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Emma Bragdon

The Healing Spirits of Brazil

Spiritualist healer John of God calls thousands to the Omega Institute each year. How did an illiterate farmer with no medical training become such a beacon?

In the spring of 2001, while teaching in Brazil, I went to visit John of God, the world’s best-known practitioner of spiritism and a man said to have helped cure thousands of people since 1956 of all manner of emotional and physical problems. At the time I knew almost nothing about his tradition. I was just curious how an illiterate farmer with no medical training had become so successful. Reportedly, John of God was able to perform psychic surgery as well as physical surgeries while in trance.

My doctorate in psychology had led me to believe that spiritual healing is usually an -illusion, but I was also certain that psychologists and psychiatrists do not know all the causes of mental illness. I was willing to explore; in fact, I sensed a profound inner calling. And the trip was not just for me.

One of my dearest friends, Jim, was paraplegic and experiencing unrelenting physical pain. He had sought help from the best physicians in the world and even sponsored research on spinal problems at Yale University, but none of these expensive measures had relieved his discomfort. Meditation offered him pain relief, so he was fairly sure the mind could affect healing.

But could John of God? Jim said, “You go, and if you feel this might help me, I’ll make the trip.”

When I walked up to John of God for my personal consultation, I saw a kindly man in his early 60s seated in a straight-backed armchair. His eyes scanned me briefly before he said, “Psychic surgery — this afternoon!” What had he seen, I wondered? His assistants said that psychic surgery could prevent illness from occurring up to seven years in the future and that thousands of benevolent disembodied entities would be helping me, both during the surgery and afterwards — even at home in the U.S. My academic training said, “This is magical thinking. I’m not ill, and he can’t possibly prevent illnesses from happening in the future.” My body, however, was pulsing with energy, and I sensed the presence of a powerful, loving force, something I had previously felt in deep meditation. I chose to go along with the treatment.

Sitting in silent prayer, eyes closed as directed, with 35 others in the psychic surgery room, I felt as if molecular changes were being made in my physical heart, but no person touched me. Was I imagining things? “Shhh,” I told myself, “just experience this. If you must, think about it later.” Following the session, I did the recommended protocols, including resting and meditating in my room for 24 hours.

And something happened — both in the surgery room and afterwards, I experienced a profoundly deepening peace— a beneficent force within and around me. My compassion and love for life was expanding. My soul and my spirit seemed increasingly more real. I felt blessed with an all-pervasive knowing that the physical body is only a vehicle to carry us through this life as we learn to grow in love. For me, the psychic surgery was successful! I experienced a healing of the spirit.

And I wasn’t alone. I heard extraordinary healing stories from others who had made the trek to visit John of God. Some said they were healed of cancers, AIDS, mental retardation, and complex physical issues like multiple sclerosis. Jim came late, and we both witnessed the kindness and creative inspiration that flowed freely through the community that surrounds John of God.

Still, I wondered, had I fallen, like Alice in Wonderland, down a rabbit hole into a play of group delusion? (The good weather and the romance of waterfalls in Brazil reinforced the idyllic nature of the place.) Or had I been guided to some archetypal well for healing the spirit? Impressed but still skeptical, I wanted to explore spiritist centers in Brazil.

What Is Spiritism?
Brazilian spiritism is a branch of spiritualism, which originated in Paris in the 1850s when Allan Kardec decided to apply methods of scientific inquiry to the study of psychic phenomena during séances. Kardec drew up a list of questions — about the reason for life, what happens at death, what the afterworld is like, and how spirits interact with human beings — which he gave to a large number of mediums who were unknown to each other. Then he collated the