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Connecting With Community

For a while, I wasn’t sure how I wanted to approach this topic.  Of the Four Centers of Paganism, this is probably the one I engage with the least in a formal way.  And then, I read a book.  It wasn’t a Pagan book, and heck, it wasn’t a book I would normally ever read.  I can’t even say that I truly *liked* the book (thought I gave it 4 stars on Amazon because it was easy to read, unique, and rather interesting).  But anyhow, I got a hold of a copy of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore on my Kindle, and read it in about 2 1/2 hours (I read fast) one night, sacrificing about 2 hours a sleep to finish it. 

The heart of the book is a message that true “magic” is what we do with our own two hands, that immortality comes from what we make than endures, and that the answers we are looking for are usually not what we find.  It achieves this through the narrative of an out-of-work failed start-up guy (with relatively successful friends) that gets the night shift at a bookstore front for the library of a cult-like secret society of bibliophiles trying to find immortality in the coded book of a 16th century Italian typesetter.  And (without any real spoilers in terms of plot, because I’m pretty sure you can figure out that there is no immortality magic bullet to be found in the coded book of a 16th century Italian typesetter) the real immortality is in the connections we make with one another, and in the things we make with our own two hands, that endure.  Which is sort of a big fat “duh”, but until reading that, I’m not sure of how I would have articulated it…and why I’ve been sitting on this blog post for a hot minute.

Were I the one to name the Four Centers of Paganism, I think I’d rename “Community Centered as “Humanity-Centered”, and on the topic of “connecting with spirit” (from the To Walk a Pagan Path read along I’m doing), I think I’d call it “connecting with humanity”, rather than community.  While community makes more room linguistically for non-humans, I think we choose to do so because of the incatracies of what it really means to *be* human, as our best selves (and sometimes as our worst).

Community centered Pagans find the Divine within the family and the tribe – however they choose to define those groups. Ancient tribal religion was (and is, in the few places where it still exists) about maintaining harmonious relationships and preserving the way things have always been. Individuals are secondary to the family, and immortality is in the continuation of the family, not in the continuation of the individual.

It usually includes some form of ancestor worship, and may include offerings to the Agathos Daimon – the “good spirit” or guardian spirit of the household.
~John Beckett, The Four Centers of Paganism @ Under the Ancient Oaks

A humanity-centered Paganism that incorporates on a connection with spirit through our human-ness most certainly incorporates a certain level of humanism (religious or not).  It often includes kinship (whether kin-by-blood or kin-by-choice) as a type of spiritual bond, and will likely include ancestor veneration.  But it can also include the idea of humanity itself (or aspects of humanity) as an active, even deified, force working in the Cosmos (in the same manner as nature spirits).

Ancestor Veneration

AV is often called ancestor “worship” and I think this gives many people unfamiliar with the practice the wrong impression. Most of us who practice AV don’t worship their ancestors as higher powers that require bended knee or think the dead attain godhood. AV is a way of recognizing and remembering those who came before us. It’s honoring and thanking them, asking for help or advice, or just sharing time and remembering shared history (if there is any) – much like we would with a respected member of our living family. For those, like me, who practice AV, the dead don’t leave us behind. They are still present in our lives and can help in times of need. We take comfort from the belief that one day we will be ancestors to whom our descendants will (hopefully) pray, so that we, too, can watch over our family from the beyond and help strengthen the family wyrd* (or whatever a particular religious tradition calls the linking of one generation to the next).

from The Pagan Princess, “Ancestor Veneration–A World Tradition

I choose to honor non-biological ancestors as part of my tradition, but I don’t practice a traditional veneration of my biological ancestors.  So, rather than explain something I don’t do, I’ll share some words and wisdom from a couple of folks that do practice ancestor veneration (and you might notice that, while similar, they offer some very different persectives.

The first thing to consider is that not all ancestors are blood relatives:

It’s not all that unusual to have unrelated “ancestors” become part of your ancestral house. Some indigenous traditions actually have specific names for the various types of ancestors: blood vs. affinity. Besides, friends, teachers, and mentors who have died can and should also be honored as respected ancestors. I don’t think that one is more important than the other. If we go far enough back, we all share common ancestry and I think it’s good and proper to honor them all, regardless of whether the association is one of blood, adoption, or affinity.

~Galina Krasskova writing @ Patheos in 2011

John Beckett (blogger @ Patheos), in a post entitiled “Who are our ancestors?” breaks down ancestors into 4 groups–the ones we know (in our lineage), the ones we don’t (in our lineage), ancestors “of spirit” (teachers, neighbors, mentors, civil leaders, etc), and our “ancestors most ancient” (from our human ancestors on back down the evolutionary line).  I like this, in that is acknowleges that kinship is complicated and that it involves more than genetics and more than just humans.  Galina Krasskova also acknowleges other-than-human ancestors of a different sort–the gods themselves, the elements, etc.  When you look at ancestry in this way, well then, yeah, I venerate my ancestors…but in my experience, most people aren’t venerating Water as an ancestor.  But…when you look at what people are actually doing on a routine basis, ancestor veneration is mostly about hominids, and usually ones we are related to or consider close to us in some way.

