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Because African Traditional Religions are usually handed down orally from one generation to the next, we would like to write a story that was told by an elderly person from the village Tinhou. This story portrays the role of the Mask in the life of the Guere people and to an extent how it is experienced as a means of salvation for them.
Way, way back, there was a small village called Tinhou. This village had something particular that no other village had ever had. That particularity is that all the living beings were living together. All kinds of animals were living together with humans. All trees were covering the grasses that could not bear the sunshine. A river called Kinniwen was flowing through the village and made sure that it gave itself to the trees so that they grow to cover more grass. All animals went to quench their thirst from Kinniwen and so did the human beings. Children were running naked all over the village and the human baby could breastfeed on any animal that was around, should its mother go to fetch some water or some firewood. There was peace and harmony, rejoicing and happiness. There was neither sound of weeping nor of crying.
Life expectancy in Tinhou was one hundred years and those who lived longer lived as long as a tortoise. The first chief in Tinhou named Kaїdgea Flyer Banhi lived as long as a tree and he saw his children’s children up to the twentieth generation. All beings living in Tinhou spoke the same language, Gbôholu.
One day, something special happened. Out of curiosity, the family of Bohodê, decided to taste human flesh. Bohodê’s family therefore killed a human baby and had it for supper. The family of the human baby cried bitterly. It came as a surprise to all the villagers that one of them disappeared. This never happened before in Tinhou.
Only Gnonsoa and Kaija flyer Banhi knew what had happened. Of course, Bohodê and his family knew too. Foreseeing that the same thing would happen repeatedly with other animals, Gnonsoa decided that Kaija Flyer joins Him in the place where He lived so that He will take some actions against Tinhou and its inhabitants.
When Flyer joined Gnonsoa where He lived, He decided to send a servant Gblôh Kalah to separate the animals from the human beings. Gnonsoa then instructed Gblôh Kalah (the Mask) saying: “Go and sing in Tinhou:
‘Pongné pâh oh, Pongné pâh oh.
Pongné pâh oh, Pongné chê pâh oh
Any being that hears this song and is not of the same being with my daughter Bah Gnompoh shall lose its voice and run into the forest where it shall live for good.” The Mask was so ugly that no animal could look at it and live. They all run to the forest except the domestic ones, which include the Nan Lan di.
When the living beings, especially the wild beasts and the reptiles left Tinhou, Gblôh Kalah remained to explain to those who remained in Tinhou why this happened and that from now on, it will remain to protect them. “In addition to this”, says the Mask, “you will be called Lôgnon. And you have the authority to kill and eat any living being. Except that which is of your kind, you shall not kill because “ka Gnonsoa nean, konoamon nien”
This story teaches us four main points:
1. Kalah (Mask) was sent to save Lôgnon from Bohodê’s future killing acts. Can we say from this that Gnonsoa saved Lôgnon because Gnonsoa loved it above all else as Gn.1: 31 seem to imply in the creation story.
2. Lôgnon (the being-in-the village) is made in Gnonsoa’s (God’s) image. Is this not what Gen 1:26a says about human beings?
3. Lôgnon has authority over all the beasts as Gn.1: 26b also says about human beings.
4. Lôgnon should not kill its fellow Lôgnon like Ex.20: 13 asks believers not to do.
After this story, which portrays clearly the work of God among the Guere people through the Mask, it is now appropriate to ask whether the Mask could be a way divinity is present to us.
Having accomplished its mission, Gblôh Kalah remained in Tinhou. If we can recall that Gblôh Kalah came from God, we will quickly accept the fact that its presence among the Guere people could be experienced as the presence of God. We have to bear in mind that God uses a means that is understandable to a community to reveal God's self.
God used Buddha to be present to the Buddhists; God used the Koran to be present to the Muslims; why can God not use the Mask to be present to the Guere people? It was the will of God that the Mask be known to the Guere people whose culture is only transmitted orally. This, therefore, makes it difficult for the Mask be known to other people. The Mask has no “dignity or beauty” to make people, other than Guere, take notice of it as God's presence. There was nothing that could draw people to it (see Is. 53:2-3), despite the fact that it was a manifested presence of God. Take for example an ambassador. When representing his/her country, the diplomat is not there in his or her own right. Whatever he/she says will be considered said by his or her country. So his or her presence in that country is the presence of the country that sent him or her. Likewise with the Mask; its presence to the Guere people is the presence of God. Moreover, why is it that the terrorists attacked the American Embassies in some countries? It is because the embassy is considered to be the country that it represents. If an embassy is seen as a country present in another country, then the Mask is God's presence to the Guere people. This may seem unconceivable, but Cantwell says: “Whether articulated in a great or in unsophisticated conceptual pattern, or not articulated, our knowledge of God (…) is the form in which ideationally God appears to each of us, less or more richly.”
