Samhain has its roots in an ancient Celtic fire festival. It falls at the boundary of October and November, marking the end of autumn and the beginning of winter. Samhain is a time of transition, an in-between space. It is a liminal time (from limen, the Latin word for threshold) Samhain is a doorway, connecting golden harvest time and cool, still darkness. Across the threshold, the seasons meet and touch. They stand in relationship.
As I’ve said before, I believe that relationship is the essence of Wicca. In Samhain’s liminal beauty, I see a celebration of the challenges and ineffable fulfillment of living in relationship.
Folklore holds that liminal times and spaces (crossroads, thresholds, midnight, Samhain) bring us to a closer relationship with the Otherworlds, lands of enchantment and imagination. The Veil between our everyday world and the Otherworlds begins to thin. The inhabitants of the Otherworlds reach out to us and make themselves felt.. The nature of those inhabitants varies across stories and traditions – they may be 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. Many of the secular traditions of Halloween are inspired by the tales of these creatures, playing on the possible relationships between humans and spirits.
More solemnly, the Otherworlds are home to the spirits of our beloved dead, and Samhain is their festival. At Samhain we acknowledge that we exist in the midst of cycles of death and life. The thinning of the Veil at Samhain enables us to affirm and celebrate our relationships with those who have passed over.
During a previous conversation here at The Slacktiverse, someone asked me how I could have a relationship with someone who isn't alive anymore. How would that work, without the other person communicating and responding to me?
I don’t find the lack of active communication to be an insuperable barrier to being in relationship with my beloved dead. After all, I have relationships with living people who don’t communicate with me (or at least not very often.) 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, our communications might be infrequent, but the intensity of my relationship with him would not be dissolved simply by time and space.
When I open the door to greet someone I haven’t seen for a while, I am often struck by how their presence is more vivid than my memories or imagination of them. I remember the prejudices, the follies, the foibles, as well as the charm, the wit, and the mannerisms, but time and distance can dull those recollections, like a reproduction of a vibrant oil painting sketched in misty watercolors. When the real person crosses my threshold, I realize how much I’ve forgotten. The relative I haven’t seen for years turns out to be both more kind than I remember 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. This challenge is clearest in our relationships with the beloved dead, who lack the ability to refresh our memories of their impact and their essence. Renewing those relationships at Samhain teaches me more about what it means to live in relationship with others.
Across distance and silence, I can think about, remember, and hope and wish and pray for the people I love, living and dead. In doing so, I am relating to them. The challenge is to stay open to who those people actually are, not just who I might wish them to be. I must listen to them.
Without listening – without paying careful attention to the reality of those we love -- 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. We can romanticize a lost lover; we can mythologize our beloved but questionable ancestors.
The same wearing-down process, unfortunately, can occur in relationships with people we see every day. Unless we listen, we fall out of relationship with the living person and into an easier but ultimately flawed relationship with a caricatured memory. Metaphorical silence and distance leads eventually to literal distance, when one person says "You're not who I thought you were.”
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.
At Samhain, we practice this in our relationships with the dead. Just because they’re silent doesn’t mean we can’t listen. 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 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. We trade speech for silence; that 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 who are present but 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. As 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, they 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, hearing from them in ways I might not expect or easily understand; it prepares me to hear even things that make me uncomfortable -- an essential part of an ongoing relationship.
This kind of listening is not necessarily the absence of talking; after all, our lives are stories told in dialogue. But it is dialogue -- not monologue. When we learn to listen, we encounter the reality of relationships, the reality that our stories are all told together. When we listen, we cannot assert complete control over our own narrative by shouting to drown others out; we cannot plug our ears so that no one else's story can interfere with our own. When we listen, we participate in stories of relationship. Listening is an act of awareness, of being present with and in the dialogue that surrounds us.
When we listen not only to the words but to the silence, we discover that the meaning of the story is formed by the silent pauses between words. Without them, all our speech would be incomprehensible noise. The silence is the heart of the story.
The liminal spaces that seemed empty are full of potential and interaction. The fullness of those spaces brings us to fullness, into full participation in the relationships that are the essence of life together.
The stories of Samhain are stories of relationships that cross all boundaries – between autumn and winter, between this world and the Otherworlds, between life and death. The rites of Samhain bring us to the threshold, the doorway, the liminal space where we connect across the boundary between self and other. And so at the threshold of November, I stand in the great silent pause between my story and that of my beloved dead – and I listen.
--Literata and Morwen
 Of course in the southern hemisphere summer is just beginning and the upcoming feast is Beltane.↩
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