Thin Places and Sacred Ancestors

When my Celtic ancestors felt the energy of a place was sacred, they called it a “thin place,” meaning the boundary between this world and others was easily crossed at such locations; spirits might travel freely; the ancestors—and other spirits—were close.

Halloween, in part, is derived from Samhain, which marked the New Year for the Celts, a time when the souls of the year’s recent dead traveled beyond earth, and the long-deceased came back to “visit,” their presence welcomed.

When the Catholic Church sought to convert indigenous cultures (or “pagans,” the term Romans used to designate “country people”), it took their sacred days and translated them into Christian observances, and so November 1 became All Saints Day and November 2 is called All Souls Day. (These latter souls, presumably, await heaven and sainthood in purgatory, where one’s lingering sins are “purged.”)

Regardless of one’s theological views and practices, in the Northern Hemisphere this is the season when all the world’s considered a thin place. It seems natural, as vegetation dies back, exposing nature’s stark architecture, to enter the time of darkness and long shadows and consider the spirits of the newly and long-departed.

It’s fitting and important to set aside special days to focus our attention and gratitude upon single themes, events, people and memories. The danger is that we relegate our awareness of these important bonds to one-day-a-year only, as we relegate our acknowledgement of the Sacred to barely an hour a week, or less. (And heaven help you if a church service is ending as a football game is starting! The Sacred better get out of the way quickly.)

For growing numbers of people, however, it’s important to integrate connection with the Sacred in meaningful ways every day; nothing is profane unless we see it as such, and I think that explains the increasing attraction to non-Western cultures and their spiritual practices, as well as seeking new ways to honor the earth and all those who live in communion with us.

I’ve mentioned the books of Malidoma Patrice Somé before. My favorites are Of Water and Spirit and The Healing Wisdom of Africa. In both, he illustrates repeatedly the link between the deceased ancestors and the living community of his people, the Dagara tribe of West Africa. The ancestors are sources of wisdom and counsel for tribal leadership, choices, and direction. It is a natural behavior to commune with them daily.

The elderly in the tribe, because of their advanced age and proximity to death, are viewed as living on the bridge between worlds and therefore closer to the ancestors, and the newborn are viewed similarly; they have “just arrived” from the ancestral land and the company of the Wise Ones. This forms a tribal link between the young and the elderly, whose relationships are very close, sometimes edging out deep connections with those who, by necessity, are more fully engaged with “the things of this world.” The elderly and very young are believed to have the ability to speak with the ancestors more fluently and are respected for this connection.

In our materialistic, work-focused approach to life, we cart the young ones away to day care and the elderly off to nursing homes, or we move far away from childhood communities, severing connections that follow us from birth to death, and denying ourselves the deep riches of lifelong community. Relationships and the wisdom of our ancestors don’t matter so much to us. The immaterial, the insubstantial lacks value; or rather, it can’t be accorded a price point, which is what we most value. We’re often connected to our money and our desire (or frustrated desire and anxiety) more than to relationships with family, living or dead.

The recent Presidential campaign has clearly illustrated that “what should be important” is jobs: making money and spending money. One candidate is perhaps a bit more blatant and aggressive in his disregard for the earth, the ancestor we all share, by promising mining, fracking, and the extraction of resources needed by corporations (and robbed, if necessary, from lands that are currently federally-protected). Whatever it takes to get and keep people working (when they’re not shopping), will be accommodated.

But both candidates have neglected to confront the lack of reverence we have for the earth and the resulting devastation wreaked by storms like Hurricane Sandy. No mention of conservation, our role in climate change, global warming, or the sacrifices we might make to correct these, has been made. No invitations to alter our worldviews or perspectives have been offered. People who lost their homes along the coast are being urged to “rebuild” instead of to “rethink.” And how could it be any different when the campaigns’ exorbitant costs are funded by the wealthy corporations (i.e., “persons”) and their officers, who reap the short-term benefits from these ill-gotten resources and the new slave laborers we’ve consented to become?

We carry our ancestry in our DNA. I’ve enjoyed episodes of a program that connects people with their ancestors through investigating their genetic roots. Their DNA leads to unearthed connections played out across charts, and they learn about their ancestors’ stories, sometimes going back hundreds of years. It’s profoundly moving to see the featured guests weep, share their amazement, or evidence stunned silence as these deep connections are revealed.

We yearn for sacred connection, all the more because we have forgotten who—and what—we are. Imagine the wealth afforded by conversations with our ancestors. What can we do differently? What did they learn from their trials, errors, successes? Are they proud of the people we are becoming and the world we are creating? How can we better steward our gifts and those of the earth?

Perhaps, instead of just rushing, working and shopping during these sacred days of early November, we could stand in our thin places and listen for the wisdom of our ancestors and the lessons of Mother Earth. Perhaps we could kneel in reverence and gratitude for all of these holy connections that exist to nourish our souls, offer us wisdom and energize our spirits.

