The ancient Celts called this day Samhain (SOW-EN). It’s a turning point on the pagan wheel–which is comprised of eight days over the course of a year–each embodying a threshold in season. They all mirror Earth’s subtle shifts. While understood and celebrated in different ways, our ancestors around the world agreed on their significance, for we were all once deeply connected to these changes in Nature. And we did not see ourselves as separate from these shifts and times of passage. We, being of the Earth ourselves, were caught up in it. That is the legacy all of us share in. No matter where our people were from. Nature was the great and wondrous mirror to our own soul. It still is. We have just forgotten.
Samhain falls on the turning point between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice–where the leaves are falling from trees-some are bare, many have a ways to go. Grasses begin to lose their luster. And It’s gotten cold. The days are growing shorter and shorter, and Nature is preparing to withdraw from the realm of life and the unceasing production and abundance that were the days behind us. The stillness of winter is setting in. But we aren’t quite there yet, right?
It’s a liminal time, which in Latin, “liminal” or “limen” means threshold. Between. In both and in neither.
And Samhain is the threshold place not only between these two seasons, but also between the physical plane of the living, and the spirit world for those who have died. This time of year, the veil is said to be at its thinnest between these two worlds. Just like this time of between seasons. Life and death intermingling with one another, both in our natural world, and in our own lives and losses. For thousands of years our wise ancestors celebrated and honored their take on this holy wheel turning. But as Christianity swept the world, the Earthen wheel and its sacred rites and ceremonies were absorbed into this new religion’s understanding of the calendar, of death, of God and Earth… All Souls Day or All Saints Day is a good example of this, for it falls exactly at the same time as Samhain and is commemorated in the church as a day of prayer and remembrance for the souls of those who have died.
This forced assimilation which is what it was, gives us much to grieve–for much was lost in this absorption. And no matter where your people are from, we have all lost the wisdom and ways of our ancient ancestors. There is, however, a growing movement of reclaiming taking place. And one way to do this is to re-examine what is at the heart of these wheel turnings. Last week I preached about re-claiming religious language. Today, we re-claim our ancestor’s most holy understanding of All Souls Day. Samhain.
And that will land in different ways for you. How we think about what happens to us when we leave this Earth and how we make meaning out of it is the greatest of mysteries. Religions have argued about this for tens of thousands of years. How we think about the souls of our loved ones living on in some way varies greatly among us. My mother has had a lifetime of visits from her parents and brother in her dreams–offering her vivid messages, company and wisdom. I’ve never had dreams like these. But I have felt the presence of people who have passed. Long forgotten memories of them will come to me suddenly and it’s as if they are in the room. When I was in Crete on a Goddess Pilgrimage, we visited a sacred burial site and while standing together in silence my grandmother’s hands became crystal clear in my mind. As if they were right there in front of me. The shape of her nail beds and fingers, the indent of the ring she always wore, it was incredible.
I can’t explain this. It could be that those we have lost live on in our bones and hearts in such a deep way that it’s as though we carry some piece of them with us at all times–making the felt presence of them so very palpable. Or there is some incredible psychic realm that we can’t possibly understand that can be crossed–maybe in our dreams, maybe for some of you in your waking’s. Many of us have had direct, inexplicable experiences with our loved ones that challenge all rational, reasonable thought. But you have had them just the same.
Many of us have never had anything like this happen. But you know heartbreak, and you know the pain of loss and grief intimately. It’s as palpable as anything else.
And really, the heart of Samhain tells us that no matter what experience you have had or not had, this thinly veiled time serves as a reminder that we are all holy participants in an intertwined net of connections bound by grief and bound by love. For our grief is simply the price we pay for loving, for being connected to others. Painful as grief is, I don’t think I would have it any other way.
A reclaimed All Souls Day is an invitation to mourn together. And an invitation to honor the myriad of ways that each of us experience the presence of our most loved and lost ones. And to know, in our bones, that we are bound together in this experience. We take down the partitions that keep us cordoned off from one another. And that keep us cordoned off from Nature’s lament. Samhain re-binds us to this our interdependent web of life and death.
And we might look to nature’s lament to find meaning in Samhain, for this is what our wise ancestors did. Maybe your nearly bare, windswept maple, or the apple tree that now sits empty, will help remind you of this strange and wondrous connection our griefs have to the moaning and groaning of Mother Earth during this season of retreat. Maybe you can find some comfort in this.
I hope you might put some trust in this our community’s sacred thread of love and loss. I hope you might tell someone about those you grieve, or the ways you might still feel their presence. Or the ways you don’t. In doing this, we honor them, and we honor the love we have for them. In doing this we share in this our ancient, ancient connection to the hallowed ground of grief. To this our Beloved Earth. We stand together at the threshold place and say to one another You Are Not Alone. You are a mirror to my soul.
Let’s listen to Rev. Jan Richardson’s All Hallows blessing once more:
in the spaces between
in the corner
of our vision
in the hollows
of our bones
in the chambers
of our heart:
nowhere can they
how they move us,
how they move
made from the
tissue of memory
like the veil
between the worlds
that stirs at
the merest breath
and then is
May it be so.
And blessings to you on Samhain.
And now let us be held by the beauty of music and song as our choir sings, Sing Out Praises for the Journey.