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As occasionally happens, I was invited to speak last week at a local Unitarian Universalist service (in Stowe, Vermont). Since today/night is Hallowe’en/Samhain and that’s part of what I spoke about, I thought I would share a brief summary of the talk, which was called “Hallowed Ground, Sacred Space, and the Space Between the Worlds.”


“Samhain (Hallowe’en), for Celtic peoples, traditionally marks the turn from summer to winter, which means the turn inward from ‘worldly’ activities to the more ‘earthly’ remembrance of ancestors and spirits, the ground beneath our feet, and the deep well of dependencies in which we have our being. This annual cycle echoes a rhythm of expansion and contraction that we find in all things. It is not just a rhythm of time, but also of space: there are places we get things done — the city, the office, the marketplace, the world wide web — and there are places we retreat to, where we reconnect with the ‘pattern that connects.’ This retreat is a kind of pilgrimage, a more or less recurrent peregrination around to the sacred spaces in which we can open ourselves to the gap between the worlds. Traditionally, this gap was thought to be the space between our human world and the world of ancestors and spirits. But we might think of it today as the space between our very different and clashing cultural and political worlds and, on the other hand, the invisible Earth, which is the collective realm of relationships on which those visible worlds depend. How do we attend to the patterns that connect?”

The talk elaborated on a few of these ideas — on the (supposed) Celtic traditions connected to Samhain (though not all that’s said about them today is necessarily what the “Celts” may have practiced, as Ronald Hutton and other historians have accounted); on the relationship between “world” and “earth” (which I discussed in the Heideggerian sense of those terms); on the “pattern that connects” (in Gregory Bateson’s sense — a few parishioners approached me to talk about him afterward); on ways of dealing with “the dark” (the dark time of year, but also the dark parts of our psyches); and on green pilgrimage and the virtues of marking out spaces of the “dark heritage” of humanity — places like Chernobyl — and of the ecological heritage (places like the Galapagos) that are meant not to be visited by tourists, gawkers intent on capturing something for their own personal experience, but to be attended by pilgrims, eager to understand the meaning of the place but with a mind to leave their own footprints elsewhere.

Here’s the closing of the talk:

“The beginning of the winter is a time to draw inward, to leave behind the activity of summer and come to face those things on which we have depended all along, but which do not lend themselves to the light of reason or the language of calculation. There are places in the world –- and spaces in the psyche -– which must be granted their autonomy, so that the seeds of new life can grow undisturbed by what we want them to be, how we want them to look, who we want them to become. They are places to which we turn when the seasons call us to turn inward, to which we peregrinate, circumambulate toward not directly but in a kind of lateral, sideways motion, and not aiming to arrive at a destination, but rather to open up to the unknown and the mysterious.

“What holds us, humanity and this Earth, together is, after all, mysterious. It’s the pattern that connects, but when we try to analyze that pattern, to hold it, freeze it, capture it in words, images, photographs, formulas, ideologies, dogmas –- it eludes us. So we turn toward it as to a mystery, and let the mystery remain.”

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