I fell in love with cults in the spring of 2012 in Oakland, Calif. The realization is right there in my diary under the date April 10: “Would it be weird if I joined a cult?”
That afternoon, I was sitting on the floor of a hippie’s attic eating a long, dirty carrot. I’m not exactly sure where I got the carrot, but it had probably been plucked from the garden that blossomed outside the attic window.
I had arrived that morning at the Canticle Farm along with my 15 classmates from the Quaker farm school where we spent a semester in high school. The Canticle Farm is a radically inclusive project whose members have been planting gardens in the backyards of a cluster of homes they own in hardscrabble East Oakland since the 1980s. Anyone who lives in the community is welcome to eat from the garden and plant in it; the idea is to break down barriers and foster collaborative cultivation.
This stop was included on our itinerary to teach us about the Great Turning, or the burgeoning transition from Empire to Earth Community. Economist and political activist David Korten popularized the idea of the shift. He postulates that the industrial wreckage of the past 100 years will give way to economic, social, environmental, and political sustainability.
The Canticle Farm agrees with Korten. Everybody goes by “Brother” or “Sister”; Sister Annie is the founder and organizer. Brother Adelaja, who voluntarily sleeps in a tent in Sister Annie’s backyard (between the zucchini and the mangoes), wears loose linen pants and strokes a beard. And then there is Brother Pancho, who dropped out of a Ph.D. program after finding out that his university funded the development of bombs. Brother Pancho also refused to legally immigrate to the United States; he doesn’t believe in boundaries as banal as geography.
“I come from the part of the world they call Mexico,” he is fond of saying.
In the attic, Brother Pancho, spiritually equipped, partnered us and prompted us to answer questions in our pairs. They started out simple (“What do you love about being a citizen of the Earth?”) and then got trickier, especially because we were asked to speak for an unspecified amount of time, indicated by Brother Pancho and his gong, which he struck with a rubber-topped stick whenever he saw fit.
“Who are you?” Brother Pancho demanded. “After each answer you give, your partner will then ask, ‘Who are you REALLY?’”
I rattled off a list of things that I was, but as the minutes stretched on the task became harder and harder. I found myself quoting song lyrics, listing adjectives, saying completely nonsensical things, such as “I am not Sybil,” and “I am 43 cats.” Each time, my partner asked me, “Who are you REALLY?”
When Brother Pancho finally sounded the gong, I felt as though I were waking up from a deep hypnosis. I felt as though I had been possessed by a strange spirit, maybe a small hummingbird in my ear. But it was a hummingbird of divine truth. I had been reborn. My sense of self had completely changed. Who was I? Who was I REALLY?
It was something I’d never asked myself, and in being forced to answer it, I realized how malleable my identity was and how tied up it was in the identities of other’s; everything I was depended on my residence in the world among humans. I’ve been saying that I am female for my whole life, but being asked who I was, REALLY, drew out a different response: “I am one of those humans who conforms to other humans’ construction of gender. I participate in an identity that others also define.” Like the letters in the alphabet scrambling and aligning to make words, the fibers of my being had reorganized themselves to embrace a global, shared identity. I was ready to seize the day as Sister Jenny, sibling of the world.
By the end of the afternoon, after the exchange of life stories and a tour of the garden, I had been thoroughly converted. In my notebook, alongside a sketch of Brother Pancho’s poncho, I jotted, “Joanna Macy,” a recommendation from Sister Annie. Joanna Macy, a 1960s-bred activist and theologian, has attracted a following due to her work in the Great Turning Initiative and her ideas about acting one’s age.
“Since every particle in your body goes back to the first flaring forth of space and time, you’re really as old as the universe,” Sister Annie had read aloud, quoting Sister Joanna. “So when you are lobbying at your congressperson’s office, or visiting your local utility, or testifying at a hearing on nuclear waste, or standing up to protect an old grove of redwoods, you are doing that not out of some personal whim, but in the full authority of your 15 billion years.”
It was just radical enough to make total sense; we are connected to the earth and to each other because we are each of those things. It felt like willful indoctrination, consensual brainwash. There was nothing sinister or creepy about it. As long as I didn’t have to sleep in a tent in the garden, I was in. I was ready to be 15 billion years old; I’ve always been an old soul. I could even get used to hour-long meditation, as long as I was guaranteed one of the cushions.
In this day and age, cults get a bad rap. They’re known for group suicide, complete isola\
tion from the outside world, sexual abuse, and oppression. Yet cults can be so much better than that. In fact, I’m of the opinion that they’re exactly what we need. Cults—pockets of shared devotion—are what enable humans to be the people they want to be.
It’s a good idea to practice devotion to something (and I don’t mean God). It doesn’t have to mean surrendering yourself; it might mean giving up a few pieces of your identity to figure out who you are, REALLY. In steadying our attention to something outside ourselves, cults wake us up and direct our gaze.
What you choose to worship is irrelevant. At the Canticle Farm, members worship the Earth Community and its devotion to all growing things, like humans and plants. Other cults could worship art, or gluten. Or we could worship people. There could be a Susan B. Anthony cult, a Norah Jones cult. Anything that rouses us from our apathetic slumber and points us to something whole that allows us to care together (as caring alone becomes agitating) seems like a good idea. The earth could be like a huge urban garden, with each cult cultivating a different crop. The world needs a lot of nutrients. Cults could nourish us.
We might just be able to tap into the authority of our 15 billion years.
Davis is a member of the class of 2017.