A Jewish proverb says “Man plans and God laughs.” Make that gender-inclusive and plural and it’s just as true.
To say a lot of planning went into last night’s Denton CUUPS Samhain ritual would an understatement. It began at a social gathering in early summer. We asked for volunteers to lead Samhain and instead of someone saying “I’d like to do it this year” we got a chorus of “what if we did this?” or “what if we did that?” After a couple minutes I realized something special was happening and started taking notes. We left that meeting with a ritual outline and a diagram of a main circle, a Temple of the Ancestors, and a Temple of the Oracle.
We would have a opening ritual indoors, then process outdoors for an invocation of the ancestors. After that, we’d have a series of poetry readings and songs in the circle, but as people felt moved they would leave the circle to visit the Temple of the Ancestors. They could place a memento on the shrine, pour a libation to an ancestor, or simply spend a few moments in quiet contemplation.
Afterwards, participants could return to the circle, or they could follow a dark path to the Temple of the Oracle. Dolores, our matriarch and a highly skilled medium and reader, volunteered to serve as the Oracle. People would enter her Temple one at a time – she would relay any messages she received for them. If she got nothing, she would instruct them to select a Tarot card for a general reading.
We knew it was Samhain – there would likely be a lot of people in attendance. Dolores felt she could relay messages in 45 seconds to a minute, and we assumed that not everyone would want to hear from the dead.
Pagans plan and the Gods laugh.
Yesterday was beautiful: it was clear and cool. After a summer that was extraordinarily long even if it wasn’t particularly hot, it was nice to have highs in the 60s… and after the sun went down, it quickly dropped into the low 50s. We started setting up an hour earlier than usual. The indoor setup was very simple, but outdoors we set up a large canopy for our Temple of the Ancestors and a smaller canopy for the Temple of the Oracle. We set torches as gateways and guideposts. We set out our mementos and lit candles for our beloved dead.
The passage to the Temple of the Oracle used the same path as we use for our Beltane procession, only it ran in reverse. We did that for logistical reasons, but the significance did not go unnoticed.
Dolores already had one foot in the Otherworld when she arrived – she sequestered herself to avoid any distractions.
And then the fun began.
Our childcare worker was a no-show. Our CD player developed a mind of its own. Everyone in attendance decided to consult the Oracle.
We had warned everyone that this was not a game. “We cannot command our ancestors in the Otherworld any more than we could command them in this world – we cannot promise what they will say or if they will say anything at all.” I wrote that line to head off disappointment if someone’s ancestor didn’t show up, or if they didn’t have much of anything to say. It never occurred to me that perhaps the ancestors might have a lot to say.
Our public rituals typically run 45 to 50 minutes. It’s rare for them to run over an hour, and if they do it’s only by a bit. Last night’s ritual ran 2 hours and 10 minutes.
A certain control-freak Druid makes plans and the Gods and ancestors laugh.
But it wasn’t a cruel laugh. There was no one to provide childcare, so the small children (aged a few months to ten) processed with everyone else, visited the Temple of the Ancestors, and heard messages from the Oracle. Some of them are too young to understand what was going on and some are too young to even notice, but they were there.
We made some adjustments and got the CD player working. Cynthia had brought a bowl of barley husks – those who were waiting in the circle had the opportunity to throw a handful into the fire to banish what they did not want to take with them into the new year. We edited the closing ritual on the fly to move back inside and still say our farewells respectfully.
No one came back from the Temple of the Oracle complaining about the wait or the cold. Many had strong experiences – some talked about them, while others quietly contemplated what they had heard.
And a certain control-freak Druid was reminded what’s really important in rituals, and Who’s really in charge.
I don’t recommend you plan 2 hour 10 minute public rituals. Some people had to leave before the ritual was complete. I’m physically exhausted today, and I imagine everyone else who stayed late to take down the Temples is pretty tired too. I’m especially concerned about the handful of guests who were attending their first Pagan ritual – did we scare them off? Public ritual has a different set of requirements than private ritual.
But we’ve been talking a lot lately about “how do we know?” How do we know what the Gods want? How do we know when a deity is speaking to us? How do you know when that voice in the back of your head is an ancestor telling you what you need to know and not your subconscious telling you what you want to hear? One of the clearest ways is when things don’t go the way you plan or the way you want but they still end up working out right for the wider community, if not always for us as individuals.
Last night was clearly and unambiguously real. And powerful. And memorable. Once again the Gods, ancestors, and spirits showed us they have minds and plans of their own.
The Gods and ancestors laughed last night and it was a good laugh. Today I’m laughing with them, and thanking them again for their presence and their blessings.