By Christine Valters Paintner
It lets me imagine
a great presence stirring beside me.
I believe in the night.
~ Rainer Maria Rilke in Book of Hours
The Christian feasts of All Saints and All Souls on November 1st and 2nd honor the profound legacy of wisdom our ancestors have left to us and continue to offer. In some denominations, we celebrate and honor the dead for the whole month of November. In the Northern hemisphere the world is entering the dark half of the year. The ancient Celtic people believed this time was a thin space, where heaven and earth whispered to one another across a luminous veil and those who walked before us are especially accessible in these late autumn days. These moments on the great turning of the year’s wheel offer us invitations and gifts for our spiritual journeys.
As the earth prepares to enter winter, she sheds what she no longer needs and moves inward. We live in a world illuminated by artificial light and so we often forget the wisdom to be gained from being in darkness. With the busyness of our lives, we resist the call of winter to fallowness and to contemplate what mortality means for us.
The darkness of this season invites us to release all of our certainties about how God works in the world, and sink into the deep unknowing. Apophasis is the way of darkness in Christian spirituality and has a deep and rich tradition among the mystics, including Meister Eckhart and John of the Cross. When we enter the wisdom of night we discover that God is so much larger than what we can imagine that many of our beliefs have become idols, and that the call to a mature spirituality has more to do with surrendering our attachments than in gaining enlightenment.
We live in a world where certainties about God are the impulse behind violent acts and the violation of people's dignity. Perhaps if we all recognized that the way of unknowing was the necessary complement to the way of images and knowing, we would act with more humility and be less willing to speak for God. Our ancestors have passed over into the Great Night and they call to us across the threshold to release our tight grip on what we think we know.
We are surrounded by a great “cloud of witnesses” Paul’s letter to the Hebrews (12:1) tells us. We don’t often make room for the honoring of ancestors or valuing what connection to the stories of our past might bring to us. For me, honoring the Communion of Saints means recognizing that the lives lived before mine matter. It means remembering that there is ancient wisdom wrought from generations of engagement and struggle with life. We can call upon those who have confronted the great mystery of being across time.
We carry the stories of our ancestors in our genetic code; they beat in our blood. When we uncover the layers of the stories our family systems have lived for generations we begin to understand ourselves better. Some of these stories we may know the details of, and some we may only experience in an intuitive way. These memories live inside of us, waiting for us to give them room in our lives. Within me is a sacred thread that ties me to everyone in my ancestral past. I carry within me the wounds and unfulfilled longings, the hopes and dreams of everyone who came before me. Learning their stories means I come to know my own more intimately.
Each of us has concentric rings to our stories -- my story is embedded in the story of my family, which is nestled in the story of my parents' families, and so on back through generations. This genetic story is wrapped in cultural stories, the places and events that shaped the people who came before me -- scripture, language, music, landscape, and the trauma of war that carries down from generation to generation. This cultural story is shaped by the unfolding story of nature and the cosmos. We might imagine ourselves as a smooth stone dropped in a lake, and the center of the ripple widening out to the great shores of God.
In her book In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, Alice Walker writes:
And so our mothers and grandmothers have, more often than not anonymously, handed on the creative spark, the seed of the flower they themselves never hoped to see -- or like a sealed letter they could not plainly read.
Each of my grandmothers had to forsake their passions to raise a family. It is a fairly common story. These were the expectations of the worlds in which they lived. I know that I carry their unfulfilled longings within me. Each time I claim my own voice, my own passion, my own strength, I do so in part for them. My work in the world is to catch fire, to bloom, and to unleash my own secret words. And now that my grandmothers have passed into the Mystery, I can call upon them to support me. They extend a shimmering thread to follow in the night.