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Surrounded by So Great a Cloud of Witnesses

This week people across a wide variety of cultures and creeds ritualized this time of year, where transition is palpable. It is a time between seasons and lifecycles. The nights grow longer and colder. The leaves wither and fall; the winds shift. The sun shines other places. Flora and fauna draw inward.

The ancient Celtic harvest festivals, particularly the Gaelic festival Samhain; marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter months. And it notes these days in particular, as a time in between, where there is a thin space, a thin place between the day and the night, life and death, this realm and another.

Hear this Samhain prayer to ancestors:

This is the night when the gateway between

our world and the spirit world is thinnest.

Tonight is a night to call out those who came before.

Tonight I honor my ancestors.

Spirits of my fathers and mothers, I call to you,

and welcome you to join me for this night.

You watch over me always,

protecting and guiding me,

and tonight I thank you.

Your blood runs in my veins,

your spirit is in my heart,

your memories are in my soul.

With the gift of remembrance.

I remember all of you.

You are dead but never forgotten,

and you live on within me,

and within those who are yet to come. 1

Your blood runs in my veins,

your spirit is in my heart,

your memories are in my soul.

This resonates with the words from the poet Jan Richardson used in the Prayer of Invocation today, “God remind us that we carry on our lips the words of prophets, in our veins the blood of martyrs, in our eyes the mystics’ visions, in our hands the strength of thousands.”

Sometimes there is a thin space, a thin place between life and death, between the living and the dead that we can feel.

And while much of modern Western life seeks to deny or defy death, many cultures keep it close. Originating in Mexico in the Aztec tradition, but celebrated throughout Central and South America, Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, honors those who have died, in bright colors, with dances, candles, makeup and lively celebrations, “that combines indigenous Aztec ritual with Catholicism, brought to the region by Spanish conquistadores… Assured that the dead would be insulted by mourning or sadness, Día de los Muertos celebrates the lives of the deceased with food, drink, parties, and activities the dead enjoyed in life.” 2

The dead are celebrated!

“Recognizing death as a natural part of the human experience… on Día De Los Muertos, the dead are also a part of the community, awakened from their eternal sleep to share celebrations with their loved ones.”

The dead are awakened!

Sometimes there is a thin space, a thin place between life and death, between the living and the dead.

While very different and now most a secular celebration, several countries observe Halloween (a contraction of Hallows' Even or Hallows' Evening), All Hallows Eve, in the historic Christian tradition commences the three-day observance of All Hallowtide, a season in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints, called hallows, along with martyrs, and all the faithful who have died or as we heard in the Letter to the Hebrews, “a great cloud of witnesses.”

The dead are remembered, in part because sometimes there is a thin space, a thin place, an area in between.

In Celtic tradition, “Thin Places,” are those that offer an opening into the Presence of something sacred. As Sylvia Maddox writes, “There is a Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places that distance is even smaller. A thin place is where the veil that separates heaven and earth is lifted and one is able to receive a glimpse of the glory of God. A contemporary poet Sharlande Sledge gives this description.”

“Thin places,” the Celts call this space, Both seen and unseen, Where the door between the world And the next is cracked open for a moment And the light is not all on the other side. God shaped space. Holy. 3

It is a place both seen and unseen.

One of the blessings of my vocation is that people tell me things that they think others won’t believe or understand, things in the realm of the unseen of the unknown or the unbelievable, things that fall in the thin space between what we think we know and what we don’t. So I know that even among those who have baggage with religion, even among those who don’t want to believe anything that isn’t scientifically verifiable, many people, many of you have had an experience that is hard to explain- an encounter, a fleeting moment where it felt as if there was a thin space, as if you were in a thin place “where the door between the world and the next is cracked open…”

And often these thin spaces aren’t just encounters in places, but with the essence of people because sometimes there is a thin space…

In the book Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom, John O’Donohue writes that, “For those who have died, the world of time is also different. Here we are caught in linear time. We have forgotten the past; it is lost to us. We cannot know the future. Time must be totally different for the dead because they live now within a circle of eternity…Within the circle, beginning and ending are sisters, and they belong within the shelter which the eternal offers of the unity of the year and the earth…for the dead, present time is total presence. This suggests that our friends among the dead know us better than they can ever have known us in life…that our friends among the dead really mind us and look out for us. Often there might be a big boulder of misery over your path about to fall on you, but your friends among the dead hold it back until you have passed by.”

As O’Donohue says in the blessing you heard earlier, “

“On the day when the weight deadens on your shoulders and you stumble, may the clay dance to balance you….may the protection of the ancestors be yours.”

As if we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who aren’t just watching us, but who somehow, in some ways break through to us.

To be sure, I don’t mean to conjure up images of zombies among us, but I believe as people of faith, we cannot discount all that we do not understand. The wisdom of many traditions throughout the ages, invites us to tend to the thin spaces, both seen and unseen. We are invited to quiet ourselves enough to hear the voices of those who have gone before us. In a time between seasons and lifecycles, transitioning to longer nights and colder days, as the leaves wither and fall; the winds shift; the snow comes; let us listen for our ancestors, let us hear our saints.

Because when and “where the door between this world and the next is cracked open…” sometimes new truth can be shared and the wisdom of the cloud of witnesses can be heard.

Today, we bring into this room, in our very cells, the presence and power of our great cloud of witnesses. We will hold some silence together as a group now to celebrate, awaken and remember the dead, our witnesses, our saints…..

Communal silence

Let us not miss the sacred spaces in this time of transition, let us see the thin places “where the door between the world and the next is cracked open…”

Let us hear the songs of our ancestors, the wisdom of our cloud of witnesses. As the seasons change, they are with us, both seen and unseen.

“God remind us that we carry on our lips the words of prophets, in our veins the blood of martyrs, in our eyes the mystics’ visions, in our hands the strength of thousands.”4 Amen.




4 “God of the generations” from In Wisdom’s Path: Discovering the Sacred in Every Season by Jan Richardson

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