I am continuing to republish a series of articles originally written in 2011. I wrote this piece only a few months before my mother was diagnosed with cancer, and it is especially poignant in light of her recent passing.
May you be blessed with communication with all you love this Samhain.
I see Wicca as a religion of relationship. Samhain is the Sabbat that teaches us about the challenges and ineffable fulfillment of living in relationship.
Samhain has its roots in an ancient Celtic festival marking the beginning of winter. It is also the festival of the dead – not of death, although it does acknowledge that we live our lives in the midst of cycles that include death – but of the dead, especially those close to us who have died.
At this time of transition, as he days and nights transform themselves into the darker, cooler times of winter, folklore tells us that the Veil between our everyday world and the Otherworlds begins to thin. At liminal times like Samhain, as we move from the world of summer to the world of winter, it becomes easier for the Otherworlds, lands of enchantment and imagination, to make themselves felt in our normally real world. The Otherworlds are home to the spirits of our beloved dead as well as potentially many other kinds of beings, depending on the stories and traditions you know follow; they may include the Good Folk, the puca and the bean-sidhe, the kelpie of the well and the hinkypunk of the marsh, and other kinds of creatures as well.
These creatures and their tales inspired many of the traditions of Halloween which play on the possible relationships between humans and spirits. For those of us who have lost loved ones, though, it is the thinning of the Veil between us and our beloved dead that is the most important feature of Samhain. It makes this the time that we pay special attention to our relationships with those who have passed over.
During one conversation someone asked me how I could have a relationship with someone who isn’t alive anymore; how would that work, without the other person responding to me? Relationships with our beloved dead are certainly different from relationships with those who are alive, and more challenging to maintain, but the effort that goes into them teaches me more about what it means to live in relationship with others. Most of all, it helps me learn to listen.
The lack of active communication with my beloved dead does not represent, to me, an insuperable barrier to being in relationship. After all, we maintain what we think of as ongoing relationships with living people with whom we communicate infrequently; just because I haven’t spoken or written to someone in months doesn’t necessarily mean I have stopped relating to her. If my partner and I were separated by circumstances, no matter how infrequent communication was, the intensity of my relationship with him would not be dissolved simply by time and space. The ways we related during that time would be changed but not totally removed. When I think about, remember, hope and wish and pray for those I love, I am in some way relating to them. The challenge is to stay open to who those people actually are, not just who I might wish them to be. This is the importance of listening.
When I interact directly with people who I haven’t seen in some time, I am often struck by how their presence is more vivid than my memories or imagination of them. I may remember the prejudices, the follies, the foibles, as well as the charm, the wit, and the mannerisms, but distance often dulls those recollections, like a reproduction of a vibrant oil painting sketched in misty watercolors. When the impact and essence of the original impose themselves on me, it can be a shock to realize how much I downplayed or disregarded an aspect. This happens for both good traits and bad; seeing a relative in person reminds me that she is both kinder than I think about sometimes and more nauseatingly guilt-inducing than I would like to recall.
This, then, is the challenge of trying to be in relationship with someone without active input from the other side. We run the risk of wearing down the memory to just the parts that are comfortable for us, evening out all the sharp edges and unexpected valleys of the other’s personality into a featureless, indistinguishable lump. But it is worth noting that we can also do this wearing-down process perfectly well with people who we relate to on a regular basis: a relationship between people who see each other every day can eventually break down when one person says “You’re not who I thought you were.” Even for those who are alive, it’s easy for us to choose to relate to our image or caricature of a person rather than the person herself.
This is why learning to listen is at the heart of living in relationship. It’s a challenge to seek out the unexpected, the uncomfortable, the unusual, the unknown. We have to make the effort to acknowledge that someone with whom we’re in relationship is really an other – someone separate, distinct, different from ourselves and our ideas, images, and imaginings. This process of learning to listen, learning to be open and aware beyond ourselves calls us to be more than just ourselves as isolated individuals.
One of the traditional ways to relate to the deceased at this time of year is the dumb feast, where places are set for those who have passed over and the meal is held in silence. It combines a fundamental human kind of connection through shared food and drink with an explicit example of listening, of recognizing that for such a connection to be shared, we have to make space and time – and silence – for others. This form of contemplation is especially appropriate as we begin to move into winter, a time when the world as a whole becomes more quiet, more still. Trading speech, perhaps the most-used form of communication between people, for silence encourages us to engage in other forms of communication, forms which may be more amenable to other kinds of awareness and relationship.
Striving to be in relationship with people who are not immediately present is also a way to learn to be in relationship with others whose voices are hard to hear. In Wicca, I am in relationship with the land and water, with plants and animals, all of whom communicate with me in non-verbal ways. Like with an absent person, it is easy for me to hear only what I want to, to disregard the reality of these parts of my world in favor of the more comfortable constructs inside my own mind. But if I take time to listen, especially in non-verbal ways, they do speak to me, confronting me with the reality of their situation, more vivid and amazing than any imagination of my own.
Opening to this awareness also teaches me about how to be in relationship with those whose voices are too often silenced: people who are not like me, people who are underprivileged, people who are far away. When I challenge myself to remember the complexity of the people I love who have passed over, it makes me better prepared to acknowledge the complexities that someone else’s life may hold. It teaches me to seek out their voices, to be open to hearing from them in ways I might not otherwise expect, and even to be open to hearing things that make me uncomfortable, because I realize that is an essential part of an ongoing relationship.
Learning to listen pushes us to cultivate empathy and to cultivate a kind of joint awareness of ourselves and others that may even begin to blur the boundaries of what is self and what is other. This is where listening is not just the absence of talking. This is how listening becomes an act of awareness, of being present with and in the relationships that surround us.
To work with reality, as a good Witch must strive to do, I must first be aware of that reality. And that reality is a reality of relationships, the reality that our stories are all told together. We may try to shout more loudly, to assert complete control over our own narrative, or we may try to stop our ears entirely so that no one else’s story can interfere with our own. But either way, we deny ourselves the ability to live fully, because our lives are stories of relationship, stories told in dialogue.
An essential part of dialogue is listening. This listening is not an absence, but a fullness, a presence that participates in being together, in relating to the others in the dialogue. Like the not-so-empty space between things that is full of potential and interaction, and the silence between words that makes meaning possible, listening between beings is is what makes relationships possible. And that is the basis of life, for beings, like words, interenanimate each other. This is why I try to listen – to my beloved dead and to all the beings I live with in relationship.