Photo: capitu

In Brazil, dead people write books. Not only do they write books, they sell them. Many fly off the shelves.

The process is called psicografía or psychography, also known in English as automatic writing: mediums go into trance, channel the spirits of the deceased, and record their words. Sometimes mediums channel the spirits of famous writers and poets such as Victor Hugo and Humberto de Campos, the renowned Brazilian poet and journalist whose family sued the medium-author of several collections of his supposedly posthumous poems and essays—not because they objected on principle but because they wanted a share of the profits. Sometimes mediums channel historical figures, such as nineteenth-century politician Bezerra de Menezes, and sometimes they channel unknowns.

Brazil’s most prolific and beloved medium was Francisco Cândido Xavier. Known fondly as Chico Xavier, he published more than 400 books from 1932 until his death at age ninety-two in 2002. At least 25 million copies of his books have been sold, likely more. They have been translated into many languages, including Greek, Japanese, and Braille. His Nosso Lar, a sort of spiritual memoir first published in 1944, is probably the biggest psychographic hit ever. More than sixty Brazilian editions have been printed and nearly 2 million copies sold.

In addition to publishing books, Xavier used his psychographic ability to record more than ten thousand letters from dead people to their families. Most often it was grieving mothers who traveled from all over Brazil to visit Xavier in the city of Uberaba, Minas Gerais, hoping he would channel messages from their children. In these letters the disincarnate spirits typically assured loved ones that there was no need to worry, that they were safe and happy, and that they still loved their families very much. Sometimes the writing was backwards, and sometimes it was in a language Xavier did not speak. Skeptics who questioned the letters’ authenticity were usually convinced by the handwriting and the inclusion of intimate details only the deceased could know.

Xavier’s powers were so widely recognized that, a few times, these letters were accepted as evidence in courts of law. The most famous occasion was in 1979, when teenager José Divino Nunes was tried for the murder of his best friend, Mauricio Garcês. The two boys had been playing with a gun that went off in Divino’s hands, killing Garcês. While criminal proceedings were underway, Garcês’s grieving parents went to see Xavier, hoping a letter from their son might bring them comfort. It took a while, but eventually a message arrived from Garcês declaring that his death had been an accident. “Neither José Divino nor anyone else is guilty,” the letter said, and “if anyone should ask for forgiveness it’s me, because I shouldn’t have been playing around instead of studying.” It concludes, as many such messages do, with an assurance: “I am alive.”

Garcês’s parents submitted the letter to the presiding judge, who accepted it as witness testimony. An analysis of the letter’s signature confirmed that it was exactly the same as Garcês’s. The judge admitted the psychographed letter as evidence and moved to acquit Divino. A jury agreed, six votes to one.

By the time of the Divino trial, Xavier was famous throughout Brazil. In 1971 three-quarters of Brazil’s televisions tuned into a special live interview with Xavier on the show Pinga-Fogo (roughly, On the Firing Line). It was the largest television audience in Brazilian history. Rather than the planned hour, the broadcast lasted nearly three. The audience response was so extraordinary that Xavier was invited to do a follow-up interview later that year. It lasted four hours and was watched by an estimated 20 million people.

Of course, not all Brazilians who watched were convinced that Xavier could communicate with spirits, but few were willing to disregard him entirely. Over the years, he came to be widely respected for his humility and generosity. He donated all of the proceeds from his books to charity and charged nothing for the letters. More than two million people signed a petition nominating him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1981. In 2000 two and a half million voted to elect him the Mineiro (a person from Minas Gerais) of the century.

Spiritists are not Holy Rollers or New Agers. They are the intelligentsia.

When Xavier died in 2002, three thousand people passed by his coffin each hour of his two-day wake, after waiting in a line that stretched for two and a half miles. More than 30,000 fans and onlookers accompanied the funeral procession on foot. At the cemetery, a police helicopter dropped rose petals on the casket. The governor of Minas Gerais announced three official days of mourning. The country’s president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, described Xavier as “a great spiritual leader who was loved and admired throughout Brazil” and “left his mark on the hearts of all Brazilians.”

This was not hyperbole. The truth of Cardoso’s statement has only been confirmed since Xavier’s death. In 2006, when a national magazine polled its readers to select the greatest Brazilian in history, Xavier won handily with 36 percent of the vote, nearly twice that received by the runner-up, racecar driver Ayrton Senna. In 2012, he won a similar television competition, with 71 percent of voters agreeing he was the greatest Brazilian of all time. This came a year after Xavier had been honored in Rio de Janeiro’s carnival parade, with a samba school dedicating their final float to him. It showed his torso clothed in a light suit, head topped with trademark shiny toupee, eyes behind dark sunglasses. He was posed in his iconic spirit-channeling position: head resting in left hand, pencil grasped in right, forehead furrowed in concentration, and eyes closed.

