Samhain Sermon, 2011
I had the grace and good support to preach this sermon at my UU Congregation in ____RI last fall.
Opening Words Grant, O Holy Ones, your protection;
And in protection, strength; And in strength, understanding,
And in understanding, knowledge; And in knowledge, the knowledge of justice;
And in the knowledge of Justice, the love of it;
And in that love, the love of all existences;
And in the love of all existences, the love of Earth, our Mother and all goodness.
Michael Greer, Ancient Order of Druids in America, 2006.
Sometime around the end of what we call the month of October, the tribal confederations of the Celtic peoples celebrated their festival of the Dead and the New Year, Samhain. The feast day was a very important part of the religious calendars of people in France, what are now England and Wales, and Ireland. Much of what happened during those rites is lost forever, because the Celts did not write down their law, history or ritual practice before the advent of Christianity. We know today that Samhain was a time for prayers to be said over domestic animals that needed to survive the winter. We know that at Samhain people remembered their Dead and marked the end of the agricultural year. And we can surmise that the Druids, as the principal celebrants of the Celtic priesthood, would have presided over many of the rites of prayer, celebration and remembrance.
For more than a century, new orders of Druids have tried to reconstruct the ceremonies of our predecessors. Some of us follow as strict as possible adherence to the few details about pre-Christian ceremonies that remain. Some of us borrow ritual practices from other pagans, such as the faith of Wicca. Some of us try to seek guidance on how to celebrate our faith in meditation. Some of us write new ceremonies. And some of us take all of these approaches in concert. Whichever modern Druid order is celebrating Samhain, most of us mark the festival through celebration of the dead and the acknowledgement that the year, like a wheel, has turned. Most of us perform rituals that seek to honor and celebrate a balance and a harmony with all life—when we fail we make amends, when we succeed we seek to do even better.
Calendars have shifted since the years when Celtic tribes knew and loved Samhain. For this reason, we can look at Samhain as a fluid time of celebration; the feast day might have taken place at any time between the end of October and early November. The festival might have gone on for one day or many. We don’t really know.
We may seem to live in a very different world from the Celtic tribes. Certainly, we live on the curving body of a vast continent thousands of miles from the lands where people kept the festival of Samhain. Most of our cultural roots come from societies and philosophies built upon the written word. Our medicine and technology become more astounding every day. But how different are we, really? If I were to curtain all the windows and turn off the lights, or if we were all to sit here and wait until the sun went down, we might begin to physically understand the world of the Celtic tribes and much of Europe beyond them. The royal feasting hall of Tara in county Meath and the high stronghold of Dunedin, or Edinburgh were at the mercy of sunrise and sunset, the people living there dependent on candles and hearth-fires for warmth or light. If we were there with them we would know the same kind of world, the absolute darkness of the great hall when the fires died down, no phones, or LED screens or antibiotics. Would we be so very different? We all suffer pain in this era, and sometimes that pain is beyond even our medical advances to correct. Some of us are still born blind or deaf, or unable to see clearly without glasses. All of us have faced the challenges of being young in a world run by adults, all of us are growing or will grow old, and begin to find white in our hair. Infants and children can still be taken from us before their time…And yet we can still find joy and comfort beside a blazing hearth. We call plants and grasses or even trees ‘dead’ after the fall because we don’t see new leaves and shoots. We may have to replant seeds or wait until new buds grow in the spring. We may see a fallen tree stretched massive and bleached as a whale’s skeleton across a path in the forest. But is the tree really dead? Is it sleeping, has it just changed and begun to live again as something new?
The world of nature that may seem beyond us and our day to day lives is actually a part of our existence at every moment. And in our world, death is also ever present and much more of a change than a finite event. But it only helps us so much to know that, doesn’t it, when we lose someone we love to that point of irrevocable change? When we say good-bye to the departed in the awareness that we will not see them again through the remaining days of our lives, or when we remember that a beloved ancestor from family stories will never actually stand living and breathing with us…This is hard.
I know that this has been a very difficult truth to face in my own life and I won’t pretend that my belief that death is change rather than an end has made losing my beloved ones easier. It’s only a belief; I can’t give any sure answer that I’ll see them again, or be aware of what or who they have become. What I can say is that this time of year can give us more than one true gift, no matter how elusive they may seem. We have the gift of respite and the Earth Lady herself shares it with us.
