The veils are thin now, and if you listen, you can hear the voices of your Beloved Dead permeating the world of the living. This is the time to meditate on your ancestors and those who have passed this year.
If you’re adopted, or don’t know anything about your ancestors, work with those you consider your spiritual ancestors. Collect their pictures, some of their favorite objects and things that remind you of them, and build an ancestor altar.
For some of us, our ancestors and family might feel problematic. Maybe they’ve done things you abhor or are ashamed of. You have choices:
You can honor them anyway and do work to release their negative choices and actions and honor their strengths and struggles.
You can go back further into your past. All of us have many, many ancestors—and we are all mixtures of mixtures of mixtures. Somewhere in those long lines, we’re all descendants of those who did terrible things—and those who did wonderful things. So call for the ancestors who have guidance and wisdom to share.
You can work with spiritual ancestors—those who are part of the line of a tradition, a line of knowledge, or a practice that you identify with.
Next, prepare an offering. This could be some food your ancestor or Beloved Dead enjoyed, or something precious to them such as a piece of jewelry or a special book, or an art object that you create. Add this to your altar.
If there is someone you need to resolve an unfinished issue with, or make amends to, consider what you could create or offer. It could even be a pledge to do something—for example, plant a tree or take care of a child, or donate something in their name.
Finally, write a letter to your beloved dead- say thank you to someone you are grateful for, express something to someone that you didn’t get to say when they were alive. If there’s something that feels unfinished, or something that you want to carry further, write it down, and add it to your altar.
Along with your photos, memorabilia, and offerings to your beloved dead, add to your altar:
A cauldron or flame proof vessel to burn your letter
A candle (or many)
Spend some time in front of your altar in the coming days, remembering fond moments, reflecting on what was left unsaid, listening for any wisdom that may be ready to come through. When you are ready, burn your letter on the altar, to release anything you are ready to release, and to send your message out into the spirit lands.
Honoring the Ancestors
This summer I was introduced to the work of John Lockley, a white south African man trained as a Sangoma, a traditional healer in the Xhosa culture. One of the primary concepts of the Xhosa mysticism is Ubuntu, which Lockley explained this way:
“Ubuntu, like life, is seen as a circle of which we are all a part, including the dead. The ancestors are an important part of the circle because without our memory of them and our connection to our blood lineage, we lose our sense of immortality and then we fear death…[Leopard Warrior p. 63]As I read, I noticed resistance rising in me around the role of ancestors in his tradition, so I spent some time reflecting on that resistance.
Xhosa culture, over hundreds if not thousands of years, has developed an intricate and beautiful practice of remembering the ancestors through prayer, [and] ceremony… People connect to izinyanya thorough their blood ancestors, thereby acknowledging their roots in the human family. Like an oak tree, the deeper its roots, the taller and more powerful its branches. For people to access the more refined states of dreaming and spirituality, they need to first connect to their blood ancestors.” [p. 64]
I was raised Unitarian Universalist in a rationalist humanist congregation. We focused on living ethical lives in the here and now. Humanism forsakes the metaphysical questions about the nature of the soul, and what happens to it after we die. We tend to focus on the known, the physical. We know that after death the body decomposes and the elements that made up our bodies are reused by other living beings. We focus on the work we did and the love we gave, and emphasize that we live on in the ways we affected those we live behind.
Unitarianism grew out of the protestant tradition, which has historically set aside many Catholic practices, including the catholic tradition of veneration of the dead. I had always dismissed out of hand the idea that our prayers could have some impact on the souls of our beloved dead, or that they could have some impact on the lives of the living.
(I had not yet learned that the Universalist side of our tradition had a different relationship with our beloved dead, and that there was a connection between 19th century Universalists and the Spiritualist tradition. )
Veneration of the ancestors is practiced today in large parts of the world: in Asia, in Africa, in Latin American countries, and in the Roman Catholic tradition. I realized maybe this is one of those things I had put in the category of “not my tradition” without any analysis or attempt to understand. Because it was not from my culture, I was able dismiss it as “superstitious” without any real consideration. But I remembered that this is a trick of the colonizers; we dismiss local and often ancient religious traditions as “superstition” to elevate our White European Protestant culture as correct, or civilized. And then we create taboos around the practices of other cultures, so that we don’t look too closely at them, lest we be considered superstitions or uncivilized. It’s one aspect of white supremacy culture, and I recalled our UU commitment to dismantle white supremacy culture.
