xavier’s home in Uberaba for advice. For more than 30 years he was seen as a kind of Christian guru. In his teachings, Xavier made it clear that every country had a role in spreading the Gospel. He is known for famously declaring that the term “foreign” or foreigner should be stricken from the dictionary.
Despite the power and appeal of his message, Xavier eagerly professed that none of the abilities attributed to him were really his, but that he was only a channel for the work of the spirits. He never professed to perform miracles such as healing people.
The phenomenon of psychography, or spirit writing, is an age-old mystery and decried by skeptics, who point out there’s no way to prove the author of the writings is anyone other than the writer. Proponents of automatic writing, however, insist that although deception is not unheard of, there are genuine practitioners of spirit writing, like Xavier. The most famous proponents of automatic writing were the Surrealists of early 20th century France.
Xavier’s authenticity was verified in at least one regard – his own demise. In a TV interview years before his death, he remarked he would like to die on a day where there was a national celebration occurring, so that his passing would not bring sorrow. In fact, he died on the same day the Brazilian soccer team won the World Cup in 2002.
He “wrote” one of his many books in English, entitled Between Brothers of Other Lands, while visiting the US in 1965. There he introduced Spiritism to meetings of like-minded individuals, often referred to as spiritualists. His presence helped inspire the creation of a Spiritist center in Washington, D.C. in the 1960s, which was called the Christian Spiritist Center.
They were a loose organization of seekers, bound by their common belief in spiritual evolution and reincarnation. Xavier introduced Americans to the Christian aspects of the Spiritist movement, which had been formalized in the work of the 19th century French educator, Allan Kardec.
Certainly the willingness of Xavier to dispense with his book royalties and his kindness and patience with all those, rich and poor, who wished an audience with him, lend certain credence to his life’s work. Additionally, there are thousands of Brazilians who personally witnessed his medium powers and insist they were authentic.
I have a friend in Curitiba who visited Chico Xavier to seek his deceased mother. Xavier was able to “write” a letter from the mother to my friend, in which she mentioned details that Xavier could not have known.
Curitiba has several Spiritist centers, where followers practice what they consider to be a religion, a philosophy, and a science. One center, the Brazilian Society for Spiritual Studies, offers courses and spiritual guidance, as well as operating a charity. Followers are encouraged to seek help from the center’s mediums as well as instructed in the principles of Spiritism: spiritual evolution, charitable work, and lifelong study.
At the center, members absorb the works of Kardec or traditional subjects such as physics and journalism. The relentless pursuit of knowledge is one of the foundations of Spiritism and was diligently practiced by Chico Xavier.
For Spiritists, the purpose of life is to learn, grow, and evolve. This explains their great emphasis on education. Like many followers of Eastern religions, Spiritists recognize the role of learning as the pathway to a better understanding of God and as a way of coming closer to God, without necessarily having a clear definition or concept of God.
Members of Spiritist churches, designated during meetings by their white aprons, also practice “passe,” the holding up of hands for the passing of positive energy. “Passe” can be practiced individually or in groups, with no regard to whether the recipients are healthy or ill.
There are numerous denominations of Christian Messianic churches in Brazil that also practice variations of “passe” under different names or with one hand instead of two. It is common for Roman Catholic families to invite followers of such churches into their homes when a family member is sick to have them hold their hands close to the ailing body for positive energy and relief from suffering.
Brazil’s Catholics, by the way, differentiate this from the evangelical practice of “laying of hands” to cure diseases, the primary difference being evangelicals touch their subjects in order to cure them, and in “passe” there is no touching involved, and it can be applied to healthy individuals as well.
I know very little about the life of Chico Xavier, and I have never read his books or the books of Allan Kardec, which provide the mandates of Christian Spiritism. I do know that Spiritism has millions of followers today, people who never personally witnessed Xavier’s ability to communicate with the spirits, yet are convinced of the remarkable abilities of this gentle man, who produced about 100,000 pages of spirit writing during his lifetime.
