Tending torn roots

Spirituality, colonialism, and ancestors

A few years ago now, the last of my grandparents died: my father's mother, Dora. 

The last of my grandparental bereavements, it was the least emotionally wearing. I had never met Dora, at least, not that I remember. I and my father and step-mother had talked off and on in the last years of Dora's life about me visiting her in her nursing home, but in the end, it seemed too odd, to introduce a new element into her ill-remembered world after nearly 100 years of life. 

The first time I met her, therefore, was at her funeral. It was a small service in a crematorium chapel. I learned more about her at the meal following the service than I had ever known about her during her life. She was not, by all accounts, an easy woman; she was deeply spiritual as well as religious; she was somewhat strange by ordinary social standards.

I commented at the time that it was nice to know that I came by those traits honestly.

The role of family and forebears can be a challenging one to grapple with for contemporary Pagans, New Agers, and those who are spiritual-but-not-religious. While many of us seek to honour and connect with ancestors as part of our spiritual and/or magical practice, those ancestors who are closest to us in time, and therefore most likely to be concerned with our personal well-being, are often also those most likely to be of a different religious and spiritual outlook to ourselves. 

We may have had a troubled relationship with them while they were alive, or conversely -- as in the case of my grandmother Dora -- we may know little or nothing about them, beyond the high probability that they would not have approved of our spiritual and religious choices.

Many of us look at spiritual traditions in which knowledge and practice is passed down from generation to generation -- indigenous traditions (such as those of the pre-Columbian and pre-colonial cultures of the Americas), African diaspora religions (such as Santeria and Vodoun), and Eastern spiritual traditions (like Buddhism and aspects of Hinduism) -- with awe and sometimes envy. Some of us attempt to emulate or take on those traditions wholesale, and in the process often appropriate and deeply disrespect both the traditions and their origins.

Yet as much as we long for the passing on of spiritual knowledge and tradition across generations in those traditions, we often find it hard to find or see the wisdom which our own grandparents may hold because they are part of a religious or philosophical tradition which has rejected us, or which we find politically, ethically, or theologically difficult.

As people following more-or-less reconstructed and/or inspired traditions at the beginning of the 21st century, we are spiritually displaced. Contemporary Pagans, New Agers, and spiritual-but-not-religious folks are often lucky to have even one generation of full continuity in the passing on of their spiritual tradition, and we do not, for the most part, have the kind of connection to place that tens or hundreds of generations of living in one geographical area gives. We are largely urban, disconnected from land as well as tradition.

I do not at all state this to elicit sympathy. On the contrary: most contemporary Pagans, New Agers, and spiritual-but-not-religious folks are white, middle class, and reasonably, if not very well off; those of us in the Americas and Australasia are largely descended from populations who have been directly and indirectly complicit in the oppression and murder of black, indigenous, and other people of colour for centuries, and continue to be so; and those of us in Europe are the beneficiaries of centuries of colonialist conquest and exploitation of those same black, indigenous, and people of colour. 

If I recall his argument correctly, in Triumph of the Moon: a history of modern Pagan witchcraft, Professor Ronald Hutton proposes that many of the roots of the creation and revival of Pagan movements -- not only Wicca, but also Druidry and other, more New Age movements -- lie in the British Romantic movement, which itself could be argued to have come out of the mass displacement of British people from country to city in the Industrial Revolution. 

This movement came hand in hand with the enclosure of the commons and the Lowland and Highland clearances, and were followed by the Irish Potato Famine -- the devastating effects of which were caused not by the potato blight, but by the deliberate actions of the Imperial British government. 

These factors in turn led some Scots, English, Irish and Welsh people to take their chances -- by choice or by force -- in the ‘New World’ of north America and Australasia, where they forged a new life for themselves in new lands, by participating, directly or indirectly, in taking land and life, often with geat brutality, from both indigenous populations, and from West African people kidnapped into slavery. 

Colonialism, white supremacy, and capitalism, hand in hand. 

It is our very displacement, combined with a mindset embedded still in colonialism, white supremacy, and capitalism, that leads us to oppress and exploit again and again, this time in the guise of spirituality and seeking to deepen our awareness. However unconscious the mindest may be, and however we may wish it away, there it is. 

The irony is deep. Our very attempts to mend our scattered spirits, our relationships with our fellow humans, and our world at large end up doing further harm to all three.

Facing this history, this reality head-on can be deeply painful. It can provoke feelings of anger, guilt, shame, and impotence. Often we fall into patterns of white fragility and denial. These are patterns that I believe we must move beyond if we are to have any hope of beginning to right the wrongs of history and of the present, and to develop a rooted spirituality in any meaningful way. 

Contemporary Pagans, New Agers, and spiritual-but-not-religious folks -- at least, those of us who are white -- do well to remember and accept our displacement in space, time and relationship, and to do what we can to reconnect ourselves, not based on what looks juicy in another's tradition, but based on exactly where we are. And where we are is always as the child of a child of a child.

I still know very, very little about my father’s mother. Yet still, Anglican Grandma Dora and Grandad Alan (her husband) are remembered on my Ancestor altar, along with the Welsh and Scottish non-conformists and Polish Catholics of my mother's ancestry, and assorted step-family members. 

Taken all together, they are something of a mixed bag: 

  • a postman and conductor of a Welsh Male Voice Choir, who served the British Imperial Government in India in the early 20th century; 
  • a country lad and hero of the Polish WWII Resistance, who escaped from Nazi work and prison camps at least twice, and later built a business as a silver-plater in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter; 
  • a ceramics expert from the Potteries, who in his retirement regularly visited China to advise on porcelain production; 
  • a schoolteacher from the hills of south Wales, who defended my teen Goth style from familial scorn;
  • a headmistress from rural Norfolk, whose question at the end of every meal she cooked was, "Have you had sufficient?" (to which the only proper reply, of course, was, "Yes, I've had ample thank you.").

Those are just a small selection. The criss-crossing of class, gender and nationality, war, racism and colonialism, creativity, resilience and rigidity in their lives is dense and many layered. They are not always an easy bunch, either as individuals, or in the junction points of historical realities which they embody. 

Yet despite this, or rather because of it, engaging with my ancestors is one of the richest and most important parts of my spiritual practice. It not only connects me to the past, but to the living present. These dead people still live in me -- both in my DNA and in how I have developed as a human being. The movements of history which produced them, and their ancestors before them, are moving in the world and in all of our lives still. 

In my 20s and 30s, I focused on finding and accepting my place in the more-than-human, all-species web of life, my current geographical and ecological place in the world. This was important work, vital to my ability to be present in my life, but for me it was not in itself complete. Finding and accepting my place in relation to my ancestors, however challenging and painful it can be at times, also means finding and accepting my place within humanity, re-rooting myself not only in the earth itself, but also in the rich and strengthening soil of human life and human relating. 

Through this re-rooting, I am able to take responsibility for both celebrating my ancestors, and for repairing what they, through acts of commission or omission, took part in breaking. That taking of responsibility itself becomes part of how I honour them, strengthening my bond with them, which in turns strengthens me, as I engage with the world.

It is no easy task, but it is so very worth it.

Image credit: photo by Evie Shaffer on Unsplash

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