This week many Pagans celebrate Samhain, popularly known as Hallowe’en. It is the ancient, and modern, festival of the dead, of remembering and honouring those who have gone before us.
In pre-Roman times, there is evidence that the ‘Celtic’ peoples of the British Isles would leave doors and windows open to invite the spirits of their dead loved ones and their ancestors to join them for the evening. This is still a practice that some modern-day Pagans follow. In the Americas, the spirit of communion between the living and the dead can be seen in the Mexican Día de los Muertos, the Roman Catholic feast of All Souls.The night of 31st October, moving into 1st November, is the time in the year when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead, of the physical and the spiritual, are thinnest.
My favourite expression of these traditions, though, is the Reclaiming tradition Spiral Dance ritual, which occurs in San Francisco every year.
The Spiral Dance is inspired by the altar-building traditions of the Día de los Muertos. But primarily, the ritual is a solidly Pagan, Goddess religion-centered remembrance of the Beloved Dead, the Mighty Dead, and the Ancestors – loved ones who have died in the past year, those who have died recently or in the distant past who inspire our spirits, and our personal ancestors of blood, bone and breath.
Remembering not only those who are dead, but those who are born
The Spiral Dance differs from either ancient Pagan or Catholic traditions of remembering the dead because it is also a celebration of rebirth – both inner and outer. Its ritual facilitators take full account of Samhain not only as the year’s death, but also its birth into the ‘night’ of winter. In the ritual, all babies born in the community in the preceding year are named, honoured, and celebrated.
In the world as a whole, there are an awful lot of babies being born. There are now seven billion human beings on earth. Seven billion. Seven with nine noughts after it. 7,000,000,000.
That’s a lot of people.
One of the problems with such a huge number is that it is quite literally unimaginable. When we follow our spiritual instincts in connecting with our fellow humans all over the world, and try to feel that human connection deeply, our minds and hearts boggle at trying to imagine all those people. We often turn away to things we can grasp: the people we know and love, or (perhaps more often) whatever’s being waved in our faces by the media today, whether that’s our favourite soap opera / romantic comedy / police show / action film, our favourite hate figure or politician, or the latest scandalous news item.
Expanding our capacity for love
We must develop compassion, the passionate love of our spirits for all beings and the deep knowledge of our connection with them. Compassion is, undoubtedly, a natural human instinct, but in the face of the unimaginable – whether an unimaginably large number, or an unimaginable degree of suffering, or an unimaginable enfolding of love – we shrink away in fear.
Our fear is not of the unimaginability of numbers or suffering or love. Rather, many of us fear that our sense of self will be swamped by this immensity, overwhelmed, washed away in the deluge, disappear.
To deal with this fear, we have to start with where we are. First, we need to fill ourselves up with love – love from and for ourselves, our lovers and partners, our families, our friends, our pets, our spiritual guides and guardians – until we’re overflowing. Then we let the love overflow.
It really is that simple.
The more we fill ourselves up with love, the more love we can let flow over, the more we can cope with. When we allow ourselves to fill with love, there is no possibility that our selves will be washed away or overwhelmed, because we are not small in the face of anything. Instead, we are filled with the greatest, most powerful force in the Universe – the Love that is the Universe’s spiritual fabric.
Let yourself love and be loved by your Ancestors, your Mighty Dead, your Beloved Dead, the Newborns and all other beings in your life, for that is how all souls can indeed be blessed.