If you ask a Brazilian who Chico Xavier was, you’re likely to hear him described as a “sensitivo.” Besides the obvious label of sensitive or compassionate, “sensitivo” also may be translated as a person with ESP. However, in Xavier’s case, I don’t believe it was the type of ESP Americans are familiar with, e.g. telepathy, clairvoyance, or communicating with extra-terrestrials. Instead, Xavier’s ESP was extrasensory perception, the ability to perceive more than the rest of us.
Thanks to Xavier and others, the Christian movement known as Spiritism has more followers in Brazil than any other country in the world. Allan Kardec, the Frenchman who essentially defined Spiritism, also did not consider himself a healer, nor did he proclaim his talents as proof of a divine calling to riches and fame. Kardec was a professor of mathematics, physics, and chemistry, among other subjects, and often gave free courses for the poor.
Communicating with spirits was not uncommon among 19th century educated Europeans, and Kardec found the subject so fascinating, that although he himself was not a medium, he assembled all the information he could find by witnessing such events and interviewing mediums.
He coined the term “spiritism” in his first book on the subject, The Spirits’ Book, in 1857. (This book is still in print today and available in English.) He did not view spiritism as a religion but rather as a science. The book was followed by a series of others Kardec wrote and they have come to be known as the Spiritist Codification.
Kardecist Spiritism, as it is often called, became immensely popular in the late 1960s and early 1970s thanks to Chico Xavier’s public presentations and live TV appearances with audience members requesting spiritual communication and then positively verifying the details of the communication. Spiritists regard automatic writing as an explainable scientific fact, not a miracle; in the same way that they do not believe Jesus performed miracles.
To this day, what many Westerners would view as a psychic cult, or a silly seduction by a medium of people longing to communicate with departed loved ones, is considered an important religion in Brazil.
In my opinion, if Spiritism can be viewed as a type of spiritualism, the belief in forces of energy in the universe having greater powers than we, than it is not altogether different from the 1970s New Age spiritual movement in the US, which tapped into our most primitive beliefs in the power of the sun and the moon and water, concepts going back to the dawn of civilization.
Spiritists and spiritualists, along with followers of other religions like Buddhism, believe death is merely another dimension, and life may be viewed as providing a body or vehicle for the spirit.
If Spiritism is a type of spiritualism, than it is easy to recognize the way in which Chico Xavier’s popularity signals Brazil’s unique place in the world. Brazil today stands at the crossroads of the past and the future. The 19th century medium’s role of communicating with spirits is one dating back to the shamans of Native Americans and all primitive peoples.
What I find interesting about Chico Xavier is the way in which his life’s work bridges the past and the present. Spiritism has come to be accepted in Brazil as a religion. Xavier, like most Brazilians today, was a Roman Catholic, and he made it clear that should anything in his spirit writing contradict the words of Jesus, Xavier’s followers were to disregard the writing.
During Xavier’s lifetime, Liberation Theology became popular in the Catholic churches of Brazil and throughout Latin America, a religious philosophy that distances itself from many of the Pope’s strict dictates, for example, and like Spiritists, views death as simply another dimension. It is common to hear these Catholic priests in Brazil speak about reincarnation to their congregants.
For Brazil’s Catholics, finding a place for Spiritism in their Christian belief system was not a leap. Like Kardec, followers of Spiritism see no conflict between ancient beliefs and modern religion.
I believe the continuing popularity of Spiritism and the respect for the memory of Chico Xavier illustrate how our spiritual lives accommodate change and enable us to balance conflicting ideas. It is easier to accept new ideas in our spiritual life than it is in our social life.
Chico Xavier may have been an honest medium in more than the coincidence of his departure on the day of the World Cup finals. He also may have seen what challenges lay ahead for a country that straddles the old and new world. Perhaps he was trying to prepare Brazilians and people everywhere for a time when “foreign” was no longer in the dictionary.
Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba, Brazil. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.