Power from the Ancestors

When my grandmother was dying in her mid nineties - before she recovered and lived until her 103rd birthday - she had a vision.


Grandma - a Jewish atheist who was one of the strongest, most determined, most resilient, and good natured people I have ever know - returned from near death to say that she had met with Jesus.


Saint Jesus - as she called him - gave her a mission. She was to end the use of violence in resolving conflict - but she had 10,000 years to do it.


Jesus? She did not believe in God. She certainly did not believe in the Christian notion of divinity, but here was Jesus as a great figure - as a prophet - giving her a mission to carry out after her death.


My grandmother always had strength. She was on her own from a very early age after her mother died and her father essentially abandoned his children. She found work despite rampant anti-Semitism. She made money investing although she started with absolutely nothing. When my grandfather's working-class possibilities of earning for the family were cut short by a major heart attack in his 30s, my grandmother supported the family and managed to send two children - both daughters - to university.


How did she manage it? How did she stay strong and hold her head high despite the hardships she faced and the prejudices she had to confront?


My grandmother spoke often of her grandparents - simple immigrants who helped raise her and her sisters when her own parents were gone. And later, I began to learn of some of the imaginings she had - myths that sustained her. Near death, she spoke of her ancestors as royalty. Not at all true, of course, but a vision that helped her and gave her strength. The spirits of her ancestors - both real and imagined - gave her the incredible strength to carry on.


Today, with Halloween just around the corner, I want to explore what we draw from those who came before us. What effect to our ancestors have on us today - whether those ancestors are literally or figuratively our own?


Halloween - or All Hallows Eve is probably a Christianised version of pagan celebrations that have long taken place at this time of year, and especially of the Celtic festival of Samhain. 

Samhain was understood as a time when the boundaries between the worlds of the living and dead became thin and became permeable. It was a time when spirits could cross from their separate world into ours. 


The souls of the dead might also return to their homes. Families held feasts and their dead ancestors were summoned to attend. Spirits intent on causing trouble could be mollified. Spirits prepared to support and strengthen the living would be guests of honour.


Mexicans celebrate a festival called - in translation - the Day of the Dead - the continuation of a similar ancient tradition.  Families go to cemeteries to decorate the graves of the deceased relatives. 


This is no melancholy day of mourning, but rather a joyous festival. Flowers, special bread, sugar skulls, cardboard skeletons, fruit, nuts, incense, and traditional foods all play a part in the honoring and connecting with the spirits of the departed.


Throughout time, human beings have looked to the past for strength from those who came before.


It feels very much like this has changed - and not just recently. Thomas Jefferson spoke about looking to the past as with the analogy of asking "a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy." Since Jefferson's time, our distaste for the past - at least among the more left-oriented part of our culture - seems only to have increased.


Only conservatives look to the past, we might complain. Wasn't the past a time of more bigotry, more inequality, more racism, more homophobia, more xenophobia, and more intolerance than the present - and we expect even better from the future.


So why the heck should we even consider looking to the past?


How can we draw strength from those ignorant dark ages - you know - the ones that ended in 2012?


And Elsa Gidlow kindles the fire and knows that she is "linked by chains of fire to every woman who has kept a hearth." 


Does the past and do the ancestors hold any strength for us today?


I have seen two extremes. There are those who insist that what happened in the past is meaningless cannot and should not affect us today. They cannot give us strength or inspiration for the future.


And then, at the other extreme, are those who live in the past. I know someone who answers essentially every questions with a quotation from someone deceased as though there is nothing new that can be said. It's all there in the past if we go looking for it.


And there are the historical re-enactors and others who seem to want to live in the past.


I want to suggest a middle way.


Each of us here is probably aware of the great person who once sat in box number 19.  Mary Wollstonecraft was a powerful, intelligent, brave, and a truly transgressive figure. We have turned to her memory at many times for strength and inspiration.  Some would even say that her spirit is in this place - that it continues to drive us.


Mary Wollstonecraft was mentioned and called upon when we took the controversial decision to refuse to conduct straight marriages as a political statement about what we saw as the unfairness of laws around civil partnerships. We felt authority and courage to do difficult things because of the path she trod so long before our own time.


And to be strengthened by Mary for our Marriage Equality struggle is a remarkable thing, especially since Mary's writings include passages that make clear she had no sympathy for same-sex relations.


But the power that Mary Wollstonecraft lends us is her spirit - not her actual being. The spirit we live with represents strength and courage. It encourages us to dare to defy the status quo - to question the assumptions of our age.


To honour Mary Wollstonecraft is not blindly to hold her positions, including the biases she inherited from her time, but to take her spirit forward and apply her attitude to the specifics of our own time.


This is where I would like to involve you in the discussion. What spirits from the past can you or we call upon for strength or inspiration today? 

I'm going to ask you to write on a card. 


Write two things: 1) the name of a person from the past and 2) what that inspiration could lead you or us to do.


As the cards come up to the front, I'll read them out. We'll also have all the cards available for reading after the service.