Xavier was not some fringe kook. He was and remains a central and beloved figure, one of the most important in Brazilian cultural history. That such a man could be taken seriously—revered, even—reflects fundamental conditions of Brazilian spirituality. Not just anywhere could Spiritism, Xavier’s practice, find a home in the mainstream. The popularity of Spiritism in Brazil, where it is far more than an idle fascination, forces us to reconsider what religion can be.

• • •

You may never have heard of Spiritism, but in Brazil it is a household word. It is a particular kind of spiritualism, which is something you probably have heard of, or will recognize in description. Think séances and ouija boards in candlelit, Victorian drawing rooms. Spiritualism is the umbrella term for beliefs and practices centered on communicating with the dead.

Spiritualism’s beginnings are usually traced to the Fox sisters of Hydesville, New York, who gained fame in 1848 after claiming to communicate with spirits by clapping and knocking on the walls of their home. The sisters became a sensation, giving talks and holding public séances across the northeastern United States from the 1850s through the 1880s. News of their performances spread across the Atlantic, and spiritualism soon attracted attention in Britain and France.

It was a French intellectual and teacher, Hippolyte Léon Denizard Rivail, writing under the pen name Allan Kardec, who formulated the particular kind of spiritualism known as Spiritism. By applying ideas from positivism, evolution, and empiricism to spiritualism, Kardec codified a system of beliefs that he considered to be equal parts philosophy, science, and religion. Indeed, Kardec saw no real distinction between religion and science. Spiritism was meant to be, as he wrote in The Gospel According to Spiritism (1864), “the new science that would reveal to men, by means of irrefutable proofs, the existence and nature of the spiritual world and its relationship with the material world.” He believed that strategies of scientific inquiry could reveal metaphysical truths.

Kardec was also inspired by Hindu teachings on karma and reincarnation. This differentiated his Spiritism from spiritualism in general. Spiritualists simply communicate with spirits, but Spiritists see themselves as embodied spirits slowly progressing, through multiple incarnations, toward moral and intellectual perfection. As Spiritists have it, our material bodies are simply homes for our spirits as we pass through incarnations. Some of these incarnations, or lifetimes, are lived on earth, and others are passed in greater or lesser spiritual realms. The more perfect we become, the more perfect are the worlds in which we are permitted to live. Ultimately, Kardec promised, our bodies will become almost fluid, no longer subject to sickness or need, and we will live in places free of the suffering found on earth. Death as we know it, Xavier wrote in Nosso Lar, is nothing more than “a renovating breath.”

Nosso Lar, a cornerstone of Spiritist literature, recounts the journey of one spirit through these realms. The book begins in menacing darkness. The narrator, André Luíz, is just waking up after dying. A middle-aged doctor killed by intestinal cancer, he finds himself in an underworld, surrounded by diabolical figures with pallid faces and beastly expressions. They loom in the shadows, just out of sight, moaning and crying and calling out accusations: “Criminal!” “Suicide!” “Monster!” Weeping in despair, André begs for mercy. He feels as if he has gone insane.

Suddenly, after having spent his life rejecting religion, André remembers God. As he later recalls, “When energy completely abandoned me, when I felt absolutely stuck in the sludge of the earth, without strength to resurrect myself, I begged the Supreme Creator to extend his paternal hands to me.” It is then, bathed in tears, that he begins immersing himself in the “mysterious beauties of prayer” and “the sublime elixir of hope.” The intensity of this divine hope, he realizes, is only possible once one has fully known remorse and humiliation. At the moment of this epiphany, the mists part, a kind old man appears, and André is rescued.

Moving from the underworld to a recovery room in a hospital in Nosso Lar, a spiritual colony hovering in the air directly above Rio de Janeiro, André discovers that he has spent not days or weeks but eight whole years in those hellish depths. Slowly, under the direction of guides and nurses, he becomes accustomed to his new life, as it were, in the colony. He learns that he had been condemned so long because he had lived according to “the philosophy of immediatism”: he had focused on his own comfort, giving little thought to those less fortunate than himself and even less to God. As he explores the colony, he admires its efficient organization, pure air, and “atmosphere of profound tranquility.” He joins in daily collective prayer and finds work as a doctor in the hospital run by the colony’s Ministry of Aid. He is advised to restrain his natural intellectual curiosity so that his newfound empathy can flourish. In other words, he is taught to think less and feel more. By the end of the book, weeping tears of joy, he has become a full-fledged citizen of Nosso Lar.

