Donna Henes, familiarly known as “Mama Donna,” is a national treasure. From her “House of Many Altars” in what she mischievously calls “Exotic Brooklyn,” she serves as an exuberant, irrepressible urban shaman: holding outdoor public rituals at each solstice and equinox for over forty years; blessing and leading New York City’s annual Halloween Parade; creating meaningful, personalized ceremonies for funerals, weddings, new babies, new homes, and new businesses. In 2009, the governor of New York State called on her to bless the fleet during the quadricentennial celebration of Henry Hudson’s voyage to the New World. She is the author of five books, including The Queen of Myself and Celestially Auspicious Occasions, and publishes a monthly e-newsletter, The Queen’s Chronicles, that offers “meaning, moxie, and magic for midlife women.”
In her most recent book, Bless This House: Creating Sacred Space Where You Live, Work & Travel (Ixia Press, 2018), Mama Donna generously shares her house-blessing “secrets”—revealing that they are not secrets after all. Demystifying the blessing process, the book details everything you need to know to “claim and consecrate” your own house with “authority and aplomb.”
“There is no such thing as a bad blessing,” Mama Donna tell us, “no rules . . . no recipes, no prescriptions, no instruction manuals,” no “one-size-fits-all.” Yet it’s not so much “anything goes” as “everything matters”: “The only thing you can do wrong in a ritual is to not pay attention to your true intentions.” Hence Mama Donna devotes ample time at the outset to help us clarify our intentions about their homes. Do we want:
A stable residence . . .
A downsized dwelling . . .
A welcoming home base . . .
A party place . . .
A pleasure palace . . .
An inspiring environment . . .
An organized space . . .
A womb for protection . . .
A comfortable and comforting refuge . . .
A fixer-upper . . .[or]
A serene sanctuary?
As we identify our goals for our homes, we can also identify what physical changes we might need to make and what spiritual blessings will be most helpful.
Among the many delights of this beautifully designed and carefully organized book are the numerous interspersed meditations on the meanings of home. An eclectic group of authors make appearances here: Homer rubs shoulders with Laura Ingalls Wilder; James Baldwin with the Dalai Lama. The quotes, combined with descriptions of blessing rituals from different times (ancient, medieval, contemporary); places (Greece, Bolivia, Malaysia, Scandinavia, Morocco, Ethiopia . . .); and spiritual traditions (Native American, Jewish, Catholic, Buddhist . . . ), give the book an expansive, comprehensive feel. Bless This House is a kind of encyclopedia of house blessing, a user-friendly manual filled with both Mama Donna’s personal experience and reflections and the collective experience and wisdom of others.
About a third of the way into the book, Mama Donna discusses how she assumed the mantle of urban shaman after studying with a Mazatec healer and ritualist in the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains in Mexico:
At the end of my stay she blessed me to do my work—my work, not to carry on her work. I am not a Mazatec . . . I am a modern woman living in New York City; thus, I am an authentic urban shaman who creates rituals for my contemporary cosmopolitan community of many cultur
And what Henes wants for her readers is for us to claim our own “spiritual sovereignty.” We need not turn to “ministers, rabbis, priest/esses, imams, saddhus, medicine wo/men, shamans, or gurus” to “design, direct, or officiate” at our ceremonies. Instead, we can call on our own inner knowing and use some of the tools and techniques Mama Donna provides in her book.
Before we can bless our homes, Henes suggests, we must cleanse and clear them on both the physical and spiritual levels; she suggests how and when to do this, and describes her own ongoing housekeeping as a form of continuous blessing or prayer. After cleansing, we are ready for blessing, and the book includes a detailed outline for a basic 3-step blessing: (1) clearing the energy; (2) charging and blessing the energy; and (3) maintaining the energy.
Part of maintaining the energy, Henes explains, involves creating sacred space through careful selection of the colors, textures, sounds, and scents with which we surround ourselves. She discusses the value of creating altars within our homes, at work, and when we travel; she even suggests that our cell phones have become “mobile altars,” filled with photos that keep us constantly connected with what we love: “This device can serve as the essence of home in your pocket.” After reading this, on a recent airplane flight when I found myself dislocated and ill-at-ease, I spent an hour scrolling through old photographs and felt comforted and restored. Thank you Mama Donna!
Something that sets Bless This House apart from other books about homemaking is that Henes devotes a significant section of the book to a heartfelt discussion of the agonies of homelessness: the plight of migrants and others who have no homes. Simply “having a home” is a “true blessing,” Henes writes, and continues, “It is incumbent upon us to share our good fortune in whatever way we can.” She includes a list of ways we can help the homeless in our communities and across the globe.
I was lucky enough, seven years ago, to have Mama Donna lead a House Blessing for my new Brooklyn home. After moving to New York in 2005 from Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, where I had been part of several overlapping spiritual communities (wiccan, Native American, voodoo), I searched for a group with which to share ritual. I discovered Mama Donna on the Internet, but hesitated to reach out to her until 2011, when I found the apartment that was to become my true home. The blessing ritual she led then still resonates through the space where I have experienced so much joy, love, and creativity. She has now blessed us all as she shares her deep wisdom and compassion in a book that makes House Blessing readily available to its readers.
Joyce Zonana is the author of a memoir, Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, an Exile’s Journey. She served for a time as co-Director of the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual. Her translations from the French of Henri Bosco’s Malicroix and Tobie Nathan’s Ce pays qui te ressemble are forthcoming from New York Review Books and Seagull Books.