Capoeira and Orthodoxy
A Brief Comparison
by Joseph Barabbas Theophorus
The emergence of capoeira is shrouded in mystery. There is great debate as to when it began, where it began, and even what it is. Based on a number of parallels, it is even possible that the African Orthodox Church, especially the desert fathers and monastic tradition, are responsible for many of the distinctive elements in found in capoeira. Despite the fact that capoeira developed in lands having a long Orthodox tradition and among a people who were historically rooted in the ancient Church, no definitive link has yet been established between the two. Nonetheless, capoeira has many interesting correlations to Orthodoxy which are not found in other martial arts, or even in other religions. The similarities extend from the basis of the game itself down to the way in which the music is played, teaching powerful lessons of practical life and Trinitarian theology. Regardless of the source of capoeira, it clearly points to and reinforces a worldview which is unmistakably Orthodox.
Persons in Communion
The game represents something greater, as if it were a reflection of life itself, a reflection of the way different individuals interact with one another, each according to his or her own personality. According to this vision, capoeira is a school where one learns a specific kind of knowledge: how human beings behave toward each other and play the game of life with one another. -Nestor Capoeira
One of the more obvious characteristics of a jogo is the roda. The jogo is not possible with a single person; one can practice various moves alone, but this doesn't constitute a jogo. Perhaps two people (the minimum number of people that must be present in order to serve a Divine Liturgy) could play, but this still leaves out the roda. Only with the full community does the jogo truly exist. It is communal by nature, just like the Church and the Trinity; capoeira realizes that nothing can exist outside of free communion of persons.
The point that I am trying to make is that the unity of the people of God is a unity of persons. This means precisely that the unity of the ecclesiastical body is not the result of the coexistence of certain individuals who accept the same theoretical or moral principles, but is indeed a communion of those who share freely, and in the measure which has been given to them, in the life of the divine persons (Constantine Scouteris, Ecclesial Being).
Also, there are no mere spectators. Just as all Orthodox participate in the Liturgy, so the members of the roda participate in capoeira. Whether playing the berimbau or chanting, no one is idly "spectating", but rather serving in a manner that closely resembles the Church's priesthood of all believers. In fact, more pairs of capoeiristas are preparing to play, both presenting and being present within the jogo. And, as in Orthodoxy, there is not some competition taking place: this an act of communal asceticism and love.
Capoeira can be a tool in the First World, a tool against the forces that tend to turn people into robots that do not think, do not wish, do not have any fantasies, ideals, imagination or creativity; a tool against a civilization that increasingly says one simply has to work and then go home and sit in front of a TV with a can of beer in hand, like a pig being fattened for the slaughterhouse. –Nestor Capoeira
Capoeira is an expression of mutual asceticism designed to grow the human person and free people from the world. Both capoeiristas voluntarily agree to play together in the context of the community, the roda. Under this brotherly supervision, they become both instructors and students, interacting with, teaching, and learning from the other person. The jogo may take various outward forms, but the inner battle is just as important. A capoeirista seeks not to beat his opponent, but to grow together with him; much of the fight is with one's own self. A person necessarily sees their own passions (pride, anger, envy, depression, etc.), and must overcome them, learning soberness and gaining an inner peace.
This is nearly identical to the goal of Orthodox ascetic practice which, while also very traditional and colorful, has a different and even more slowly-paced form. Instead of dodging an attack or discerning a trap physically, Orthodox asceticism generally begins at the mental level, teaching these same things: how to take injuries in a humble way or to discern the movements of sin in the soul. Just as in the desert fathers, the capoeristas fight the passions and the delusions of "civilization". Thus, capoeira can be seen as a more physical approach to the asceticism that occurs within Orthodox monasteries. In the words of the desert father Abba John the Dwarf, a person is to
live by the cross: in warfare, in poverty of spirit, in voluntary spiritual asceticism, in fasting, in penitence and tears, in discernment, in purity of soul, taking hold of that which is good.
It may be said the malicia has two basic aspects. The first is knowing the emotions and traits—aggressiveness, fear, pride, vanity, cockiness, etc—etc— etc—which exist within all human beings. The second is recognizing these traits when they appear in another player, and therefore being able to anticipate the other player's movements, whether in the roda or in everyday life. -Nestor Capoeira
One of the more unique aspects of capoeira is malicia. Many of the elements of malicia are considered immoral to the western mind, such as deception, surprise, and shrewdness. But, these are all expressed in Orthodox Christianity, primarily falling under one virtue: discernment. As Jesus Himself said,
Behold I send you as sheep in the midst of wolves. Be ye therefore wise as serpents and simple as doves (Matthew 10:16). Discernment is also highly valued by the desert fathers. St. Anthony the Great said,
I tell you, many have injured their bodies without discernment and have gone away from us having achieved nothing. Just as a capoeirista that is skilled in body but lacks malicia cannot progress, so too an Orthodox Christian that lacks discernment is in great danger.
St. John Climacus, author of the 7th century book The Ladder of Divine Ascent, can shed even more light on this malicia which the capoerista struggles to attain and on where its fulfillment lies.
Among beginners, discernment is real self-knowledge; among those midway along the road to perfection, it is a spiritual capacity to distinguish unfailingly between what is truly good and what in nature is opposed to the good; among the perfect, it is a knowledge resulting from divine illumination, which with its lamp can light up what is dark in others. And that is the height of discernment: to be able to bring to a person the light of Christ in any situation—using the clear or the obscure, the obvious or the surprising, the innocent or the shrewd, the gentle or the harsh—and lifting up their spirit towards God.
Within the three basic types of chants of chulas—the ladainha, the quadras, and the corridos—there can be found a series of teachings, a code of conduct and the basic premises of a philosophical world view. –Nestor Capoeira
In capoeira as well as Orthodoxy, music plays a vital role. Music shapes the jogo: a change in the berimbaus will significantly change the style of play just as Orthodox tones change the style of the worship. Songs passed down through generations, strongly resembling troparia and kontakia, are sung which recount heroes of times past, practical lessons, or the greatness of God. Even the responses of the roda are reminiscent of an Orthodox litany, with verses asking for the health of the mestre (not unlike a presbyter or starets), for peace in the world, and so on. The chants help to create an atmosphere where all the participants can have the same mind and heart, being completely present and sober. This is expanded greatly upon in the hesychast tradition within the Orthodox Church, but the desert fathers speak about this, too.
It was said of Abba John [the Dwarf] that when he returned from the harvest or when he had been with some of the old men, he gave himself to prayer, meditation, and psalmody until his thoughts were re-established in their previous order.
More than a Game
Life is much more than winning or surviving—it involves the joy of being alive. So all of this—music, dance, creativity, improvisation, poetry, philosophy, and having fun—is part of capoeira, too... Economic and material well-being are not enough. Life, as we said before, is far greater than that. -Nestor Capoeira
It is understood that capoeira is more than a martial art, a dance, or a game. What exactly is it, then? Capoeira is a system of faith, theology, and asceticism. Whether it is descended from Orthodoxy or an attempt to find the Church, it is clear that capoeira is a system that presupposes the Trinity. In fact, in the newer Regional branch, this element is taken very seriously: despite having little or no knowledge of the Orthodox Church, practices such as Batizados (baptisms) developed in anticipation of the enormity and seriousness of what is being sought after and taught. It is clear to the old mestres that capoeira is much more than a game. Capoeira is trying to reach Orthodoxy: not just intellectually, but practically, in asceticism and in community.