God had been present to us in many different ways and most often, we have not been able to recognise that presence because “our eyes were kept from recognising him” (Lk.24: 16). Because God is God, we expect some extraordinary things from God, and yet God uses means such as the Mask to be present to us. Lane reminds us “God in the normal course of events and especially in the history of salvation addresses the person in human condition.”
One thing is sure; God manifests God's self in ways and times that we least expect. For example, the disciples of Emmaus; their eyes were kept from recognising Jesus because they did not expect him to appear in the form he did. Neither were they expecting him at that time. Yet, that was really Jesus. Peoples’ eyes may be kept from recognising God in the Mask as the disciples’ eyes were kept from recognising God with them on the road to Emmaus. How can God manifest God's self in a human-made piece of art? One may wonder. However, it will be interesting to have in mind that the more a mean seems unrealistic to manifest God's presence, the more likely it is to be God’s revelatory work. How many times was Jesus accused of blasphemy because he called God his father? For the people of his time, it was inconceivable. The Jews thought that the messiah could not come into the world in the way Jesus Christ came; born of a human person. Yet the truth was that Jesus was the Messiah. God always comes to us in experiences, ways and time that we least expect. No one can expect the Almighty God, Creator of everything to be present in Kalah. Nonetheless, it is necessary to bear in mind that
The presence of God in the world communicated through the religious dimension of human experience, is neither a presence directly available only to a privileged few nor a presence mediated simply through logical deduction to the learned. Instead the reality of God in the world is a presence that is accessible to all.
To date, there has never been an unmediated revelation of God in the sense of God, speaking directly to God’s people without any intermediary. In other words, there had never been “direct epiphanies which manifest God in se.” If the previous statement is true, and we know that before Jesus Christ came, God revealed God’s self to humanity of which Guere people are part. Then God did not reveal directly God’s self to the Guere people. God certainly used a means, which the Guere people believe to be the Mask. Moreover, “It must be noted that God is not absent from ordinary life. The God of the Africans is neither abstract, indifferent nor solitary. He is a Being of relations; his acting in the history of man and the universe passes through the spirits that take care of daily life.”
Having tried to show that the Mask is the presence of God, we are led to the question, could the Mask be considered a sacrament?
The quick answer that comes to one’s mind after having gone through the previous section, which showed the mask as the presence of God, is yes!
However, this question needs a thorough study before giving any answer. Consequently, the first step we are going to take here is to know what a sacrament is.
This question has been dealt with from different aspects. Here, we would like to deal with it in the sense of its definition. The word sacrament is broader than the seven different moments of liturgical celebration that we have in the Catholic churches. Schmaus puts it clearly: “Neither in the New Testament nor in the early Church is [the term sacrament] limited to those actions which we call sacraments [today].”
This word sacrament is the Latin designation of the Greek word mysterion designated. There was a great leap from the use of the word mysterion to that of sacramentum. In the early Church and in the time of the New Testament era the expression that was used to describe what we call today sacrament is mysterion. This word could express three different things in the New Testament.
As we know a word used many times loses its original meaning, so too, the word mysterion was used a lot especially in the cultic milieu and it had a rather negative connotation. Tertulian being an apologist used a new word to transliterate
the concept mysterion. He therefore talks of sacramentum, a word he picked from the Roman culture.
As time went on, and reflection deepened, the concept sacramentum, brought into theology by Tertulian, underwent many changes, major and minor. Today, sacramentum, can be defined as: “A presence that is the result of the divine communication with human through God's word of revelation and the human response in faith to that word.” Theologians estimate that this divine relationship that is established by God (sacrament) must change the life of the person, who receives it. A sacrament has three elements in itself:
1-The ultimate meaning of human experience, which is the element in it, is perceptible to human beings. Schmaus called it Sacramentum Tantum.
2-The divine saving presence is expressed through that element, which in itself is still a sign (Res et Sacramentum).
3-The transformation of humanity brought about by the sacrament. “This is exclusively an effect; the final reality caused by that which is both reality and sign.” (Restantum).
After this definition of the sacrament, can one say that the Guere Mask is a sacrament? The answer to this question will constitute our next part.
From what had been said, nothing can make someone who knows the role of the Mask among the Guere say no. From the story, we learned that the Mask was sent by God, therefore it is the visible manifestation of an invisible reality. In view of this, the Mask is a sacrament since the sacrament is also defined as a visible sign of an invisible presence and reality of God.
A sacrament is sometimes seen as that which makes us experience the love, power and presence of God. We think that Kalah or the Mask has satisfied this condition. For example when we refer to the story, we realise that it was out of love that God sent Gblôh Kalah to the Guere people so that they may be saved from the future malice of Bohodê. God's presence and power expressed through the presence and action of the Mask, delivered the Guere people. The Mask had expressed God's love, power, and presence through its actions and presence. Could it not, therefore, be regarded as a sacrament?
