This month I participated in a holiday that commemorates the blessings one has received in life. No, not Thanksgiving. I’m talking about Samhain.
I had the privilege of attending a Samhain festival at Portland’s St. Peter & Paul Episcopal Church. I’ve long been fascinated with ancient Celtic culture, but never had the opportunity to attend a traditional (reconstructed) celebration before. It was wonderful, and full of surprises.
The first surprise was that an Episcopal church was drawing from a deep well of Celtic Spirituality. I don’t know much about the Episcopalian tradition, but I had always assumed that as a branch of the Anglican church, their focus would be, well, English and not so much Irish. I had no idea where in Portland I could encounter Celtic Christianity, and now it had found me.
The second surprise was that the service, held in a church, was connected with deep roots that go beyond doctrine or dogma. The ceremony was rooted in two concepts: a circle where all are welcome and all are equal, and the empowerment of everyone present to tell their story.
That was it. No exclusion, no pressure toward religious belief, no attempt at “managing” input beyond invitation and facilitation. Everyone from 10-year-olds to the middle aged was able to don the storyteller’s cloak and tell both of legends dear to them and of their own experiences dearer still. I was blessed, and I’m not just mouthing a ritual word to say that.
The third surprise was an unexpected encounter with my own past. The Rector, Kurt, explained that Samhain (“Sow-in” or “Sav-an”) is the “Thin Time,” the beginning of Winter where resources strain and life hangs by a thread–but also when the veil between flesh and spirit thins, allowing us greater closeness with those who have gone on, but are still in our hearts. Like my Dad.
I didn’t attend the Circle expecting to encounter my father. I only knew that I had been invited. But as others shared their memories of departed loved ones, I realized that the window was open for a connection with him. I donned the cloak and told the tale of my father and me: of the heritage and roots he instilled, of the bitter differences we had, of the death that left us unresolved, and of the gifts of love that I carry even through the pain. And I felt his presence for the first time in years.
What happened here? First, I came open to having a meaningful experience, but with no particular expectations. Second, the hospitality of that Circle made a safe space where I could unburden my heart. And third, a context of ritual and tradition was provided that could draw me into a mindframe that I wouldn’t have arrived at on my own.
That’s how community looks. That’s how ritual looks. And that’s how telling stories together looks, whether at bardic circle, church service, or game table. And it’s beautiful.