Roots Hold Me Close
Presented March 10th, 2019
On this day of springing forward, with hints of the spring to come, it feels like an auspicious time to consider the roots of our family trees. All of us are wonders of life – it’s truly amazing that we are the unique and particular people alive at this moment.
For thousands upon thousands of years, your ancestors were healthy enough and lived long enough to find mates and reproduce, generation after generation, to arrive at you. Just by virtue of your birth you are the recipient of astonishing good fortune – to be you just as you are, alive right now.
Linda Hogan of the Chickasaw Nation says “Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.”
We are each the result of the love of thousands.
Honouring our roots – that love of thousands that grew each family tree – enlarges our sense of self. How would we live if we truly understood ourselves as the result of the love of thousands? Of generations of people leading to you. What gifts does that immense amount of love bring? What responsibilities does it entail?
Now, not all of us have experienced lots of love in our family tree. We may be unmoored from the past, not knowing all those that came before. Moving far from ancestral homelands, due to war or danger or simply choice, means we may know little about our ancestors. Suffering at the hands of others, our family history may be a litany of sorrow.
Long held or long lost family secrets may leave us ignorant, perpetuating unhealthy patterns we don’t quite understand. Due to abuse within the home, our family tree may be a source of struggle and shame. Some ancestors will have been pushed beyond their capacity, finding refuge in violence or addiction.
Some ancestors may have been subjected to terrible injustice, enslaved, oppressed. Some ancestors may be the oppressors, finding success through the exploitation of others. Most family trees have some broken branches and withered roots.
Whether we like it or not, for good and for ill, our family and our family history shapes who we are. We are who we are because of all those who came before, generation after generation.
This isn’t meant to be prescriptive – that we are who we are and nothing is to be done about it – we have free will and the ability to choose who we become. But we begin where we were planted and that shapes us, whether we were planted in nourishing soil or in arid patch of desert.
Contemporary western society doesn’t place much value on ancestors, here in Canada we are immigrants and children of immigrants, people by choice or circumstance who left home and started new somewhere else.
We have survived by turning the necessity of our losses into a virtue, by keeping our focus on new beginnings and future possibilities. But perhaps we have also lost a source of spiritual sustenance. People in non-western cultures often draw strength from their ancestors.
Kao Kalia Yang comes from the Hmong (Mon) people of Laos. In this culture, when relatives die they become beloved ancestors. At the new year, the meal is cooked and laid out on the table. The ancestors are called to the table first, sometimes by opening the door to the house. Unseen, they are invited to eat, only after some time waiting does the living family sits down to the meal.
It’s ritual of respect, reminding people of those who came before.
Yang remembers that as a little girl, she would roll up blankets and tuck them all around her on the bed. In her mind, the blankets represented the arms of her ancestors, holding her safe. Then she could fall asleep, any weight on her heart lifted, knowing she was not alone, knowing she was cared for by previous generations.
Yang says even now when she is afraid, she asks her ancestors to strengthen her heart, knowing they are her past and she is their future. https://onbeing.org/blog/kao-kalia-yang-when-relatives-die-they-become-ancestors/
Linda Hogan says “all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.”
Kao Kalia Yang comes from a close knit extended family, and draws strength from being held in the arms of ancestors. She knows who she is in part because knowing family stories.
But many of us don’t know our ancestors, the stories lost over years of migration and disconnection. And some of us have ancestors that don’t offer comfort or safety.
Some of us may find our strength through working through the difficult gifts given by family. Others may need to graft some branches on the family tree to truly thrive.
American writer Ralph Ellison said “Some people are your relatives but others are your ancestors, and you choose the ones you want to have as ancestors. You create yourself out of those values.” You can choose ancestors who offer a sense of belonging. These may be relatives whose love and support shaped you. But they may also be other people who inspired you or cared for you. Teachers and mentors. Writers and Musicians. Scientists and activists.
If you stop and consider who you draw strength from, you might find you have already claimed someone as an ancestor. To consciously identify people as ancestors offers you a safer place to stand, a place of belonging, deeper roots.
Think of people who have given you gifts, values or passions, that have a deep influence on how you live your life. With the blessings of these gifts also comes responsibility. Ancestors pass on obligations.