When we honor these ancestors, we subtly affirm an important fact: most of them weren’t Christians. If I assume my ancestors in the British Isles converted to Christianity in 500 CE (it could have been earlier – it also could have been much later) then I’ve got about 50 generations of Christians in my heritage. While the “out of Africa” migration date is highly contentious, even using the conservative date of 70,000 years ago I’ve got about 2300 generations of non-Christian ancestors – and that’s in addition to thousands more generations of human ancestors who lived in Africa.

Yes, in leaving Christianity I have rejected the religion of some of my ancestors. But I’m working to restore the polytheist, animist, and pantheist religions of many, many more.

One theme that emerges from some people practicing ancestor veneration is that it restores a pre-Christian mindset.  Some more extreme views here (as mentioned in the elsewhere blog post I previously quoted by Galina Krasskova), considers those ancestors that converted (and lets be honest, it was probably forcefully) to Christianity to be a sort of traitor, and not worthy of worship until they renounce their choice (which sounds oh-so-Christian to me…hey, lets engage in this spiritual shunning because you didn’t do what I think is right).  Others (like John Beckett, above) are quite reasonable, and perhaps admirable.  But I personally think that this view depends too much on fallacy of antiquity–its right because its old and we were doing it longer as a species (maybe that’s also part of my person hang-up on ancestor veneration).  

People are animals like any other species, and the religions that developled in antiquity are as much a byproduct of biological and cultural evolution as any other adaptative technology (like clothing) as it is part of the *something else* that separates us from other animals.  I personally think that we should be looking at our ancestors as lessons as *what not to do* as we do inspiration for *what we should do*.  In this same vein, many of us will have issues to address when it comes to “Honoring our Toublesome Ancestors”, a wonderfully thoughtful blog post by John Beckett.  (Hey, just because I don’t do something doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate someone else’s views!)

Venerating Humanity

  Humanity isn’t a chain, one generation linking to the next; it is a river, flowing and overlapping.

What matters to me is remembering the lessons of history and humankind that have impacted our lives in a general sense, and in a more specific and personal sense. Sometimes those people are our relations. Sometimes those people are friends. Sometimes those are people that we’ve never even met. Sometimes, they might even be fictional.

me, from here

On Memorial Day, our family holds a ritual of acknowlegement and thanks to the men and women that have died of war.  On Samhain we honor those that we loved and have lost–relations, friends, and personally influential individuals to us. On Darwin Day, we celebrate the tool of inquiry known as science that offers another layer by which to encounter and interact with the world, a tool that has (thanks to Mr. Darwin) given us great insight into our place in the Tree of Life.  On “Columbus Day” we hold a mirror to the great injustices perpetrated by Columbus and the genocide that followed, one of our great sins of our modern history.  On Martin Luther King Day, we do the same for the second (in terms of commencement, not in terms of magnitude or importance) of our great sins of modern history.  There are others–for example we celebrate Demokratia (aka Libertas)–a deity that exists from a human ideal, on the 4th of July. Additionally, I regularly remember a number persons from Ben Franklin to Wangari Maathai and dedicate certain activites to their memory.

After all, the greatest mystery of life is what happens when we die. The only sure bet for the parts of us that remain are the memories we leave behind, the actions we inspire in others, the stories that are passed on, and the material legacy that we can’t take with us. I know that elephants mourn their dead, and that other animals show signs of stress and perhaps even grief when offspring die, but as far as I know, we are the only species that contemplates our ending with a mind to legacy as a method to find immortality. I don’t know whether that tendency is good or bad…though I am certain there are bits of both in there. But ultimately, it is who we are as a species, and I would rather honor the things that make us human in the best way than reject them because some choose to use them in the worst.

For me, connecting with community can be something practical–seeking a community of similarly-spiritual folks to socialize with, perhaps to do ritual with, to exchange ideas and support and take action together for the betterment of our wider community (even those that surely believe I am hell-bound), as with the Midsummer ritual and beach clean-up my daughter and I attended last weekend. Connecting with community can be a matter of embracing or confronting those ideas and ideals (and the gods that represent them) that are a part of what makes us human–democracy (Demokratia/Libertas), retribution (Nemesis), justice (Dike), retaliation, (Poene), victory (Nike), Adicia (injustice), etc. (a list of the Greek minor deities that “preside over the human condition”). It might mean volunteering or giving to charities that assist those in need in honor of a loved one, venerating one’s ancestors as a regular religious practice, or something else all together that I’ve not thought about.

The question is, what do you do to connect with community as a part of your spiritual practice?