Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Celebrating Samhain

The Neo-Pagan wheel of the year is divided into 8 equal parts. They honor the summer and Winter Solstice, the Fall and Spring Equinox, and the “Cross quarters” which fall evenly between them. Samhain (which is a name that comes to us from the Celtic tradition) is the most important of these holidays, and marks the New Year. Most American Neo-Pagan families enjoy the usual secular Halloween celebrations- the costumes and pumpkins and treats- because these symbols grew in large part from the much older pagan traditions. In the neo-pagan traditions, however, there is a sacred element to the day that must also be observed. It is a harvest festival that honors the end of the harvest and the first glimpse of winter. In addition, it is a day to honor the ancestors, and to gain wisdom from them because at this time of year it is said that the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead is at it’s thinnest. The veil is said to thin day by day leading up to the New Year, and to be at its most thin on October 31 at midnight- the cross-quarter between fall and winter.

I think one of the reasons that Unitarian Universalists feel an affinity with Neo-Paganism is because much of the tradition is grounded in natural science. It is theologically un-complicated to mark the Winter Solstice and the growing daylight. We notice with our own eyes and with common sense the recurring cycles of sun and moon and stars, and bring our own observations and experiences to the marking of those cycles. The observations of biologists and physicists affirm our noticing, and help us understand dynamics of the natural world we cannot observe with the naked eye. So as we talk about Samhain today, I want to focus on that aspect of the festival- the part that comes to us intuitively as we notice carefully our eco-system and how we respond to changes in the seasons.

These past two years as the wheel of the year turned towards fall I have felt something new- fear. I am afraid of winter. I worry about how cold it is going to get. I worry about whether it will be too cold or icy for my regular jog through the streets of Ithaca. I worry about those famed $400 heating bills. I dread the shortening days, and getting my son ready for school in the dark. I feel anxious about getting all my fall chores done- draining the hose and bringing it into the basement along with all my garden tools, finding places inside for all my potted plants, planting the bulbs, locating the snow shovels, figuring out whether last year’s snow pants and mittens still fit everyone. But sometimes I just feel fear, and it mystifies me. Living in the Southern Tier has touched some primal part of me that knows winter can be deadly. For annual plants, this is the end of their life. Bugs fly drunkenly into our homes to live out their last days. And the cold and lack of food make life very tough for our wild brothers and sisters; many beings will die from hunger or from cold. Some part of my "Reptilian brain", (the brain stem and cerebellum) knows this. Death, which is present all year long, reveals itself in the fall in a dramatic way.

As humans living in a time and place where the grocery stores are always full, where all we have to do to create a warm haven of our homes is to turn our thermostat to 68 degrees, it’s easy to ignore this fear. But for this one weekend, let’s not ignore it. Because the felt presence of death in our own life has power. It has the power to remind us of what is ultimate. Ask yourself the question: what do I have to do today before I go to bed? [pause] Now ask: what do I want from this life before I die? [pause] Feel which question has more power. Have you noticed that when we speak of death, when we call to mind the reality of our own deaths, there is an energy that changes in the room? An alertness? A presence almost, of this intangible universal? Perhaps this is what the wisdom of the pagan tradition has noticed- there is a kind of veil which normally keeps us from obsessing on our own deaths and on the loss of those we love, a veil that allows us to focus on life from day to day. This veil is thin in the fall. And death is naked before us. And in this window when the veil is thin, we need guides. We need our elders, our teachers, those who have crossed this way before us as companions in this space.

As the choir sang this morning:
Those who have died have never, never left
The dead are not under the earth
They are in the rustling trees, they are in the groaning woods
They are in the crying grass, they are in the moaning rocks
The dead are not under the earth.

There is something grounding about linking ourselves to our past, to the millions of generations of beings who have come before us, and to all who will come after us. This remembering has the power to bring us comfort in the presence of impermanence without denying its reality.

How can we ask the beloved dead to be with us? (Especially we who are lovers of science and reason?) Ram Dass is a Harvard professor who left his academic life to go study with a Guru in India becoming a spiritual teacher for westerners. A few years ago he spoke of the death of his guru saying “he is still with me, I talk to him every day. And people say ‘that’s all in your imagination’ and I say ‘exactly’.” I am not going to address the metaphysics or mechanics of our relationship with our ancestors, only suggest that something which happens in the imaginary realm may even so lead us to comfort, transformation and wisdom.

