The modern Pagan festival of Samhain, celebrated at the same time as Halloween, is often figured as a time of connection with and remembering those who have died – our ancestors, broadly understood. (This is a blog post about my personal modern practice, and I am not going to discuss whether this version is ancient or historically accurate or any of those things – a lot of the language in use now, like ‘veil between worlds’, may be Victorian rather than any older. On the other hand, the Victorians were four generations or more ago now, and eventually everything becomes ancient! This is also not a blogpost about the metaphysics of life after death, but about the experience of the living.)
In the Buddhist practice of Touching the Earth as taught by Thich Nhat Hanh, there are considered to be three categories of ancestors – blood ancestors, those we probably think of first in the context of the English word ‘ancestor’, who are related to our physical form; spiritual ancestors, especially our teachers and those who have guided us in all sorts of ways; and land ancestors, the land itself and the people who have lived on it and worked with it before us. In those ideas, I think there’s something which resonates strongly with Pagan ideas about ancestors – not limited to our physical and legal families, but including people who inspired us, those who went before us in our work and the places we live.
(For those who still have my previous blog post in mind, would the Plum Village community/Community of Interbeing be comfortable with being included in this kind of interfaith thinking? I think so: the text of the Touching the Earth practice mentions Christ as well as Buddha, Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Living Buddha, Living Christ is supportive of multiple religious belonging, and my experience of attending their retreats and sangha meetings in the UK is that I as a Quaker Pagan have been welcome – I took the Five Mindfulness Trainings in 2012, and although my level of involvement has varied over time, maintain some connection with the community.)
So here are some of the paradoxes of multiple religious belonging in practice: as a Quaker I don’t celebrate specific times and seasons or use specific physical rituals, but aim to remember the key messages all year; as a Pagan I notice the physical changes in the world around me – at this time of year, in England, that means the shortening day length and the leaves changing colour and falling – and tie those to potentially ancient and often universal stories and ideas, like that there are some times when Otherworldly beings are more likely to visit; and as a Buddhist I might use the Five Earth Touchings at any time, to remember all my ancestors and connect with both those I love and those who make me suffer. What to do? I don’t have a neat theory, so I just try and do what I feel led to do at any particular time.
This year, I am remembering my ancestors, and I’ll probably light some candles. I am remembering my grandmother and my grandfather, and my great-grandparents (some of whom lived until I was old enough to remember them, so I have a tangible connection). I’ve thinking of my friends and loved ones whose blood ancestors are not their family, or whose blood ancestors have caused them pain in lots of ways. So I’m including with my ancestors the people who have stepped in when I needed help – the people who have mentored me, who welcomed me to their homes and encouraged me in my writing and my work and my life in all sorts of ways.
It may be a sign of the strength of the intergenerational communities that I’ve been part of that a significant number of those people influenced me strongly in the last years of their lives. Because of these connections, and the way I have needed to move to study and work, it has been my experience that often, when a very dear friend from a previous part of my life died, I haven’t any more been a member of the same Quaker community, haven’t had the overlapping circles of friends any more, and hence have sometimes felt I was mourning alone. So I’m remembering people who were kind and brave, who modelled ways to hold close to God’s guidance even in the most difficult times, who remembered to ask whether I was still writing, who were supportive and caring – sometimes just present, offering lifts to hospital or a meal and a chat – when my own life was very difficult.
Among my spiritual ancestors, I am remembering those who died in war and those who became conscientious objectors (and occasionally died anyway). Of course, Remembrance Day is coming soon, very closely linked to these themes but sometimes used to exalt military service and action at the expense of other responses to conflict; and people keep comparing the pandemic to a war, when (apart from lots of people dying when governments make bad decisions) I’m not sure that it’s comparable at all.
I’m remembering going to the National Memorial Arboretum, where many of these people are honoured. It’s a very Druid place, with the dead remembered by living trees – although in some ways secular and in other ways, as British ‘secular’ cultural practices often are, deeply marked by Christian thinking and history. I am remembering the Shot at Dawn memorial there, which names 307 British soldiers who were executed in the complex circumstances of the First World War.
I am thinking about what land ancestors might mean here. I live in Bournville, mainly built on green-field sites by a family who wanted to both care for and profit from their workers. I am remembering those who suffered for the chocolate trade and those who benefitted from it – of course, George Cadbury isn’t just a land ancestor to me, but a spiritual ancestor and maybe more something more direct, since he founded the organisation, Woodbrooke, which now employs me. Is there a sub-category needed for employment ancestors? If I made one, I might remember alongside the Cadbury family figures like Joseph Chamberlain and all the others who help with the founding of large and complex organisations like universities.
As you can probably see from this meandering consideration, one of the things which attracts me to marking Samhain in this way is that it both steers my thoughts, helping me set aside time to remember the many interconnections between lives and the many people who have shaped my life even though history might not remember their names; and that it leaves things open, for me to focus on the issues which matter to me at the moment and able to draw my own conclusions. Who is on your mind at the moment? If you are marking Samhain – or Halloween, or one of the many related festivals – who are you remembering?