Calling up the Ancestors on All Saints
On a cool August morning with about eighty other people, I stood in front of a Buddhist shrine in a Colorado valley as a Native American drummed and chanted, calling up the ancestors to accompany us on a pilgrimage that would last for a week. We had gathered to explore the stories that bind us together for good or ill in the present world. I do not know much about my ancestors—specifically mine—who lived before the 19th century. I remember only two of my grandparents and none who came before them. My parents’ stories ran as far back as their grandparents, aunts and uncles, with an occasional anecdote preserved about Great-aunt Julia, because a piece or two of her jewelry came my family’s way when she died. But I knew a handful of names that I could call out loud and strong in the swelling tide of sound raised by that four-score people. We sounded like a chorus of great birds, a swarm of giant insects as we voiced our names that rolled out into the mist for a few seconds that seemed magnified and lengthened by the sheer power of the sound.
That was a very human moment. We were humans, not crows or bees or some other species. We were doing something that human beings alone among the creatures of earth do. With our memories we preserve stories from our past, and with our voices we tell them, passing on the information we need to survive. Along the way we have learned to sing, dance, paint, mime, act, carve, and write. Sometimes we look into the future and imagine what a new world might look like. But nearly always we tell stories and create scenes from our past. You can go the world over and find that what we were doing on that morning in Colorado is of a piece with what peoples everywhere do. We remember the dead. We honor them, sometimes even when we would think in sober moments that they did nothing to deserve honor. We set aside days and seasons to remember simple deeds that become more heroic as passing time gives them height and weight. They are important to us, because we generally have a sense that somehow they do not abandon us when they die. They hang around, unseen and usually silent. We imagine that what they learned they can teach us.
What we are doing on the Feast of All Saints is very like what that crowd of people was doing in Colorado. We have invoked the names of ancestors, some heroes and heroines in the faith, some even known for their opposition and challenge to the faith as they inherited it. We have called out names and placed on the ofrenda signs and tokens of people known mostly or only to ourselves. Not only have we thanked God for them; we have cried out for them to stand here beside us as we walk our journey.
As universal as is this habit of relating to the dead, not everyone does it nor does everyone approve of it. There are lots of reasons not to, if you are looking for one. First, aside from occasional ghosts and poltergeists, there is little evidence that the dead are anything other than dead and gone. Second, in a large swath of our rationalistic Western society, anything that doesn’t serve immediate materialistic goals is suspect if not disdained. Moreover, a host of abuses and not a little silliness has grown up over the years in lots of places when people have turned things like prayers for the dead into elaborate schemes for money making, encouraging a culture of superstition and ignorance. One could go on, but I don’t want to give you gratuitous reasons for spurning All Saints!
The deeper question, far more important than the issue of how human beings can take a good idea and make a mess of it, is why we have this need. What moves us to keep an annual feast for calling up the ancestors?
On the most basic level, we humans are conscious that we are who we are because of so much that so many have done before us. It is no accident that nearly all of our major stories and sagas and epics crystallize around the idea of a journey. We know we are going some place. And we realize on a very obvious level that we did not begin the journey. Others have brought us thus far. It does not take much for us to see, too, that each of us is a product of our parents who are products of their parents. If you are lucky enough to live to see two or three or four generations in your family, you can see before your very eyes how it is that not only physical characteristics are passed down from one generation to another, but how behavior has an uncanny way of replicating itself, too. I look into the mirror and am increasingly startled to see my father’s face looking back at me. I see a photograph of myself and can tell that my mother’s smile is the one I wear. Over my bed hangs a photograph of my great-grandparents and their large Victorian family, taken in 1902. In the center is my great-grandmother Burroughs, who died 19 years before I was born, yet whose expression I see when I catch a glimpse of my face in a shop window as I pass by, and whose eyebrow arch I frequently see my younger daughter bearing. I doubt that dolphins and dogs are aware of such things, but you and I are aware of them all the time.
But the Christian community knows a truth that is stronger, deeper still. We know that the whole story of the human race is a struggle of life against death. We know that the things that often masquerade as life-giving—like power and status and prestige and money—are often the very things that wring the life out of us. And we know that some things like crucifixions and martyrdoms and persecutions and bloodshed that look like things to be avoided at all costs are sometimes the very things that mock cruelty, that in a peculiar way advance the journey of the human race in giant leaps, and even sometimes set us free. We know that ultimately the dying we must undergo is nothing to fear because nothing in this world can take us out of the hand of the Living God, and thus we cannot fall out of the reach of Providence. We know that we live in a world thinly veiled from a powerful reality made of non-material stuff, a spiritual reality that underlies and overarches and supports all that goes on in this workaday life of ours. Not only do we know, but we celebrate the openings to that world when the veil is torn by things like baptism, letting us glimpse and feel the Presence of God in the form of acceptance, incorporation, renewal, affirmation.
We know, too, that though our eyes cannot see them, there are hundreds and thousands of people known by their witness to the Truth and still felt by the love they left behind, now marching in glory. We ponder their examples, believing them to be no more “dead” in the true sense of the word than our latest breath. We know that they are aiding us by their prayers because prayer is nothing less than conversing with the living God to whom they are united. We picture them now, a great multitude which no one can number, from every nation, from all tribes and people and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands, singing, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Like most of the things in which we believe that encourage and strengthen us, like love, hope, grace, the image of our ancestors in the faith cannot be weighed and measured. But we capture enough of it that it drives us forward, confident that we, too, will get to the place where we will hunger no more, neither thirst any more, nor be struck by scorching heat. We have already taken our places beside the Lamb in the center of the throne, who is our Shepherd. You have a place there too, and he will guide you to springs of the water of life and wipe away every tear from your eyes, save perhaps those of sheer joy that has run through your marrow when you have called out the names of the blessèd dead, saying with all your might, “Stand here, stand here, beside us!”
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2011