Images by John Hook & Mark Kushimi
During the late 1990s, Japanese researcher Masaru Emoto drew considerable attention when he introduced a concept both compelling and controversial: Water, he said, could absorb and react to human consciousness. In his experiments, he would yell, sing, speak kindly, and use abusive language toward glasses of water, which he would then freeze to examine the resulting ice crystals. According to Emoto, water that had been treated positively formed exquisite geometric designs akin to snowflakes. Samples that had been exposed to negative and ugly emotions resulted in malformed and misshapen patterns.
While the science community dismisses experiments like Emoto’s as metaphysical quackery, they do illuminate something that science is unable to quantify but spirituality can qualify: intention.
Water and its life-giving properties have long played a fundamental role in religious and spiritual traditions. To drink of a holy water is to affirm and align with the divine. Ancient Mayans, for example, drank a bitter elixir prepared from crushed cacao beans, calling it the “drink of the gods.” Zen Buddhists seek enlightenment through chado, or “the way of tea.”
Here in Hawai‘i, Christian theology and Hawaiian mythology find twin relevance in ritual practices where partakers drink in the divine—namely, practices of serving ‘awa, and the taking of the Eucharist—as means to draw closer to one’s God or gods.
“‘Awa is the drink of the gods,” says Keliʻiokalani Mākua at his home in Mākaha on Oʻahu’s sunny leeward coast. A kahuna kā uhi, or tattoo priest, Mākua is preparing for his day’s work of kākau, the traditional art of Hawaiian tattoo. “Whenever we do sacred work, there’s ritual involved,” Mākua says. “Making ‘awa is part of that ritual, a sign of respect for our gods.” Nearby, a small group of men bring forth the implements used in making the venerated brew: polished coconut shells halved lengthwise into cups, a kamani wood serving bowl, a pitcher of filtered water, a small cloth pouch filled with dried, powdered ʻawa root. Earlier, Mākua had shared a story of two Hawaiian deities, Kāne and Kanaloa, and their love of drinking ‘awa: While traveling together near Ke‘anae on Maui, Kanaola, forever the enticer, wheedled Kāne into taking a break. “I’m thirsty, let’s have ‘awa,” Kanaloa said to his companion. So Kāne drove his ‘ō‘ō, or digging staff, into the ground to release two springs, providing them with freshwater for brewing ʻawa. “That area is called wai kau a Kāne me Kanaloa, ‘The waters of Kāne and Kanaloa,’” Mākua says. On this morning at Ka Pā ʻO Hūnōhūnōholani, the screened-in enclosure where Mākua does kākau, it is men, not the gods, who endeavor to partake in the sacred drink.
Known as kava throughout the Pacific and as ‘awa in Hawai‘i, both the drink and the plant have long held pivotal, sacred stature in Polynesian culture. Termed a “canoe plant,” ‘awa (Piper methysticum, a member of the pepper family) was brought aboard canoes by Polynesians voyaging to the Hawaiian Islands, along with other staples such as kalo (taro) and banana. Where kalo fed the people, ‘awa nourished the spirit. In olden days, it was made by chewing the ‘awa root, mixing the masticated material with water, and then straining it out. The resulting liquid was drunk for its relaxing properties. ‘Awa was prized for its medicinal, spiritual, and social value in Hawaiian culture, and served as key thanksgiving to the gods during ceremonies ranging from war preparations to canoe blessing to healings.
But with the arrival of missionaries in the 1820s and the subsequent rising tide of Christianity, Hawaiian cultural traditions were diminished. The drinking of ‘awa in spiritual and social settings dwindled. “So much that what we knew as sacred got tossed due to the influx of foreign influence,” Mākua says. As a Hawaiian and a kahuna, Mākua considers it his kuleana, or responsibility, to retain the traditions of his native culture. The drinking of ‘awa is a form of reverence to the gods, and is immanent in the work of kākau. In Hawaiian culture, kino lau refers to the myriad forms—plants and animals, natural elements, and actions—that a god embodies. “ʻAwa is a sacred representation of Kāne and so is kākau,” Mākua says. “So we will make a mix before we start our work.”
