Thursday, October 28, 2010

Making Peace and a Non-theist's Samhain

This year, due to a family obligation, I will not be able to attend our women’s circle Samhain celebration. Knowing that I am going to miss out of that has me thinking about the holiday ahead of time as I look for my own way to observe it.

Recently, Heather at Nagoonberry and I have been talking about the things we miss about theism. There is comfort in many theistic beliefs and I sometimes miss them even if I don’t believe their underpinnings are true. Normally, I think about the things I miss about Christian practice, but in reading articles on Samhain, there is something else I almost wish I believed.
Many theistic Pagans will use this Sunday as an opportunity to reach out to their ancestors and their beloved dead. It is a beautiful idea, really. The problem is I do not believe in any type of afterlife that involves spirits waiting to be summoned. In fact, I am extremely skeptical about any afterlife at all, but I am a little jealous of those who take comfort from this day.

Reading about how some Pagans experienced Samhain, I got to thinking about my maternal grandmother and how I wish I could make peace with her. I am her namesake and she died just a few years before I was born. It is strange that I was the one to get her name as our personalities couldn’t be more different. From all accounts she was a gentle and loving saint of a woman, but she was very sad. She provided love for her children while struggling with the family depression her whole adult life, and her premature death cast a pall over her children. She has been dead for 40 years and none of them can discuss her without something changing and dampening in them. It is like the guilt suppresses their spark. I have always felt like I could never really understand my mother and who she is or my relationship with her without knowing more about my grandmother and why no one in the family has ever gotten over her death.

Most of the time I am a happy non-theist. The world is so filled with wonder it can satisfy curious seekers for far more than a lifetime. Sometime, though, sometimes I wish I could cast a circle and find peace with someone whose memory haunts me even though we never met. Whatever I end up doing this Samhain, I will dedicate it to the memory of my grandmother.


  1. It sounds like you are hungry for a ritual, for wholeness. It is too bad that people who are non-theists so often abandon the ritualistic aspects of religious practice that could give them so much. I think the whole point of the ritual of communicating with the dead is not that there is *literally* a spirit that you can access in a concrete and verifiable way. It is highly personal -- you may be communicating with a spirit, you may be communicating with your own unresolved emotions and questions, you may be communicating with the "wonder" that you believe the world is filled with. It's not very important what you call it as that you have a sense of wanting to have wholeness that you can't get through rational and measured ways.

    It's like how in Hinduism it's generally regarded that the pantheon of gods are symbols for humans to relate to the unknowable divine and that they are all part of one unified whole. It's just not as fun and engaging and rich to always say "Shiva is a symbol for x and Vishnu is a symbol for y". They are there as doorways to the unknowable.

    It's not really important in my mind if you believe there's a spirit you are communing with or a part of yourself or of a collective unconscious or what, so long as you do it with an open heart and mind and derive value from the pratice. You say the world is "filled with wonder," so cast a circle and see what happens. It won't hurt anything and it seems like you sense that you have something you can get from it. My two cents!

  2. I'm a non-theistic pagan as well as a UU. Like Chris, I have found that rituals do not necessarily need the theistic underpinnings that many assume they do. Each year, we do a silent supper at Samhain, and the combination of the smell of the specially prepared dishes, the candles, and the silence allows me to connect to the parts of myself and my memories that I otherwise overlook. It has taken me several years to take part in ritual without getting tied up in whether or not a particular element is theistic and how I relate to it in that context. I now focus on having the experience that I have and leave the analysis until later.

    When I participate in the silent supper, I am honoring the departed that I knew. In your case, it seems like you need to construct a ritual to help you identify what your ties are to your grandmother, specifically through your mother, and remove the negative emotions from them. The only afterlife we can be sure of is the lingering effects we leave on those with whom we share experience and DNA. In that way, your grandmother still lingers in your relatives and in you. In your circle, you are not connecting to a supernatural spirit. Instead, you are connecting to the real pattern of memories from your interaction with your relatives and the expectations and baggage that comes from being related to someone. I get accused by some of my theistic friends for being hyper-rational in such approaches, but I am a big proponent of a whatever-works approach to spirituality.