All of my social media feeds are full of commentary about war between Israel and Palestine (or Hamas), facts about harm being done to innocent Palestinians and Israelis, thinkpieces on the decades long occupation of Palestine, and the corresponding grief, fear, and anger. This is on top of COVID, abhorrent things being done by the NC legislature, continues attacks on Black and Brown people and anti-LGBTQIA+ violence. The weight on our souls just seems to increase.
I always recommend taking time away from all forms of media (after all, there's only so much we can do about any of this, and constantly monitoring events only ratchets up our anxieties) and using that time to engage in something that brings people joy -- like a spiritual practice ;-) In this moment, especially as we come close to a time when, as many say, the veil is thin, I want to talk about leaning into the wisdom and strength of our ancestors.
Some definitions first, and caveats. We often think of our ancestors as our blood relatives. However, much like the term family, ancestor can be a much more broad term. Our ancestors do include our relatives by blood, but they can also include our relatives by adoption, people who have mentored us, people we have learned from or admired over the years, people in our religious or spiritual lineage and people in our line of work. However, just because we claim an ancestor does not mean they claim us. Unfortunately, the reverse is not always true, and we cannot decide a relative who was a flaming asshole is not an ancestor. We can, however, decide not to work with them at this time.
When beginning working with ancestors, it is important to make sure that the ancestors we call upon are kind, loving, wise and -- most importantly -- healed. We don't just die and become kind, loving, wise and have all of our earthly bullshit disappear. There is a time for working with wounded ancestors who have done harm -- this is truly important work -- but that takes training.
This doesn't mean we can't go read about or learn from some people in our respective lineages who were brilliant but terrible. I do, however, advise not putting those people on your altar or calling out to them in prayer.
It's also important we don't go around claiming ancestors from lineages to which we do not belong, especially communities that have experiences oppression we have not and lineages that are closed or have initiation practices to enter into. Particularly for those of us who are white: some practices, and some people, just aren't for us.
Why turn to the ancestors in times of trial?
One reason is perspective. Hearing or reading the stories of generations past can help us understand the present. Their stories can help us see that there are cycles of shit getting bad, but through the power of community, people survive. Sometimes these stories can also help us see that what is happening right now isn't actually as bad as we think it is. We can metaphorically lean back on their strength and words of wisdom. They can provide us with a blueprint of how to get by when everything seems to be falling apart.
We might also glean a sense of what not to do if your lineage is full of harm doers and oppressors. For example, one of my ancestors was the secretary for the Massachusetts Bay Colony and, as part of that post, was secretary for some witch trials. A bright, shining example of how not to respond to collective hysteria.
Spiritually, we can call on our wise, loving, healed ancestors in prayer to support us through difficult times. We can meditate on their hands on our backs, holding us up, or on them pulling us through. We can ask for them to appear to us in dreams and that they might provide us with sage advice or just quiet presence. Depending on one's awareness, it might be possible to feel their presence with us when times are tough, and that supportive presence can make all the difference.
At this time of year, we can set up altars to ancestors in our homes. We can place upon them photos, memorabilia, things that remind us of them. Include offerings of their favorite foods or drinks and some flowers, as though setting the table for a loved one. I would advise *not* setting this up in a bedroom unless you specifically wish to be poked by them at night, and, if possible, not in the same space as your main altar unless you plan on calling on your ancestors for every prayer. In my experience, ancestors have opinions about our lives, and are more than happy to share them. Frequently. Possibly loudly.
Now, I am not at a place where I can teach anyone how to do their own ancestral work. What I have learned has been from my amazing teachers and the work of Daniel Foor, who I highly recommend if you are interested in engaging ancestral work deeply (which I do recommend, especially if your lineage is kind of fucked and needs some healing). I offer this much because a) ancestors can be an amazing resource and b) I believe it is really important to take care when doing ancestral work.