In Mākua’s pā, the men offer a brief pule, or prayer. As a designated mixer pours water into the bowl and kneads the small pouch, the others begin a soft oli, or chant, their low baritones rising and falling in nearly perfect rhythm to Mākua’s lifting, wringing, and twisting of the ʻawa-filled pouch. In the bowl, the water grows misty, like a cloud filling a sky. Once the mixing is complete, a designated server pours a cup of the thin, milky-brown mixture along the edge of the bowl—a kino lau of Kāne. Another is poured near an ʻawa plant growing in Mākua’s yard in honor of Kāne. Then, the server offers cups to the rest of the group, presenting the ‘awa in a wide, sweeping arc. The recipient receives the cup with equal humility, clasping it between two hands. Dipping his fingers into the sacrosanct libation, he anoints himself with a few drops before drinking the contents in a singular motion. The cup is returned to the server, who begins the process anew, repeating the ritual until everyone is served. Mākua, as a person of high-standing rank, is served last—a sign of great respect. The surplus ‘awa is then covered with a cloth to signify the end of the ceremony. Once that cover is removed, Mākua explains, the remaining ‘awa will be noa, or freed of taboo, and open for general consumption without any formalities.
Though many describe ‘awa as tasting of earth, it also tastes of purpose. Mākua, who prepares ‘awa often, likens the act to a daily offering—as well as a connection—to his akua, his guardians. “Any practice becomes stronger with ritual,” Mākua says, noting that for him and the many who sit with him, drinking ‘awa is more than a rote nod to their culture: “We drink ‘awa to be closer to our gods and our ancestors,” he says. “Our purpose is to keep our traditions alive.”
Some 30 miles away, a spiritual tradition of a different kind calls out to its followers each Sunday, when the morning bells of Kawaiahaʻo Church ring a warm welcome across downtown Honolulu. Kahu James Merseberg greets parishioners who gather upon the church’s stone steps before entering the hushed sanctuary. Inside, muted sunlight filters through arched windows onto the ōhiʻa wood pulpit, while crimson and gold kāhili stand stately guard along the chancel. Rising above the nave, a single cross—simple, white, and unadorned—hangs as a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice and love for his people.
Established by Christian missionaries who arrived in Hawai‘i in 1820, Kawaiahaʻo Church began as a plain, grass-thatched structure, and was named after a chiefess who frequented a nearby freshwater spring. Later, during the reigns of Kamehameha II and Kamehameha III, Queen Kaʻahumanu, one of the most significant aliʻi to convert to Christianity, commissioned a building of worship in order to better serve an expanding congregation. Constructed of 14,000 slabs of coral rock, “The Great Stone Church” serves as the “mother church” of the 57 Protestant churches of Hawai‘i. For nearly 200 years, church services have been held in both Hawaiian and English.
The lilting tones of the Hawaiian language are especially evident during the first Sunday of each month, when Ka ‘Aha ‘Āina A Ka Haku, or, the sacrament of Holy Communion, is offered. On these mornings, the deacons, solemn and white-robed, arrive early to prepare the ceremonial elements. The preparation is a sacred affair, and those involved will ready themselves through private prayer and hoʻoponopono, a reconciliation process of making things right with oneself and others, with the environment and ke Akua, or God. Once complete, the deacons place thimble-sized cups of grape juice on silver trays and cut rounds of sweet-scented bread into small, even cubes. The kahu consecrates the items, which are covered with a white linen cloth until the church service begins.
The Christian faith has a number of sacraments, or rites of worship, that were instituted by Jesus Christ, explains William Hi‘iakaikapoliopele Kaina, who grew up on Hawaiʻi Island and served as Kawaiahaʻo’s kahu from 1984 to 1997. The United Church of Christ, of which Kawaiahaʻo is a member, recognizes two of the sacraments: Baptism and Holy Communion, also called the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist.
The elements partaken during Holy Communion recall the same elements Christ brought before his disciples the night before his crucifixion. “When Jesus came to Earth, he gave of himself to the people so that he might save them,” says Kaina, now 85. Though retired, he and his wife, Sandra, regularly attend Sunday services. “At the Last Supper, Jesus took the bread and said, ‘This bread is my body,’ and he ate that, showing us to eat it too, to take it in within us. And then he took the cup that held the wine and said, ‘This is my blood that will be shed for you, to save you,’ and then he drank that and showed us to drink it too,” Kaina says. “When we participate in Holy Communion, our symbolic gesture of eating the bread and drinking of the cup is our remembrance and our acceptance of God’s true message: He loves us and through Him we are given eternal life.”
During a recent first Sunday service, Merseberg signals to the deacons that it is time for the Ka ʻAha ʻĀina A Ka Haku. The white linen cloth is removed from the Holy Communion table, revealing the simple yet sacred oblations. As the congregation moves forward to receive the Eucharist, the choir gathers, their voices lifting together in rapturous song. The kahu then leads everyone in the partaking of the sacrament. To many, the feeling in that brief, blissful spell is God’s presence, and that moment, a glimpse into eternal life.
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