As we see with the immense popularity of Nosso Lar, while Spiritism was established in France, it blossomed in Brazil. Almost as soon as Kardec’s work arrived on Brazilian shores, Spiritism emerged as a trendy pastime of the Francophile, urban, upper classes, who established Spiritist groups in the 1860s and ’70s, some more religious and others more scientific. While Spiritism experienced the controversies, disputes, and schisms common to any developing movement as it becomes organized and institutionalized, by the turn of the twentieth century, outside pressures had become stronger than internal divisions, and a unifying body, the Federação Espírita Brasileira (Brazilian Spiritist Federation), was formed.

In the years since, Brazilian Spiritism has developed a decided focus on healing. Mediums address physical and psychological ailments by performing hands-on healing, prescribing homeopathic remedies and energized water, and practicing disobsession, essentially the exorcism of troubled spirits the body. This is a shift away from Kardec’s intent that mediums serve mainly to learn and impart moral teachings, though the educational purpose is still served by the weekly study sessions most Spiritist centers hold, typically devoted to reading and discussing Kardec’s books.

Brazil now has by far the largest Spiritist population in the world. While in the United States and Europe spiritualism is mostly the province of New Agers living in a few small communities, in Brazil Spiritism has grown substantially. According to the most recent census, the number of Brazilians primarily identifying as Spiritist increased by 65 percent between 2000 and 2010, from 2.3 to 3.8 million. The true figure may be much higher though, with unofficial estimates as large as 20 million—most Brazilians identify as Catholic regardless of what religions they actively practice. Spiritists constitute a powerful group: the best-educated, most literate, and whitest religious community in Brazil.

And Spiritism’s significance in Brazil extends well beyond the walls of its centers, as the practice has become fully ingrained in Brazilian popular culture. Spiritist magazines and newspapers are available at most corner newsstands. Mediums continue to appear on the most watched television shows. Spiritist films are heavily promoted and widely anticipated. Advertising for the film version of Nosso Lar—a big-budget feature with A-list actors and a score by Philip Glass—began months before it was released in 2010, with posters plastered on busses and billboards.

Spiritist thought has even penetrated what may be the heart of Brazilian popular culture: the telenovelaSeveral of these nightly soap operas have incorporated Spiritist themes, some based on descriptions of life after death as channeled by Xavier from the spirit André Luíz. TV-Globo, Brazil’s largest network, recently aired a series about a father tormented by the disincarnate spirit of his son. Escrito nas Estrelas (Written in the Stars), is set in both the material world of Rio de Janeiro and the spiritual world of Nosso Lar, with the colony scenes filmed on a Rio golf course.

And, of course, there are the books: ten million sold in large chain bookstores, independent bookstores, Spiritist centers, flea markets, subway stations, Avon catalogues, and online. There are more than 200 Spiritist publishing houses in Brazil and more than 10,000 titles in circulation.

Spiritism is plainly not just for Spiritists.

• • •

How has Spiritism managed to gain such traction in Brazil, long home to more Catholics than any other country and today an evangelical powerhouse? In order to grasp its broad appeal, one must understand that, for many, religions are practical resources, not mutually exclusive spiritual systems.

The ability to pick and choose from a variety of practices and traditions is fundamental to the way religion works in Brazil. Unlike in the United States, where people are generally expected to confess just one religion at a time, in Brazil, denominational boundaries are porous and fluidity the norm. Indeed, fluidity is a national legacy, the result of centuries of syncretism among indigenous, African, and European beliefs. Just as Brazil’s enslaved Africans and Afro-Brazilians found covert ways to synthesize faith in West African deities and Catholic saints, so today Brazilians of all kinds practice the art of spiritual bricolage. It is entirely unsurprising to meet a Brazilian who calls herself Catholic, belonged to an evangelical youth group as a teenager, was married by a priest, attends a local Methodist church, reads Spiritist books, draws mandalas to relax, and consults an Umbanda priest for advice. In Brazil, as in much of the non-Western world, the most common approach to religion is not doctrinal but pragmatic. People believe in whatever works.

This is how Brazil manages to be not only the most Catholic country in the world but also one of the most spiritually diverse. The population may be nearly two-thirds Catholic according to the 2010 census, but the majority of those Catholics are only nominally so. For most, church is where you go for baptism, marriage, and death. For day-to-day concerns, you seek other spiritual resources.

