Samhain is the first season of the Celtic year — a time when the seeds shed by the previous generation lie dormant, safe, hidden and protected. So right at the beginning of this new year it is fitting to think of those who have gone before, those who have already shed their seeds. Their lives have enriched our lives. Their seeds have found new life and growth in subsequent generations.
Many times, I, and others in the community, have shared our experiences of “thin” places. Those places where there seems to be less distance between oneself and God — where it is easier to sense the presence of God. I love those places and I enjoy hearing others’ experiences of them.
At the beginning of the Celtic year, the focus is not on a “thin” place but on a “thin” time. November is deemed the thinnest month. In Celtic folklore it was a time when even demons and malevolent beings became closer as the physical darkness prevailed, hence the many Celtic prayers for protection. I suspect we will touch on that next week as we look at the Celtic Year in our Theology School. But today is a time to focus on the good aspect the “thinness”.
A blessing collected by Alexander Carmichael expresses it well. It begins:
Be each saint in heaven
Each sainted woman in heaven
Each angel in heaven
Stretching their arms for you
Smoothing the way for you
When you go thither . . .
It is not surprising then that All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day are right at the beginning of November — the thinnest time. These ancient feasts, which have been celebrated over the centuries, set the tone for the month.
Pope Gregory III dedicated a chapel in St Peter’s, Rome on November 1 during his reign (731-741) in honour of all saints and martyrs. Although there are earlier mentions of this festival, All Saint’s Day was officially sanctioned for general observance by Pope Gregory IV in 837.
Later, in Burgundy, France, Odilo, Benedictine Abbot of Cluny (962-1048/9) instituted All Souls’ Day on November 2 to commemorate all who have gone before. By the thirteenth century it had become widely established. Perhaps, when we turn to prayer in a few minutes we can remember all those who have influenced our spiritual journeys.
For All Saints’ Day instead of an Old Testament reading the lectionary gives us a text from the book of Revelation. The focus of which is those who have gone before, “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples, and languages” (Rev. 7:9) I love the inclusive nature of this description.
As a community this weekend we gathered together for our Samhain retreat. Our hearts and minds were focused on love. What a fitting way to start the new year!
Love encompasses everything we want to be as a community — love of God, love of each other, love of the stranger.
It is a great focus to have for the upcoming year — to keep love upmost in our thinking. Determining that all our actions and words will be motivated by love. The other lectionary readings affirm this love. The reading from the epistle declares, “See what love the Father-Mother has given us” (1 John 3: 1-3). The gospel story is the very well-known passage on the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5:1-12). Implicit in the passage is love. People will be comforted, people will be filled, people will receive mercy. These are simply manifestations of love.
So today, at the beginning of this thinnest month, we remember those who have gone before whose lives aided us in our spiritual journeys and we determine that this year our focus will be on love making a firm foundation for future generations.
I end with a blessing for the Celtic new year:
God, bless to me the new day,
Never vouchsafed to me before,
It is to bless Thine own presence
Thou hast given me this time, O God.
Bless Thou to me mine eye
May mine eye bless all it sees;
I will bless my neighbour,
May my neighbour bless me.
God, give me a clean heart,
Let me not from sight of Thine eye.
Bless to me my children and my spouse,
And bless to me my means and my cattle.
(Collected by Alexander Carmichael.)