Perhaps we could change ourselves and so, the world. Because we’re always standing in a thin and holy place, being held by Mother Earth, with the wisdom of our ancestors circling in our hearts.

Just listen.

13 thoughts on “Thin Places and Sacred Ancestors

  1. I so loved this piece Kitty…As always so well written and to the point. We seem to have gotten ourselves so back asswards in our lives. It most definitely is time to listen CLOSELY in the thin places. Respect and tending to one another is first and foremost on the program for mending. To leave our children and our elderly in a quest for money is just so insane. We have much changing to do but I think we are entering that time now. The whole world is a thin place right now. Thanks! VK

    • Thank, VK; I would so love to see a shift and “opening” in my lifetime. I think people have always struggled with the time they have and how best to allocate it, but they seem to no longer struggle much with the deeper meaning of having time to “use” in the first place…too many easy distractions. I always appreciate your visits and wisdom!

  2. Kitty, Thank you so much for this brilliant work. I know for a fact that until today I have never read any work where photographs made it hard to decide if the images provide a contect for understanding the meaing of the essay, or vice versa. So perfectly do the images “fit” the language. I love the juxtaposition of all the different periods of time, the kaleidoscopic movement from one time to another in your family’s life. Of all the images, the one of your dad, sitting up against a tree, looking in and through the camera, just smiling — I actually had to turn away more than once and compose myself before I could look again. Thank for putting it so elegantly in words and images: the demands of work and the distractions of living help us to forget that we hold hands spiritually with those who’ve come before us and those yet to enter this life. We ignore the loving spirit of this Earth and all the beauties it contains and all the love that’s here to have, to share, to revel in. Thank you! and Thank you.

    • Thank you, Matt; you summed it up better than I said it in the first place. I do love that picture of Daddy…ah, youth! I also love the last one of my great-grandfather toasting his almost-son-in-law (my grandfather Louie) who had just asked for the hand of Jake’s daughter, Johannah. It’s such a happy photo and so much life and so many people I’ve loved so dearly “spilled out to life” from that day and holy union! (Their wedding photo is earlier in the post…my grandparents’ birthdays were October 22 and 24, and their wedding was November 4, so it’s REALLY a thin place for them at this time of year!) I love when you visit, Matt. Thank you!

  3. What a wonderfully interesting profound post Catherine. I thought it was brilliantly wriiten and so informative too.

    I found the ” thin places” most intriguing and when this ended I really wanted to read more.

    I LOVED those black and white photo’s….absolutely enchanting, xxxxx

  4. Thank you, snowbird…I appreciate your visits so much. It was fun to integrate family photos and “be with” people I have loved so much. I’ve felt true thin places at some retreat houses, some churches, and certainly in certain landscapes. We felt it at Full Moon right away, which is part of the reason we’ve been so happy here, I think! 🙂

  5. Kitty, I see you are visiting me while I am visiting you – sweet synchronicity 🙂 This post moved me so much, your words and your loving family photos. It is certainly worth reflecting on, and your take on the lost opportunities of this election cycle spoke to what I have been feeling but unable to articulate. But I have been writing all week about the “thin days” – ironically, I found myself reflecting deeply on family memories on Halloween night – because of the storm, trick or treating was moved to this evening, so I had unclaimed time on Wednesday to reflect and do a little family archeology. It happened so naturally and without forethought that I became convinced of the meaning of the thin places and times and intend to include this as a new practice each year. Thank you for your always thoughtful and deep comments; you have given me much nourishing food for thought.

      • Thank you so much, Lynn. You seem so sensitively attuned to these things–thin places and the sacredness of life–that I’m honored you visit and share…Yes, that’s my great-grandmother, “Annie,” quite a long-lived and thorough character. She’s holding my mother and 2 of her siblings in this photo…and probably younger than I am now. (Yikes!) In the last photo, my great-grandfather (from the children’s other side of the family) is toasting their (future) father upon his engagement to their mother: I love that! Their wedding picture is here, too…it was fun to integrate photos of so many dear ones and, truly, I do talk them almost every day! I’m not sure their wisdom is getting through to me, but I am trying to listen! 🙂

  6. Oh, this is so good. The pictures held me still more than once. My first grandchild had a special, fascinating-to-watch non-verbal connection with her great-grandmother when she was a baby. I told the family it was because they were closer to God than we busy souls were. Thanks for the memory.

  7. Thank you, Amma…isn’t that connection between your grandchild and her great-grandmother a perfectly beautiful recollection? I think we intuit those connections so naturally when we’re very young and very old…maybe our energies flow more purely when we’re less encumbered by our culture’s demands. Hmmm. Something to ponder. 🙂

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