The source of my interest in things ancestral is probably not much different from your own. Curiosity, fascination and a love of history were on one side. On the other was a sense that ancestors were mysterious. My mother didn’t grow up with her birth family, having been fostered on a childless aunt when she was only 6 weeks old. She grew up with a child’s bewildered sense of abandonment at an act whose purpose and motivation still remained unknown until her death 85 years later. I subsequently grew up knowing only my father’s large family, appreciating my paternal grandparents where everyone gathered on Saturday afternoons at their house to argue about politics and sport, never religion. But I knew that I had another heritage somewhere and was missing something vital. Throughout my teenage years I wanted to get my mother’s family for her and for me. I finally tracked down my aunts and uncles, and arranged a family reunion, being mystified when my mother and they failed to bond. Too much acrimony, division and lack of nurture had flowed under that bridge, I realize now.
But besides that family mystery, I had a sense of ancestors as something greater than my immediate relatives. I experienced ancestors everywhere, feeling a kinship with the rolling hills of the
South Downs, with the sea, with animals and trees. Children have no tribe and are able to make friends with beings and people of all kinds and ages: I never lost that sense. There were also dimly sensed beings, human ancestors who seemed to be observing me. I would catch sight of them at the edge of sleep and dream, in quiet moments. I didn’t know then what to do about them or how to be with them; I didn’t fully understand what or who they were. They carried a great power but, because power and fear are the two sides of one coin, I was simultaneously attracted by their power and repulsed by my own fear. Their attention seemed to grow stronger as I went through puberty, as if I were becoming important to them in some way, making me feel doubly uncomfortable and embarrassed.
Despite this, ancestors kept showing up and finally I had to really look at them. The surprising thing was that when I did focus on them, rather than my usual glance and look away, that strength began to flow towards me, a strength that was the kind of strong love crowds demonstrate towards a winning competitor. This was simply astonishing. What had I done to disserve this attention? After all, I had grown up in a family where no-one was praised or honoured, where achievement was diminished by slighting criticism, where love was not demonstrated by signs of affection but by distancing jocularity, so I was overwhelmed with gratitude.
Looking back, I can see now that the ancestral birthright that should have come to my mother and thence to me had been somehow thwarted by her own childhood abandonment and by the family rift that resulted. But the ancestors didn’t want me just to bask in their approval, they wanted me to work hard to discover and use the ancestral legacy for others.
Like all unskilled folk, I didn’t always get it right, mostly because I had not been raised in culture in which the ancestors were a normal part of daily life. A pump that has been long disused is bound to have some rust in it before the water flows clear. My early attempts to teach ancestral traditions were hampered by my own lack of preparedness. There were many things still impeding my full understanding of the ancestors, including the problems of tribalism and partiality which keep human beings separate from each other, locked in a rivalry and competitiveness that . I had yet to find and understand the language and strategies by which 20th century people could be led to their ancestors without fear. I hadn’t realized just how high a wall separated Western culture and values from ancestral values, and so I stumbled about a bit. I hope that I didn’t harm or disable anyone’s attempts to draw near to their ancestors. If so, then may this book make good my errors.
Along the way I met many people who helped shape my understanding both those of indigenous cultures whose humility and ease around the ancestors was a lesson in itself, and those teachers whose examples were models of ancestral tolerance and humility. We can learn from anyone and anything, and I was really paying attention to the signs wherever I found them. I have not arrived at a perfect understanding of the ancestors, but then, they are always free to remind and teach me more when I need a new lesson.
Now I know that I can pray to the ancestors to help and support me and that I can show my gratitude to them in a number of ways: with my songs, with offerings, with thankfulness, including them and all who are yet to come in a thousand different acts of grace. One of the most powerful ways of learning from the ancestors for me has been the vigil: getting up in the middle of the night and just sitting with them. That has taught me more than anything else and I recommend it as the quick route to understanding. The privilege of the ancestral vigil, especially when you are perplexed and needing wisdom, is overwhelmingly humbling.
All prayer for the ancestors is as a waymark and blessing, not only to them but to those who are still lost upon the road, seeking their ancestral home. The ancient ancestral hearth and our own hearth are the same place. When we welcome the ancestors home, we ourselves cease to feel abandoned and so we come home too.
Caitlín’s new book Celtic Wisdom Oracle: Oracle Cards for Ancestral Wisdom and Guidance (Watkins) comes out in Spring 2011: it opens resourceful ways to work with ancestry, whether you are of Celtic derivation or not. See http://www.hallowquest.org.uk/