In the midst of all the frantic paces in our lives, all of our days, of the school year, preparing for winter, anticipation of the holidays of December, the earth turns much more slowly. And as she turns in her dance among the giants, it grows colder and darker. So many of her children go to rest and renew themselves for the next turning into the Spring. And as the dusk grows, as the fire dims, we can watch the sparks as they still rise and leap up toward the sky. We can welcome the Hunter and hound stars at night. We can rest as the old year dies, even if we only allow our souls to stop or pause and mark the change. We can celebrate the memory of the beauty and abundance of the summer and mark the eldritch loveliness of the creaking blackwork the bare trees make against the setting sun. We can remember that even though it will become darker each day until the Winter solstice, the light will return to the sky.
And if we may also believe that, perhaps we will see our dead again when our time comes, that we may rest and renew and move with them, time after time, life after life through forests of the heart* and sun-drenched trails and worlds without end.
The beliefs in paradise or the Summer Country, the idea of reincarnation or rebirth do not exist in isolated vacuum chambers, rather, they can coexist. If we don’t know that any of these things happen for certain, we also remain unable to say that they don’t. Even if we believe that nothing happens after our death, that we go nowhere but our grave, there isn’t a burial practice in the world that doesn’t send some part of our physical bodies back into the earth. And as we become part of the earth again, that which was once us lives on.
In this meditation, I hope to introduce you all to one of the servants and faces of Epona. Epona is an ancient Goddess, worshiped by the Celtic tribes across Europe. She watches over horses and all animals. She walks in the west, sometimes with two legs, sometimes on four. She guides souls to the afterward. I hope that today a sense of her will walk with all of you, even if only briefly in your mind’s eye. Close your eyes and draw in a deep breath, letting it out as soon as you feel ready. Try to focus on that calm, shapeless world behind your eyelids. Now imagine your eyes opening. Even as you open your eyes you feel the air, cold and sharp with the red-brown wind of fall teasing along your cheeks. You feel the thick frost of early morning seeping in cold through your shoes.
You are standing in the middle of an open field. Before the frost and winds flattened it, the grass would have brushed above your ankles. Now most of it is against the ground, frozen into pale green and yellow whorls and spirals. There is faint sunlight streaking the sky and from the distance, you see a thick bank of clouds, blue and deep grey as the back of a swimming whale, soft as a quilt, advancing towards your patch of sunlight. The clouds are vast, but not threatening. This is one of the great sky-scapes of New England, wind, cloud and sunlight blending into a thousand different shades and patterns through an ever-changing world. Behind you, you hear movement, the low, muffled thud of unshod hooves in the thick grass. The mare comes and stands on your right side. Her winter coat is thick and soft; the warmth of it reaches the edge of your senses. She is many colors, black, brown, grey, any and all colors you may see in your heart. One of her eyes, the size of a golf ball, takes you in, and you can see your reflection in its infinite dark. She sighs, as horses do and her ears flop slightly in relaxation. Her breath is warm on your neck. She is one of Epona’s children, a horse spirit, servant and embodiment of the Goddess, the Mother of Mares, the sacred and wondrous Earth lady. Now, today this mare is here to help you. Imagine your fingers buried in the thick fur at her neck. Imagine the strength of the curving muscle under your hand. Ask her for comfort and love while you remember your dead. Ask her for help in carrying your love, your celebration, your feelings of any sort to your dead. Or simply imagine her beside you in solidarity as you acknowledge your dead on your own. There is no right or wrong here. You may feel the dead, an awareness of them or their awareness of you. You may not have anything to say, you may not have entirely resolved feelings. In doing this, you allow the dead to know you remember them and yourself to think of the love or healing or strength they gave you in life. Send them your love or any true feelings you wish to share. Breathe and remember as you do.
…The mare whuffles softly into your neck. The sun has set in the west and the moon has risen in a perfect white disk against the pale purple quilt of clouds and sky. She will stay to guide your dead. It’s time for you to take another breath, come back into yourself and open your eyes.
Closing words The planets have turned. The old year has died, gone into the time of waiting, respite and change. So have all those we have loved or known who have gone before us. Take whatever time to remember them in any way you choose or feel the need. May the strength and wisdom of the great Earth Lady bless us for all our days and may we all meet again in the next turn of the wheel.
*Forests of the Heart Charles De Lint, 2001