There are historical reasons for this. The Catholicism that was brought to and flourished in Brazil was the folk religion of the pre-Tridentine Church. Priests were few and far between, meaning that Counter-Reformation efforts to crack down on mystical beliefs and practices had little effect in the Portuguese colony. And what priests there were typically embraced a permissive policy when it came to addressing non-traditional practices, having decided that the best way to bring in new souls was to take them as they were and then educate them. This meant, for example, that African and Afro-Brazilian slaves sometimes could dance in processions and bring drums into church. While some clergymen have over the years tried to enforce a less permissive Catholicism, for the most part these efforts have had little effect on everyday religiosity.

Spiritism dovetails with this mystical, patchwork approach to Catholicism. One does not have to stop believing in the trinity in order to believe in communication with spirits. Psychographed books demonstrate as much with their frequent references to Jesus and God. To take one example, in his preface to Nosso Lar, Emmanuel, the spirit who wrote more than a hundred books through Xavier, states, “The exchange with the invisible is a sacred movement” in the larger project of “the restoration of pure Christianity.” God is part and parcel of the psychographic process.

To carry this logic one step further, if the goal of Spiritism is to restore a pure Christianity, then Spiritism’s purpose is much like that of the evangelicalism that has been sweeping across Brazil during the past several decades. Both Spiritism and evangelicalism (broadly defined, as it is in Brazil, to include Pentecostalism), offer an alternative to a stale Catholicism and the promise of a more embodied and immediate experience of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Yet while evangelicalism has been the focus of countless academic studies and journalistic investigations, Spiritism is practically unheard of outside Brazil.

Spiritism is largely ignored because its growth has not brought with it the kind of political and cultural implications that draw academic and media scrutiny. It lacks the potent political force of organized evangelical churches, whose congregations are voting their members—especially their pastors—into local and national offices in large numbers. And while Spiritism is in many ways similar to the widely studied Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé—a spiritual system also centered on spirit possession, community, and healing—Spiritism does not hold Candomblé’s appeal as a subject of research because studying Spiritism does not further an agenda of identifying Brazil’s history of racism. Nor does Spiritism promote Afro-Brazilian identity, pride, and activism. Spiritism is too white, too European, and too elite.

Thus Brazilians are shocked that foreigners have never heard of national icon Chico Xavier. Meanwhile non-Brazilians are shocked by the very notion of a famous spirit medium.

Both within and outside Brazil, we should start paying more attention to Spiritism. One reason to take notice is the demographics of the movement, which forces us to reconsider assumptions about who believes what. Spiritist adherence is increasing fastest in the most developed, urban states in the country. Spiritists are disproportionately white (68.7 percent), literate (98.6 percent) and college-educated (31.5 percent). The educated people who read sophisticated journals are often the same people who read Xavier’s books and believe in communication with the dead. They are not all easily manipulated poor folks or irrational Holy Rollers or solipsistic New Agers with silly ideas about crystals and auras. They are the intelligentsia. When we look outside the United States, we see that the types of people who believe in the presence of spirits in our material world cannot possibly be contained by the few categories to which many of us prefer to consign them.

A second reason to pay attention to Spiritism is that easy divisions between religion and science don’t hold true for this faith. By combining Christianity with metaphysical practices and scientific logic, Spiritism troubles definitions of what constitutes religion. Some would argue that a pseudoscientific logic prevails, but what matters is that Spiritism conceives of itself as an evidence-based cosmology. It was explicitly designed as a positivist system and found a fertile home in Brazil during the moment when the country was defining itself in positivist terms by ousting the emperor, forming a republic, and enshrining the motto “Order and Progress” on the new flag.

Nearly a century later, at the end of his first appearance on Pinga-Fogo, Chico Xavier psychographed a poem, “Second Millennium,” which spoke of anxiety and struggle. “Belief self-destructs” on the eve of the new millennium, the poem claimed. But it then promised that on earth—the “ship that crashes and shakes”—light would continue to shine, for “Christ is at the helm, preparing the world for a new dawn.” After reading the poem out loud and thanking his spirit guides and the program host, Xavier closed by reciting the Our Father. The most famous medium in the world communicating with a dead poet, sharing an evangelical message, and leading a Catholic prayer. How do we make sense of that? Thinking seriously about Spiritism requires rethinking boundaries between spiritual and secular, conventional and alternative, traditional and New Age. It means reconsidering, rerouting, and perhaps even erasing the lines altogether.