Avalon's High Feasts
Owning Our Place in the Tribes (cont.)
Reclaiming the Ways: Preparing and Keeping Personal and Ancestor Altars
The altar should be a place where our ancestors themselves would be comfortable. If our forebears would not have been friendly to our Path and ideals, then it will be important to create an altar area that is neutral, offensive to neither the Dead nor to ourselves. But if our forebears likely would have embraced our beliefs or tolerated them, then we are freer to fashion them in a style more to our own Path and tastes. An altar can be as lavish as a dolmen or as simple as a table of photos, mementos, a bud vase and votive candle. It should be in the place in your home where your family spends the most time, for that is your home's true heart(h). The literal center of the space would be ideal, but most modern homes are not designed to allow this. If there is a west wall near where your family spends their time that will do well also, but the direction is not as important as being where the family gathers. The idea is to bring your ancestors into your home and family with you and make them a living part of your life. If you already have decor that will allow you to incorporate a dolmen of stones, Brava -- but a simple alternative is to choose a small side table to serve as the altar. Gather a few small mementos and tokens that will remind you of immediate relatives who have crossed over. A family portrait including most or all of those being remembered would be ideal, but use what you have. Try to keep the presentation simple, using the fewest objects with the greatest meaning possible. Avalon reckons lineage by the mother's line, so consider which person being remembered might serve as the family "grand mother" or matriarch, she who will watch over you and yours in daily life. (Ideally, your oldest deceased relative will also be the wisest, but in a tough choice we recommend wisdom over age!) If you are a fosterling and have a good or neutral relationship with your blood relatives, your altar will still represent them with your foster family; if not, then those of your foster family alone will suffice. In Avalon, as in the Celtic world, the bonds of fosterage hold as strong as blood and are no less "real" than any other family bond. Next choose three small objects to symbolize your far ancestors: one for land, one for sea, one for sky. These should be natural objects or made of natural materials (clay, wood, paper, glass, etc.) Place these tokens in the center of the table and arrange the relative tokens, bud vase and candle(s) around them. You are now ready to set up the "active" part of your altar. Find a sturdy bowl that is relatively deep and will fit on or directly in front of your altar table. This bowl will become your ancestor "cairn". Each time someone visits the altar to commune with the ancestors, they will place in the bowl a small pale or white stone. Choose a peaceful place outside where these stones may be relocated as the bowl fills. With time, you will be able to see the accumulated love and energy that you and your family have gifted those who went before you. The practice of keeping cairns is one of the most ancient in our world, and it is one we may each easily do. You may also wish to include this practice when visiting the graves of your ancestors by placing a small garden bowl beside the headstone for family and visitors to use. The cairn is a wonderful reminder, for when we think we have spent time communing we need only look at the bowl to know whether time has slipped through our fingers or whether our ancestors are indeed being well nurtured by our thoughts and attentions. It is also a simple custom to pass on to others who may be curious about this practice. If you live in an area where the use of such an altar might bring difficulty on you or your family, you may find a "pet name" for this area. To tell someone, "That is Nonny's house. It helps us remember her." is often less threatening than saying, "That is our Pagan ancestor altar, where we worship the Dead." Usually we find that less threatening goes further to promoting harmony between ourselves and our neighbors, so long as we remain truthful in our definitions. The choice is entirely individual. What is important is to create an altar that will be used! This was the hard part, but your altar has now been created. Keeping it is much easier. Aside from tidying and dusting it occasionally, as you would anything else in your home, change candles as necessary and keep a fresh flower bud in the vase. This can be wild or cultivated, but it is best when hand-picked while meditating on its purpose. Remember to tell the plant what you wish to use it for and to ask permission before picking it. Once you have your flower, bring it to the altar and spend just a few minutes talking to your ancestors before placing the bud in the vase. (Note: if using fresh flowers presents a hardship or might stress on local flora and fauna, dried flowers may be substituted.) Before leaving, take a moment to recall each person represented on the altar to mind, remembering their faces; then allow a moment for all those whose faces and names have been forgotten. Thank them for all they have given you and go on about your day.
You may add decorations to this altar with each passing season if you wish, as a way of keeping the ancestors a living part of your life and alive in your awareness. Notice any changes resulting from the presence of this altar in your home and share them with other members on our lists. You may be surprised to discover that your own experiences mirror a bigger pattern across the Tradition!
