Thin Places and Sacred Ancestors

When my Celtic ancestors felt the energy of a place was sacred, they called it a “thin place,” meaning the boundary between this world and others was easily crossed at such locations; spirits might travel freely; the ancestors—and other spirits—were close.

Halloween, in part, is derived from Samhain, which marked the New Year for the Celts, a time when the souls of the year’s recent dead traveled beyond earth, and the long-deceased came back to “visit,” their presence welcomed.

When the Catholic Church sought to convert indigenous cultures (or “pagans,” the term Romans used to designate “country people”), it took their sacred days and translated them into Christian observances, and so November 1 became All Saints Day and November 2 is called All Souls Day. (These latter souls, presumably, await heaven and sainthood in purgatory, where one’s lingering sins are “purged.”)

Regardless of one’s theological views and practices, in the Northern Hemisphere this is the season when all the world’s considered a thin place. It seems natural, as vegetation dies back, exposing nature’s stark architecture, to enter the time of darkness and long shadows and consider the spirits of the newly and long-departed.

It’s fitting and important to set aside special days to focus our attention and gratitude upon single themes, events, people and memories. The danger is that we relegate our awareness of these important bonds to one-day-a-year only, as we relegate our acknowledgement of the Sacred to barely an hour a week, or less. (And heaven help you if a church service is ending as a football game is starting! The Sacred better get out of the way quickly.)

For growing numbers of people, however, it’s important to integrate connection with the Sacred in meaningful ways every day; nothing is profane unless we see it as such, and I think that explains the increasing attraction to non-Western cultures and their spiritual practices, as well as seeking new ways to honor the earth and all those who live in communion with us.

I’ve mentioned the books of Malidoma Patrice Somé before. My favorites are Of Water and Spirit and The Healing Wisdom of Africa. In both, he illustrates repeatedly the link between the deceased ancestors and the living community of his people, the Dagara tribe of West Africa. The ancestors are sources of wisdom and counsel for tribal leadership, choices, and direction. It is a natural behavior to commune with them daily.

The elderly in the tribe, because of their advanced age and proximity to death, are viewed as living on the bridge between worlds and therefore closer to the ancestors, and the newborn are viewed similarly; they have “just arrived” from the ancestral land and the company of the Wise Ones. This forms a tribal link between the young and the elderly, whose relationships are very close, sometimes edging out deep connections with those who, by necessity, are more fully engaged with “the things of this world.” The elderly and very young are believed to have the ability to speak with the ancestors more fluently and are respected for this connection.

In our materialistic, work-focused approach to life, we cart the young ones away to day care and the elderly off to nursing homes, or we move far away from childhood communities, severing connections that follow us from birth to death, and denying ourselves the deep riches of lifelong community. Relationships and the wisdom of our ancestors don’t matter so much to us. The immaterial, the insubstantial lacks value; or rather, it can’t be accorded a price point, which is what we most value. We’re often connected to our money and our desire (or frustrated desire and anxiety) more than to relationships with family, living or dead.

The recent Presidential campaign has clearly illustrated that “what should be important” is jobs: making money and spending money. One candidate is perhaps a bit more blatant and aggressive in his disregard for the earth, the ancestor we all share, by promising mining, fracking, and the extraction of resources needed by corporations (and robbed, if necessary, from lands that are currently federally-protected). Whatever it takes to get and keep people working (when they’re not shopping), will be accommodated.

But both candidates have neglected to confront the lack of reverence we have for the earth and the resulting devastation wreaked by storms like Hurricane Sandy. No mention of conservation, our role in climate change, global warming, or the sacrifices we might make to correct these, has been made. No invitations to alter our worldviews or perspectives have been offered. People who lost their homes along the coast are being urged to “rebuild” instead of to “rethink.” And how could it be any different when the campaigns’ exorbitant costs are funded by the wealthy corporations (i.e., “persons”) and their officers, who reap the short-term benefits from these ill-gotten resources and the new slave laborers we’ve consented to become?

We carry our ancestry in our DNA. I’ve enjoyed episodes of a program that connects people with their ancestors through investigating their genetic roots. Their DNA leads to unearthed connections played out across charts, and they learn about their ancestors’ stories, sometimes going back hundreds of years. It’s profoundly moving to see the featured guests weep, share their amazement, or evidence stunned silence as these deep connections are revealed.

We yearn for sacred connection, all the more because we have forgotten who—and what—we are. Imagine the wealth afforded by conversations with our ancestors. What can we do differently? What did they learn from their trials, errors, successes? Are they proud of the people we are becoming and the world we are creating? How can we better steward our gifts and those of the earth?

Perhaps, instead of just rushing, working and shopping during these sacred days of early November, we could stand in our thin places and listen for the wisdom of our ancestors and the lessons of Mother Earth. Perhaps we could kneel in reverence and gratitude for all of these holy connections that exist to nourish our souls, offer us wisdom and energize our spirits.

Perhaps we could change ourselves and so, the world. Because we’re always standing in a thin and holy place, being held by Mother Earth, with the wisdom of our ancestors circling in our hearts.

Just listen.

 

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