Grace for Lunasa Season   2 comments

Irish poet Dennis King opens his poem “Altú” “Grace” like this: “I láthair mo mhuintire …” “In the presence of my people …”, finding reason in human existence itself for thanks. So often we need gratitude most when we feel it least. But on to the poem:

In the presence of my
people
back to the beginning of
life,
In the witness of the gods
and the ungods,
In homage to the
immense
generosity of the universe,
I give thanks
before my portion.

I’m going to do the English teacher thing you and I both have learned to detest: take a perfectly good piece of writing and analyze its parts. My goal, however, is not some obscure symbol-hunt or post-Modern Deconstructionist manipulation, but the pursuit of wisdom. What can this poem teach me?

First, King acknowledges witnesses. I live in the presence of my people, whether I belong to an extended family of the living, by blood or choice, or to the default tribe each of us can claim, one among a host of ancestors. All we do and are takes place in their presence. We don’t need to summon, invoke, or invite them, though it’s a courtesy in ritual, and it serves to remind us we’re companioned always.

Look in the mirror and you see the ancestors in eyes, nose, hair, line of jaw and length of limb. Consider what goes deeper than skin, and you can find them in your temper, your tastes, native tongue, social class and assorted beliefs and prejudices. Yes, you’ve added your own variations on these themes, and many of these you can shift to some degree through chance and choice and effort.

Send off for the increasingly popular DNA check, and you may find, depending on the accuracy of the particular test, that your tribe includes ancestors from unexpected places, that you can claim roots in many lands — that you even have something like a choice of tribes, if you’re looking to trade labels or identities.

Hellen_ritual_(7)

Hellenic ritual

If the genetic test runs true that my father’s cousin ran a few years ago, I have some Greek ancestors, though family trees I’ve received and researched back ten generations or more on both sides offer no hint to explain an “8% Hellenic background”. But what does that mean, anyway? Wanderers, all of us, with ancestors as human, amorous, deceitful and restless as any of our relatives alive today. If because of all this I opt to worship Zeus, Athena, Hermes or Dionysos, they may or may not deign to notice. It’s an option for me, of course, and there are Reconstructionist Hellenists today who are reviving the old ways, Olympian style. But is that my call, or calling?

“Back to the beginning of life”, King continues. Whoever played a part in launching this whole enterprise of living, “gods or ungods” or lightning zapping the primordial chemical stew of a young Earth, we’re here and thinking (and drinking) about these things. And so these possible witnesses deserve acknowledgement, too. Why?! Because whether or not they exist, to remember and honor them even for a moment does me good. It enlarges my sympathies, and sets my life in a field much larger than what my social security number and bank PIN code and town tax ID and physical address suggest I am. We’re more, I hope we keep remembering, than the boxes we check on the endless forms we fill out. No single identity can define me, so why insist on just one? Pagan, white, childless, married, cancer survivor, writer, heterosexual, teacher, male: any one of these, and many more, could be a life-project to explore. Does one contradict or deny another? Does a census or a faction or political party or church begin to define me? Yes, you say?

Who are the true “authorities” in my life? Ancestors of scores of millennia, or a few political office-holders of the current arrangement, fulfilling one piece of their own lives by holding up one political system among how many possibilities? “I am large”, says Walt Whitman. “I contain multitudes”. (Easy to say, Walt, if no one insists on you being small, single, unitary, one thing only. Box checked, census complete, status once-and-for-always. But how large a claim about me, this thing I was born into, am I willing to assert?)

To exist at all is gift. “In homage to the immense generosity of the universe”: what would my life look like if I lived it daily in such homage? Can I begin to imagine it? Could I begin today, in small ways that could build over time?

“I give thanks before my portion”. Physically before: there it is, on plates and in bowls and cups. And temporally: before I take any of it into my body, I thank. Not after. Gratitude, how many doors can you open?

My portion: each of us has a part, a piece, a portion. If you’re a Christian, and you take Communion, the bread and wine or grape juice represent, or become, the inexhaustible blood and body of God. We eat and drink god-stuff, ungod-stuff. Our portion is endlessly refilling, and replenishing. To find and know and cherish my true portion: another project worthy of a life, of living.

/|\ /|\ /|\

Image: Hellenismos ritual;

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2 responses to “Grace for Lunasa Season

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  1. The poem, though short, is moving, especially upon a reflection, as you have provided. Without considering the poet’s evident meaning or original intention, I’d venture upon a somewhat different interpretation than yours, that is, one based on my traditional views. Let us at least agree that ancestry bears some degree of importance in any tradition of polytheism; the difficult questions are, how much, and what if one is of mixed ethnic ancestry?

    To the first, I would say as much as possible, since a connection by blood is an inner force and connection (literally and figuratively) that can’t be replaced easily or dispensed with as unessential. I am not wholly Greek in ancestry, but my ancestors are partly from neighboring nations, and therefore choosing for me is easier than someone half-Greek and half-Chinese. In such a case, it would be best to take a side, I mean join one tradition without scorning the other, since large distance is inconvenient and causes confusion in the mind and heart. This point of the essential connection between ancestors and polytheism is too often overlooked nowadays, and I think it is dangerous. If we don’t stick firmly and mainly to a certain tradition and people (again, without scorning others), we expose ourselves to the uneasiness (sometimes misery) of uncertainty, and further we render traditions unlasting, empty and jumbled by removing distinctions from them.

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