Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Simple Sweeping Lines

My introduction to the idea of Ancestor worship began with my father’s study of our family genealogy. I loved hearing the names of the people who made our lives possible. But more than that, I wanted to know their stories- an impossible task without a time-travel machine. Since I couldn’t know their stories, the least I could do was acknowledge their lives. The doorway for my spiritual development was Ifa, the Yoruban practice of Ancestor Reverence, which their religion is based around. One of the ideas I connected strongly with in their religion, was the creation of an altar as a meeting point.

The act alone, of pausing to acknowledge your ancestors, is an offering of self and dedication to their memories. But I wanted to connect to them more deeply. It felt important in my bones. Building an altar is the easiest way to begin a relationship with the Ancestors. Dig through layers of earth, get closer to core. Peel back the layers of church and touch god. Swim backwards through the blood, to find me. And I find you. I see you. I hear you. I acknowledge you. I want to remember you. If I believe my words can find you then I must weight my words so the connection between us is stronger and clearer.

The altar doesn’t have to be big or flashy, but it has to belong to them. Spiritual practice, whatever you practice, is one of the areas of life where intention always matters. I’ve seen altars built on the row of a bookshelf, a corner table, a cinderblock against the side of a house, and even one on top of a television.

When I constructed my first ancestor altar, I followed the guidelines of a practitioner of Ifa. When using photos for your altar, a lasting superstition based on intention is that you must not place photos out that have living people in them. It’s considered a bad omen and an act of wishing that living person harm. The rest of it is simple. There must be a surface dedicated to the ancestors. A candle. A glass that only the ancestors will drink from. Water. And seven days of devotion.

Your devotion must be at the same time every day. What time you choose isn’t important, but the consistency is. I picked a time that I knew I would be available and home for a week. Your beacon must burn at the same time every day, like a lighthouse, to give the spirits time to find you. As to what ancestors you call or welcome into your home, you can be as wide-open or closed with your invitation as you wish.

Each night at 9:00, I stood in front of my altar and lit my candle, calling on the ancestors of my family, the ancestors of Eaton, Riddle, Ruston and Art. I use those names as doorways for contact with ancestors unknown. I called them to me, through time, through the bloodline. I asked for their wisdom to speak to me in dreams. Then I poured fresh, clear, cool water into the glass, an offering of Oblation, so the spirits may refresh themselves. When done outdoors, Oblations are poured directly into the ground. I spoke the same prayer every night, one I was taught (and adapted slightly), by a friend and mentor:

            To those who have gone before,
            To those whose names live in my heart and dance across my lips,
            To those whose names have been forgotten, lost in the sea of time,
            To those whose bones lie above and within the earth,
            To those whose ashes have traveled on the winds,
            Blessings to you, from the living.

Ifa guidelines suggest that after seven days your beacon is strong enough to put your altar to everyday use. I encourage you to use it for whatever you feel drawn to do and for whatever purpose you need. I use mine to send family wishes to the ancestors, spoken or written, and then leave an offering of fresh water and a piece of bread, candy or fruit. At Christmas I place a small Brandy Alexander on my altar for my Grandpa and Grandma. Often I simply keep fresh water and fresh flowers on their altar as a daily gratitude.

My first altar was (and still is) on the top of a small bookshelf in my office. I started with a simple tea light, to serve as a beacon for the spirits of my ancestors. I bought a clear glass from a local thrift store to act as my ancestor’s offering cup. Over time, I added objects to the shrine: photos of my grandparents and great-grandparents in a photo tree, a bracelet, hand-written letters to me from my Great-Grandmother, a paperweight and a favored pet toy. These items, beloved, worn and held by the dead hold an echo of that spirit within it as surely as the canvases of Van Gogh still vibrate with his urgency.

In an ideal world, food and libation that is offered to the ancestors would be left in the woods to nourish the soil or dropped in a stream of running water. But these are different times and we are a more globally-aware culture. This is where traditions must adapt. When I am longer renting, I will have a compost where I can I leave the offerings outdoors, that nature may know abundance in the shadow of my ancestors, and the offerings will turn into mulch for the garden I grow food in.

For now, I recycle the ancestor offerings I can: letting bread stale for the birds or putting milk out for the neighborhood animals. What can’t be recycled I put thoughtfully into the garbage, honoring the bones of the offerings. If you have a fireplace or an outdoor fire pit, you can burn the remains in the fireplace, just as the Greeks and Romans fed their offerings to their gods.

I will become the lighthouse. I will be the flame in the dark that ignites to call the spirits of my ancestors home to me. In me.

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