I noticed that one of the pervasive practices of colonialism is to disconnect us from our roots. One of the most brutal examples of this is the cultural genocide of the Native Americans, but the requirement that people assimilate to mainstream American culture is more pervasive than that. Whether your ancestors were Irish, or Italian, or Chinese or Jewish or German, immigrants were encouraged to stop speaking their native tongue, stop worshiping in the old ways, stop celebrating the holidays of their homeland, and blend in. And many people do assimilate to survive, to find a place in our American society. Not only is this a tragic loss of culture, but it occurred to me that it has created a kind of rootlessness. We begin to believe we belong more to this moment than to our heritage, more to Instagram than to the family tree. And that if we belong only to this moment, then what brings us joy and profit in this moment is the highest good. We become a disposable culture. We lose the capacity to imagine 7 generations into the past, and so to imagine 7 generations into the future.
Is there some wisdom about remembering and honoring our ancestors that we have lost? A wisdom that could be like medicine to us in this disconnected time? As Lockley writes “During Sangoma rituals, I have always noted a sense of grace and humility overcome people who pray to their ancestors with an open heart. As we remember our fathers and mothers, we seem to remember our own place in the circle of life, resulting in a profound sense of belonging and openness” [p. 66]
Lockley notes that one of the main obstacles for Westerners in approaching their ancestors is that every family tree holds a history of abuse or dysfunction somewhere in its branching roots. We also struggle with our history of colonialism, systemic oppression. Certainly John Lockley was very conscious of his white ancestors’ role in the oppression of the people of South Africa. He writes “Violence creates a deep ancestral scar, and I believe it is the job of the living to reconcile the past. We can’t undo what happened, but we can create a space to witness it quietly and respect our dead. Hopefully we can then prevent mindless atrocities form happening in the future.”
When we honor our blood ancestors, Lockley encourages us not to pick and choose, not to decide who is worthy and who is not worthy of honor. He writes:
“Please take note you are honoring and praising your mother, father, and ancestors because they have given you the gift of life. You are not honoring and praising bad behavior. It is important to separate personality from consciousness. By connecting with your ancestors in this way, you are connecting with your blood and bones, your DNA, or the tree of life inside you. Be aware of any emotions or feelings that are triggered. Many people can experience profound grief when praying to their ancestors like this because their ancestors have been forgotten for generations, if not hundreds of generations. You nourish your ancestors when you pray in this way. You also nourish your own spirit, or soul, enabling it to grow and rise like a plant reaching for the light. So I decided to look at the practice of honoring the ancestors with a beginner’s mind. When we take on a new practice, an unfamiliar practice it’s good to have help. So I have included in this service the wisdom of people who already have an Ancestor practice, Like StarHawk, who comes from the Reclaiming tradition of Wicca, or Lockley who apprenticed for 10 years learning the Sangoma tradition, grateful for the wisdom they offer to us. As Lockly writes “I don’t intend to bring Xhosa or South African shamanic culture to the West as such, but rather to use its essence … to help people connect with their own ancestors and spiritual traditions.” (Lockley has a ritual for personal practice in his book that involves a bath, if that sounds interesting, I encourage you to check it out). The tradition of venerating the ancestors is one that people practice for decades, and we are just dipping our toe in the water. We acknowledge with humility all we don’t know.
With a beginner’s mind we try to enter into the experience without expectation, open to whatever emotions, ideas, memories or experience might emerge. We bring a non-judgmental compassionate awareness to our own process. If resistance emerges, we just notice that. We bring a spirit of curiosity; whatever emerges, get curious about what you notice. Maybe something will arise that we want to take back into our regular practice. Maybe we will want to learn more about a part of our family tree. Maybe it won’t resonate at all, and we can just let it go. Maybe it will help us remember to open our minds the next time we come in contact with cultures and people who honor their ancestors.
So let’s take some time today to honor our ancestors, using the practice outlined by Starhawk.
I invite you to bring to mind one of your ancestors, or someone who has passed in the last year. As Starhawk suggested, you can include your spiritual ancestors if you are adopted or otherwise disconnected from your blood ancestors.
Take a few moments to bring someone to mind, see if you can remember what it felt like to be with them.
Next as you choose I invite you to write a letter to your beloved dead- say thank you to someone you are grateful for, express something that you didn’t get to say when they were alive. If there’s something that feels unfinished, or something that you want to carry further, write it down, and add it to your altar.
When you are done writing your letter, you can either come forward and burn the letter, to release anything you are ready to release, and to send your message out into the spirit lands.
Or you can take the letter home with you, maybe build an altar of your own, Spend some time in the coming days, remembering fond moments, reflecting on what was left unsaid, listening for any wisdom that may be ready to come through.
With our beginners mind, we gather in whatever emotions we feel. We notice whether we have a greater sense of connection or disconnection. We ask ourselves, what would it mean to remember the ancestors in a way that has integrity with our own UU tradition, to your own direct experience, and to our own roots in the months and years ahead?