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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

We are a Continuum: Honoring Our Ancestors

by Lauren Van Ham
We are a continuum. Just as we reach back to our ancestors for our fundamental values, so we, as guardians of that legacy, must reach ahead to our children and their children. And we do so with a sense of sacredness in that reaching.
Paul Tsongas
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. 
                                           Sweet Honey in the Rock (lyrics)*

For most Earth-based Traditions, the prayer practices include the Ancestors.  Consider, the Native Americans who often pray in the name, “All My Relations,” honoring all beings alive, and those returned to the Earth. Or Dia de los Muertos, in Mexico, when every November 1st, families visit their loved ones’ graves, hosting celebrative picnics, affirming the talents of their deceased relatives, and decorating sugar skulls and commemorative skeletons to embrace life and to honor death. 

When I first learned of these practices, I felt intrigued, mostly because in my culture, death was handled in a reserved fashion, in churches and funeral homes.  The dead were remembered and mourned, but not called upon.  Working in a Catholic hospital provided extra nudges.  I still smile when I think of the day the copy machine kept jamming and Brother Anthony, a warm and gentle Franciscan monk offered, “If you’re open to it, we can pray to St Jude of Hopeless Causes.  He sometimes can help with these matters.”  We prayed to St Jude – and I liked it - but I still felt cautious.  I didn’t want to be disrespectful or accused of misappropriation, borrowing incorrectly from a culture that wasn’t my own.

Then, a few years ago, I took a class on community-building with Sobonfu Some', a wonderful woman and powerful teacher who hails from Burkina Faso in West Africa.  Sobonfu said, “If you think the unemployment lines are long down here, you should see the ones our ancestors are standing in!  They are waiting to be asked.  Please!  Call on them!” 

Suddenly I got it.  I began thinking of the talents and wisdom, lying fallow in my memory of those recently gone, or long dead.  And I felt a sense of communion, immediately, when I considered how I might call on the courage of Harriet Tubman, the brilliance of Einstein, the creative genius of Jim Henson, the grace of Ginger Rogers…or the loving lap of my Grandmother..and so on.

And here’s another thing!  Our ancestors are not only in the past; we can also call on the ones yet to Be – the brave ones arriving on Earth to lend their fresh eyes and new life to shed light on our troubling patterns and trickiest problems.
With which ancestors do you most wish to take a walk or share a meal? 

Here’s something to try: as the month of Halloween approaches, along with Day of the Dead and All Saints’ Day, consider your loved ones and the ones you’ve not known personally.  Set out their pictures; light a candle; include them in your prayers.  Invite your friends to talk about their ancestors, and be sure to pray for the ones still on the way.

Let’s employ our communion of saints – ask them to look out for us, remind us of what’s important, invite their wisdom as we implement our own desire and vision for stronger communities. 

About Lauren: Lauren lives in Berkeley, CA.  She serves as Dean at The Chaplaincy Institute (ChI), an interfaith seminary and tends her private practice as a spiritual director.  You can read Lauren’s blog at: http://www.laurenvanham.com/

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