The Pain of Remembering
Unfortunately for some of us, remembering our immediate relatives may only reopen old wounds. Where this is the case, we would suggest focusing your altar on your far ancestors, and on the "archetypal parents", such as are represented by our Gods, who see and know our inner natures and hearts and who love us knowing all there is to know of us. The Gods are our parents, our siblings, our friends, and our lovers. Most of all, though they have different powers and knowledge than do we, they are our equals. Try using your altar as a place to rebuild a healthy relationship and associations with these ideal parents, one which is loving and nurturing, yet independent. When the old wounds stir, bring them this this altar and to the Gods who are your parents in spirit. Give vent to your feelings, and ask them to show you how to heal them, redefine these relationships, and move on. Ask them to uphold you and give you strength to work through these issues toward your own healing. You may be surprised how strongly you will feel their support in your life!
Protocol for Working with a Family Altar
Those of us who come from large families will know the need for some kind of protocol governing who uses the altar, and how to behave when someone is at the altar. Since the ancestor altar is in the center of the living space, it is not likely to be a place of quiet contemplation all of the time, nor is that its intention. It is intended as much as a focus through which the ancestors can remain part of our lives as for us to remember them. In Avalon, where extended families often lived in one large room together, knowing how to take turns became a fine art! The customs they laid down work just as well for us today, if we choose to follow them. Here is the way of it:
- Elders first: Letting our elders go before us is a sign of respect for the fact that they have already given a long life in service to our nurture and support, and to activities which help to support the community. It is an acknowledgement of the greater wisdom they have earned through life experience, and it is a basic courtesy to those for whom standing and sitting for long periods may be painful.
- Guests next: If you have guests who knew and were close to some of your relative, and who wish to join in your observance, let them either go with the elders or follow after their example. (It may be rare, but it is always good to know the way of it so that you may be comfortable should the situation arise.)
- Mothers and little ones after: The mothers are the nurturers amongst us and this service also deserves respect. It is also harder for a breeding woman or a mother carrying or managing little ones to wait long for others, for reasons we have all seen when waiting in public queues.
- Teenagers and youngsters last: In Avalon, older children look after younger children; since the teenagers will already have learned the routine from you, have them teach and guide the little ones in this simple observance.
For those who wish to devote some time to communing with Avalon's god/esses, a separate personal altar will be necessary. While it is preferable for this to be outdoors, climate will determine this for many of us. If a space indoors is advisable, choose a spot away from public view or traffic areas where you will have some privacy. Again, there is no need for ostentation. Your personal altar may be small and simple, so long as it is dedicated to your spiritual work in Avalon and nothing from other spiritual paths is included. Then select the pieces (or obtain the table) for your altar. On it, place a small glass bottle of pure spring water (preferably water that has been blessed by the Red or White Springs in Glaston), a sprig of heather, a votive candle (preferably a Bride's candle) and - an apple (real or silver). Nothing else is necessary! When you wish to meditate, commune with one of the Tribes deities, or journey to Avalon, simply sit in front of your altar and consider what is before you. What do these objects feel like? What images do they evoke? Take a few moments, close your eyes, let your breath fill your lower belly and feel what your sacred space feels like today. Do some banishing if necessary before you begin; then sit, place your offering on the altar table, and begin your spiritual work for the day.
Calibrating Individual with Collective & Wilderness Rhythms & Cycles
One of the greatest challenges for modern people is that our societies have fallen so far out of synch with natural rhythms, tides, and cycles. In Avalon, we work with the myths as sacred healing stories, the Feasts, and with the cycles of sun and moon to help to bring us into more direct harmony with the natural cycle. This can be difficult for new Aspirants and non-members, since they are not privy to all of these teachings. In addition to the cycles of sun and moon (which are, after all, available to everyone), we would encourage you to avail yourself of other resources to help you become more aware of your own cycles and patterns. Not all of these are "Avalonian", and those who become Lifetime Members are taught more traditional approaches to self-awareness and empowerment, but until that time there is no reason not to use whatever is at hand. To that end, we have provided a Biorhythm function at the bottom of this page for your use. We encourage you to use this information, not only to understand your own patterns, but also how these patterns effect your interactions with others. As you become more aware of these subtleties, consider where similar patterns might be reflected in the myths. Becoming more self-aware and open to the ways in which are personal cycles are reflected in social groups and in Nature will prove of great benefit to any serious spiritual practice, within or outside of our membership.
With these simple tools much may be accomplished. In combination with the work of the Cycle, we may enter into an authentic experience of Avalon's root wisdoms. The rest is up to you. The more you do and participate, the more you will feel Avalon's influence in your life, but this is true of all things. One feels most like a musician when one is playing music! Do what you can and look for opportunities to do more. If possible, join us for one of the yearly gatherings of the Tribes or for a weekend workshop; there, in circle with Elders of the Tradition, you may come to a clearer experience of what the Tradition truly has to offer and your own greater potential!
Be you welcome, gentle Seeker.
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