To have ancestors is to recognize that something of value has been entrusted to you. Ancestors are the long line of people behind you, not just supporting you, but asking you to pass on their gifts.
At times this obligation might be a blessing, and sometimes be a burden, either way you become part of something greater then yourself, thinking beyond your own wants and needs.
Carrying forward the ancestral gifts situates yourself as part of a long lineage of people – stretching back into the past and forward into the future. Family ties that bind but also provide support.
And it’s not just an obligation, the ancestors are dependent on you. What you carry forward from them depends on your choices. The ancestors give us these partial, incomplete endeavours – saying “We have done what we could. Now it’s up to you.”
You decide which stories get told to the next generation. Which values are embraced. Whether family health is propagated or dysfunctions are broken – it’s your turn. You are the next leg in the relay – you can take the baton, or drop the baton – but it’s your turn to run the race. (from soul matters introduction to ancestors).
Having ancestors – biological or chosen – is both a gift and a responsibility. In a society which venerates the individual and personal freedom, the new and original, a sense of ancestral legacy is a challenge.
Would you live differently if you saw yourself as the result of the love of thousands? If you felt cradled in the arms of your ancestors? What gifts would you receive? What responsibilities arise?
We are going to take some time now in silence. Please take a deep breath and consider these questions:
What has been entrusted to you by your ancestors – chosen or family? What are the gifts that you wish to pass on? to family or others?
Considering ourselves as part of a lineage that trails back into the far distant past doesn’t come easily to some of us. I know I spend far more time thinking about the future as imagined by Star Trek then I do about my ancestors.
Modern society encourages personal independence and freedom, to break free of the past and start anew is seen as healthy. But the freedom to reinvent ourselves over and over again can come at the price of disconnection.
More and more people live alone and more and more people live far away from family connections. Issues of isolation and loneliness are on the rise. We don’t live communally.
Yet study after study suggests that well being is rooted in being in relationship, in being part of a community, in having connections with a variety of people. We all need connection. And having a sense of ancestry, of connection in time is one way to be in relationship.
I believe this chalice community can help root people, through regular connection, but also by offering spiritual ancestors for people to claim.
One of our earliest Unitarian ancestors is Katerina Weigal of Krakow Poland. Born into Catholicism in late 15th century Poland, as an adult Katerina embraced the teachings of Judaism. She did not believe in the Trinity, for her God was all, whole, a Unity in all ways.
At the age of 70, Katerina was arrested on charges of heresy and tried in episcopal court, she refused to name Jesus as the son of God, affirming instead the unity of God. The Bishop of Krakow had her locked up for ten years.
Throughout that time Katerina refused to recant, holding to the truths that she believed. At the age of 80, in 1539, affirming the unity of God, Katerina Weigal was burned at the stake.
From Katerina, Unitarians have been given an obligation to question social norms and to be loyal to the truths we hold dear in our hearts. From Katerina, we can draw on the strength of conviction, of a sense of rightness that can hold you steady even in the toughest of times.
Katerina’s strength and loyalty to her truth is one example of an ancestor’s gifts. It may not be one that speaks to you.
Perhaps you might be inspired by a more recent ancestor, the American Laurel Salton Clark. By the age of 40 Laurel was a medical doctor, an officer in the Navy, a mother, and an astronaut; she was the first Unitarian Universalist in space.
Laurel’s passion was science, she was dedicated to pursuit of new knowledge. She became a mission specialist in the space shuttle program, performing science experiments. Laurel died in 2003 when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry after 16 days in orbit.
In her final email, she told her family the experience was awe-inspiring, that she was blessed to be doing this work. Laurel understood the risks of following her dream, and she followed it gladly.
From Laurel, Unitarians have been given an obligation to follow the science, to work with the earth and its fundamental truths. From Laurel, we have been given the gift of risk taking to seek our dreams.
As Unitarian Universalists, we have many ancestors who have gifts to guide us in our lives today. I encourage you to seek out UU history on-line and find someone whose life speaks to your heart.
Whether you find treasures in the ancestors of your family or take on the gifts of chosen ancestors, may you find strength in those connections.
Know that you – just as you are – are result of the love of thousands. May you find comfort in the arms of the ancestors. May you find ways to pass the gifts you’ve been given to the generations to come.
So Say We All.