The Mask is present and anyone around can touch and see it (Sacramentum Tantum). This presence expresses something more than a human being can perceive or understand. Here we can refer to its work of salvation (Res et Sacramentum). The deeper element that is expressed through the presence of the Mask brings Pongné to the Guere people and, more so, to anyone who is around when the ceremony of the “coming out” of the Mask is being held (Res Tantum).
Can Kalah still not be considered as a sacrament after having fulfilled all these conditions attached to the notion of Sacrament?
Here, we have to understand that salvation for the Guere people is double edged. On one hand, salvation takes place in this earthly life: “The experience of salvation [for the ATR followers] is a present reality,” and on the other hand, in the life after death. This is expressed by the use of two different words Pongné and Léo. It may sound bizarre that for some people salvation takes place during this present life and then in the life hereafter, but is this not the idea of integral salvation? If we recall Nyamiti’s statement, we will understand what salvation in this earthly life is all about. For this African theologian, the African Traditional Religions are “centred mainly on man’s life in this world, with the consequence that religion is chiefly functional, or a means to serve people to acquire earthly goods.” The acquisition of life, health, fecundity, wealth, power and the like are Pongné. Any one present in the village can attain this kind of salvation, Pongné, when the festival of the Mask is taking place. This is the gaining of good luck and success.
When the Mask “comes out”, it makes sure that people have a better life. This means that the farms will be productive in the year ahead. Additionally, children will be healthy and there will be fewer deaths in the village. As was mentioned earlier, this is made possible only by the fact that the Mask is out.
The Guere people think that the wandering about of some bad spiritual powers called, Ku tsun, brings forth bad life. So because “the Mask has the function of a power which directs the movement of spiritual powers scattered around the world [this is the Ku tsun]. It traps them in order to prevent them from wandering about [so that Lôgnon may have a peaceful life].” That salvation begins on earth.
If this kind of salvation that the Guere people experience in this present life demands passivity from them because the Mask provides it, or that God provides it through the Mask, salvation in the life hereafter demands activities from them.
To live in Léo the Guere person needs to perform some activities such as offering of Nan Lan di, to participate fully in the ceremony; to do good works and repent from offences that one might have committed. The ideal time to carry out all these acts is when the Mask is out.
When the festivities end, usually, the Mask makes an enormous libation in the public place and people come one after the other and offering some prayers, they collect some sludge made out of the libation, and looking into the eyes of the Mask, each one makes some signs on the forehead. Right from this ritual, all the family heads go to offer Nan Lan di. The women will then cook food and bring to the public place where all the villagers share it under the vigilance of the Mask.
Any one who partakes in this meal and has had previously participated in the marking of oneself with mud of the libation will join the community of the living dead, the ancestors, if the person dies in the interval between that moment and the next coming out of the Mask.
For the people who can afford it, when one of their family members dies, they can call the Mask out before the time when it was supposed to come out. Once out for the funeral ceremony, the aim of the Mask will be to join the soul of the deceased person with the ancestors. Kovach writes, “The Mask, the secret language spoken during the ritual, music, dances and the offering, are the media through which community members communicate with ancestors. The aim of the ritual is to join the soul of the deceased with the ancestors.” In fact, “Many African societies see masks as mediators between the living world and the supernatural world of the dead and other entities.”
The presence of the Mask at any funeral has a double advantage. First, the Mask is present to join the soul of the deceased person with the ancestors and secondly it is to “dispel evil powers from the home of the deceased so that positive energy can be directed through the Mask and the sacrificed animal from the ancestors to the members of the family of the deceased.”
It has been shown that the Guere people experience salvation at two different levels, in this life and in the life hereafter. While the former is called Pongné the latter is known as Léo. In the two cases, the intervention of the Mask is necessary for one to attain salvation.
If Pongné consists in a qualitative life, the Guere people are aware that “one cannot assure the full enhancement of life by oneself. (…) This depends on the life forces of other (…) beings, including those of the ancestors and, ultimately, God [who is present to them through the Mask].”
Since after death one has the possibility of becoming either an ancestor or a pervasive spiritual element, the Mask is needed to make the deceased person live in Léo. That is to become an ancestor. However, the person should have lived an exemplary life during his/her earthly life because “‘salvation’ or religious fulfilment for any religious community is integrally related to a comprehensive pattern of life. Any particular religious tradition would regard someone as ‘saved’ whose life had been most fully shaped by the distinctive pattern it fosters.”
From examining this understanding of salvation and the role the Mask plays in it, we would now like in our next chapter to dealt with what the Catholic Church says about salvation in other religions? Though this chapter will include the position of some theologians from other Churches, it will mainly deal with the Catholic position.