REFLECTION: Called and Calling: The Path of the Ancestors

In today’s service, I was asked to provide a short “reflection” on the season. This is what I said:

What I love most about this season—a season that has many names because it has deep and varied roots—is the assertion that at this time of year, the “veil” between the worlds is at its thinnest. During this season, whether it’s called “Samhain,” “All Souls or All Saints Day,” “Dia de Los Muertos,” “Halloween” or just “Autumn”—it is hard to deny that death and life are intertwined– closely linked, inseparable.

This year, at South Valley, death has touched us. Just a few weeks ago, we lost our good friend, Pete. And last night I learned that another of our members—KC—is facing the death of her 22 year old son, David who died on Friday. Grief is present among us, not only because of these two deaths, but because of all the losses, all the deaths that we have known. There is not one of us who does not, or will not, know this sadness. The world of death and the world of life touch each other all the time, but at this season, we acknowledge their closeness, and take a glimpse across the “veil.”

Some of the traditional practices of this multi-layered season have been made playful. We laugh in the face of death, wear costumes that play on our fears, and give away sweets to traveling bands of eager children, who threaten us with “tricks” unless we give them treats. Just under the surface of our playful pumpkins, costumes, parties and decorations, lies our biggest human anxiety: we die and so do those we love. Eventually, we will cross that veil into whatever it is that lies on the other side—and what that is, we cannot know.

We grieve our losses. We acknowledge our fears. If only in our memories, we hear the voices of our ancestors, and sometimes ask for their guidance and blessing on our way. We remember. We build altars and light candles, watching the days grow shorter and the leaves fall. We remind ourselves that those who have died are not lost completely, but can and do live on in us. “What is remembered, lives.” We hold on and we let go.

In the Celtic tradition—the tradition of Samhain—this season is not only an ending. It is also the beginning of a new year, a year that begins in darkness, but will eventually grow light again. This new year begins with a time of turning inward, a time of acknowledging that the cycles of life are a in balance, and that we humans do better when we notice and attend to those rhythms. This feels important to me, and sacred. Too often in our day and age, we hide from solitude, we hide from darkness, we hide from death. And perhaps, in so doing, we hide from the preciousness of life.

In Mexican and Mexican-American tradition—the Dia de Los Muertos or “Day of the Dead” is not simply a day of mourning, it is a day of connecting through time and celebrating those connections. Rev. Peter Morales, senior minister at Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden, Colorado, adds this insight:

Part of the genius of the Día de los Muertos is the way it mixes celebration and mourning. Like a good UU memorial service, it both affirms life and gives us a chance to share our grief…We sophisticated UUs are apt to see the Día de los Muertos as primitive or quaint. Surely, few of us share the cosmology of rural Mexicans who lay out favorite foods in memory of a dead relative. If I do this with my mother’s favorite foods (maybe one of my aunt Amelia’s wonderful Christmas tamales or her calabacita stew), I don’t believe her spirit will return and be pleased at being remembered. Nor do I believe my mother will hear her favorite old Mexican tunes if I play a recording of them.

Yet if we dismiss the Day of the Dead as pure superstition, we can easily miss the profound spiritual and psychological insight that makes this tradition powerful. A Mexican boy spending the night at his uncle’s grave has a connection across time with his forebears that our children do not. While we dwellers in a technological age are connected to the World Wide Web, cellular phones, and cable tv…we have cut ourselves off from the web of time. Traditional cultures, with their mediums and ghosts and reincarnations, have understood intuitively something we’ve repressed: the dead don’t die; they live on.

I’m not speaking metaphysically or theologically. I’m talking about the very real stuff of memory, history, and molecular biology. Look in the mirror. The DNA of your ancestors is alive in you. Look at your children and grandchildren and see yourself and your ancestors. Think of the decisions made by your parents and grandparents. Their choices shaped your life. And the choices we make every day shape the lives of those to come…A simple ceremony of remembrance puts us in touch with our place in time and our mortality, and it reminds us that to live is to create a legacy that endures for generations.

This morning, we have come together as a community of Unitarian Universalists—-pagan, Christian, religious, non-religious, spiritual, agnostic, humanist, atheist, questioning—-to remember our ancestors. We look through the veil and see the face of death. And when we look, we find that it is intimately familiar, for it is the face of our grandmothers, grandfathers, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children, loved ones, and friends. It is the face of our ancestors. We do not forget them, and so they live on. And someday, when we have passed through the veil ourselves, we too will continue in memory and hope, ancestors to the next generation of seekers.

May it be so.

Amen. Ashé. And Blessed be.

by John Morgan

In the end it won’t matter how much we have,
but how generously we have given.
It won’t matter how much we know,
but rather how well we live.
And it won’t matter how much we believe,
but how deeply we love.

As we prepare to leave this place of sanctuary, let us strive to live our lives well, so that they may bless the earth and the peoples for many generations.

Amen. Ashé. And Blessed be.


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