Connection to Ancestors in Earth-based Theology by Carol P. Christ
“I am Carol Patrice Christ, daughter of Jane Claire Bergman, daughter of Lena Marie Searing, daughter of Dora Sofia Bahlke, daughter of Mary Hundt who came to Michigan from Mecklenburg, Germany in 1854. I come from a long line of women, known and unknown, stretching back to Africa.”
Like many Americans, my ancestral history was lost and fragmented due to emigration, religious and ethnic intermarriage, and movement within the United States. Though one of my grandmothers spoke proudly of her Irish Catholic heritage and one of my grandfathers acknowledged his Swedish ancestry, I was raised to think of myself simply as “American,” “Christian” and “middle class.” Ethnic and religious differences were erased, and few stories were told.
Over the past two years, I have begun to discover details of my ancestral journey, which began in Africa, continued in the clan of Tara, and was marked by the Indo-European invasions. In more recent times, my roots are in France, Holland, England, Germany, Ireland, Scotland, and Sweden. In the United States, my family has lived in tenements in New York City and Brooklyn, in poverty in Kansas City, and on farms in Long Island, Connecticut, upstate New York, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. My parents and grandparents settled in northern and southern California during the 1930s. I have lived in southern and northern California, Italy, Connecticut, New York, Boston, and now Greece.
Learning details about family journeys has created a shift in my sense of who I am. A vague sense of not knowing and not feeling grounded has become a growing sense that I am rooted in histories and places across Europe and the United States. I am beginning to know where I came from, which is a piece of who I am.
Once melted into the American pot, I am now able to acknowledge and celebrate different places and different ethnicities that brought me to where I am today. Christian was once nearly synonymous with American and middle class, but now I see histories of conversion, conflict, persecution, and discrimination. Middle class is no longer “what we all are,” but a way to hide class differences. I now know that I grew up in a lower middle class suburb, and that my family’s relative comfort was achieved through the suffering and struggles of many specific ancestors. I also know that my ancestors displaced Indians in Connecticut, Hempstead, upstate New York, Michigan, and possibly Pennsylvania, and that Quaker ancestors held slaves in Hempstead, New York.
Last year I wrote that “we cannot speak adequately of embodiment and interdependence in the web of life without recognizing the ancestors whose lives made ours possible. Our mothers quite literally gave us our bodies. All of our ancestors gave us their genes. Care and callousness with origins going back longer than conscious memory was imprinted on the psyches of our parents and grandparents and transmitted to us. All of our ancestors give us connections to place.”
In recent years, I have begun to understand that earth-based spiritualities are rooted in two fundamental principles: gratitude and sharing. We give thanks to the earth for the gift of life. As we recognize our interdependence and interconnection in the web of life, we are inspired to share what has been given to us with others.
In my journeys in Crete I have poured libations of milk and honey, water and wine, on altars to our Mother Earth. I have shared feasts with other pilgrims and been the recipient of the famous Cretan generosity. Many years ago, sister feminist theologian Judith Plaskow taught me a simple song with the words, “As we bless the Source of Life, so we are blessed.” At the time, I did not know that this song would become one of my favorite expressions of the thealogy of gratitude I was then only beginning to understand.
Ancestors are one of the sources of our lives. They are situated within the larger Source of Life on this planet, our Mother Earth. Our Mother Earth is not an abstract principle. The Source of All Life is embodied in specific times and places. When thanking the Earth for the gift of life, we can also remember the ancestors whose lives have shaped and made ours possible. It also makes sense to thank specific places and ecological systems that have supported our lives, but that is a topic for another day.
We can express gratitude to all of our ancestors the gift of life. The gift of life is also not an abstract principle. It is embodied in time and place. Some of the things our ancestors did were positive and inspiring. Other things they did harmed people or the web of life. As we pour libations on ancient altars or altars we create in places nearer to home, we can acknowledge both.
Here is a way we might begin to acknowledge our ancestors in an embodied way. Create an altar with a group of friends or relatives. Decorate it with flowers and fruits, images of the Goddess, and things that remind you of your specific ancestors.
Bring a pitcher or pitchers from which you can pour libations. Bring water, wine, honey, or other liquid for pouring. One by one approach the altar and name your ancestor or ancestors. For example:
“I am Carol, grand-daughter of Lena who taught me to love nature and life. I bless the Source of Life. I bless Lena as one of the sources of my life and of my love for life.” Pour a libation.
“I am Carol, grand-daughter of Lena, whose ancestors drove Indians from their lands. I acknowledge the harm that has been done. I pledge myself to do what I can to repair the web.” Pour a libation.
Together with the others present repeat: “Let us bless the Source of Life, and the cycles of birth, death, and regeneration.”
Conclude the ritual singing “As we bless the Source of Life, so we are blessed.”
Share food and drink with each other.
Carol P. Christ wiill be speaking live on a WATER Teleconference on January 16, 2013 which you can join or listen to afterwards. She is a founding mother in the study of women and religion, feminist theology, women’s spirituality, and the Goddess movement. She has been active in peace and justice movements all of her adult life. She teaches online courses in the Women’s Spirituality program at CIIS. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions. One of her great joys is leading Goddess Pilgrimages to Crete through Ariadne Institute.