When I moved into my current home, there small shelf on our dining room wall that I imagine is just the right shape for a statue of the Virgin Mary or some other saint. I suppose I could put Margaret Fuller or some other UU luminary in that spot, but when my uncle died, it seemed just the right place for his picture and for Pap’s picture when he died, and of course Nan should be with him there. And when the anniversary of our dog Waldo came around, he needed to be there too. It’s not a very big shelf, so the ancestors come and go as I think of them and want to remember them. This is one easy way to honor and remember your ancestors at this time of year. Hunt down those old photos and bring them out where the whole family can see them throughout their days.

Hopefully when the pictures come out, the stories will follow. In my family there are some precious stories we have heard over the years. The story about how my grandmother and grandfather married when he was on leave during WWII, and they had to borrow fuel rations from a neighboring farmer to be married near my grandmother’s family. The story about how when he was down and out my Pop Pop invented a way of cleaning the tubes that bring beer to the tap at taverns with a Ping-Pong ball. When my mom tells the story, she says this a better feat of salesmanship than engineering.

Come to think of it, I’m not sure I’ve ever told my son these stories. Maybe it’s time. Samhain is a great time to tell and hear stories about your family. It may happen organically, or you may want to set aside s special time by candle light or firelight to tell them. If you have objects of the recently departed, bring those out to help you remember and retell their stories. Another favorite custom is to make the favorite food of your beloved family and friends to honor their memory. Some go as far as to set a place for the departed at the dinner table, or to put food for them near their picture. But then be sure to remember, part of honoring the memory is then to let it go. If you have, for example, cut open a pomegranate or an apple in memory of your ancestors, the following week you could plant it in the back yard. Return the picture to their usual places. This act of letting go is as important as the act of bringing the “beloved dead” to mind.

Our own Unitarian Universalist tradition is somewhat mixed about how we deal with the presence of our ancestors. There is a strain in Universalist history which intersected with Spiritualism in the 19th century. An intriguing book of by John Buescher called “The Other Side of Salvation” looks back at those who felt that they had experiences of contact with the dead, and how Universalism responded. Many Universalists, then as now, who hold to the rational and scientific roots of our tradition would definitely raise an eyebrow at this. Others had experiences they felt could not be explained with reason. But whether or not you believe that contact with ancestors is possible in a concrete way, I would like to put forth the idea that we all have something to gain from setting aside time to remember those who have died. When someone has died recently, we first need to take time to grieve and come to terms with the death, lest that un-expressed grief haunt us and play out in un expected ways. Later, when the loss is not so fresh, we can to remember the stories of our family and community history, lest they be lost. Finally, there is something comforting about calling to mind those we love and miss. By adding ritual to the act of remembering, we bring a strength to those memories- it is common sense that the more senses we involve in the act of remembering, the more clear the memories become. Smelling Gramma’s favorite food and rubbing the lace on her handkerchief between our fingers help us remember more than we could while waiting in line at the grocery store. Whenever we call something to mind and share it, we “add another episodic memory of that memory, which enriches and reinforces the original representations.”

So whether you think of honoring the ancestors as a psychological or a metaphysical exercise, I encourage you to set aside a time to tell stories and honor the memories of your family and ancestors. Now that the costumes are crumpled and the treats have been exchanged, take a moment later today to pull out those old photos, or to ask your elders for some new story, or a well loved and oft repeated story of their parents or grandparents. In this way we strengthen our sense of connectedness to all the generations that come before and those who will follow, telling stories of us each Samhain.

Those who have died have never never left.
The dead have a pact with the living
They are in the woman’s breast
They are in the wailing child
They are with us in the home
They are with us in the crowd
The dead have a pact with the living

So listen more often to things than to beings
Tis the ancestors breath when the fire’s voice is heard
Tis the ancestors breath in the voice of the waters

["Breaths" in Singing the Journey. Adapted from a poem by Birago Diop by Ysaye Barnwell]