Prelude Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Harley
Opening Words The Blessing Chant from the White Goddess website (adapted)
May the powers of the One, the source of all creation; all-pervasive, omnipotent, eternal;
May the Goddess, the Lady of the Moon;
And the God, Horned Hunter of the Sun;
rulers of the elemental realms;
May the powers of the stars above and the Earth below,
Bless this place, and this time, and us all.
Chalice Lighting (you may wish to light a candle in your own home at this point. I will be lighting my chalice for worship at 11.00 am on Sunday morning) words by Cliff Reed
For millennia beyond count,
in winter’s cold and night’s darkness,
people have gathered around fire,
feeling its warmth, seeing by its light,
forging community with food and work
and songs and stories.
In all the faith traditions of our kind,
fire has its meaning. And so we gather
round this candle’s flame, sharers all
in the human spirit that makes us one.
Spirit of Life and Love,
Be with us as we gather for worship,
each in their own place.
Help us to feel a sense of community,
even though we are physically apart.
Help us to care for each other,
in this not quite yet post-Covid world,
keeping in touch however we can,
and helping each other,
however we may.
May we remember that
caution is still needed,
that close contact is still unwise.
Help us to be grateful for the freedoms we have
and to respect the wishes of others.
May we hold in our hearts all those
Who are grieving, lost, alone,
Suffering in any way.
Reading Halloween and Samhain from Dowsing for Divinity by Yvonne Aburrow
The season of Halloween is fast approaching, and with it, the opening of several different silly seasons. It’s the season for racists to dress as caricatures of other ethnic groups. It’s the season for journalists to find the gothiest witches they can and write dramatic articles about them. And it’s the season for spooky films on TV, and (gods help us all) pumpkin spice latte…
Samhain is celebrated by most contemporary Pagans as a festival of remembrance, drawing on ancient traditions that the veil between the worlds is thin at this time of year…. the popular image of Halloween as only being about spookiness is a far cry from the meanings of Samhain, Dia de Muertos, All Hallows and All Souls.
These festivals are about honouring ancestors, the dead, and land spirits. Most Pagan & earth-centred cultures see the dead as part of the natural cycle of birth-death-life-rebirth — and among the tasks of witches [is] to communicate with the dead.
The disrespect shown to traditional festivals like Dia de Muertos, Samhain, All Souls, All Hallows, etc just shows how detached our culture is from both death and Nature. I am always glad to see Halloween decorations emphasizing the Autumnal symbolism of the festival. It is a recognition of the cycle of the seasons, and through that recognition, we can get closer to an appreciation of the cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth.
Alternative Lord’s Prayer
Spirit of Life and Love, here and everywhere,
May we be aware of your presence in our lives.
May our world be blessed.
May our daily needs be met,
And may our shortcomings be forgiven,
As we forgive those of others.
Give us the strength to resist wrong-doing,
The inspiration and guidance to do right,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
We are your hands in the world; help us to grow.
May we have compassion for all living beings,
And receive whatever life brings,
With courage and trust. Amen
Reading from Paganism: an introduction to Earth-centered religions by Joyce & River Higinbotham
Samhain, popularly known as Halloween, is celebrated on October 31st. Samhain falls between the Autumn Equinox and Yule, the Winter Solstice, and marks the end of the Pagan sacred year. It is the first festival to occur in the dark half of the year. Samhain is a Celtic word that means “summer’s end”, and indeed by the time Samhain arrives, we are clearly on our way to winter. This is the time of year when agricultural societies decided how many animals to slaughter based on available grass and feed, the number of breeding livestock needed for the following year, and the amount of meat required to survive the winter. Serious mistakes in these calculations could mean death and starvation. For the ancient Pagans, Samhain was a time of death in a very real way.
As observed by Pagans today, Samhain is a festival that celebrates several things: the end of the harvest, a change from the activities of summer to the quietness of winter, the beginning of the new Pagan year, and the honouring of ancestors and the dead. It is also a time when we acknowledge and honour the sacrifice of the animals we kill in order to live. It is a time when we come to terms with death and are openly encouraged to process our fear of it. It is a time when we acknowledge the hard moments of life that we usually do not think or talk about. If there are things we need to let go of, Samhain is a good time to release them.
Prayer Samhain Prayer by Jude Geiger
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names and One Transforming & Abundant Love,
As the wheel of the year turns through another season,
with the chill in the air growing stronger,
we pause to remember those we have lost in our lives.
We remember the small moments that stand out amidst our great stories,
the breakfasts that were unnoticed at the time,
but take on so much more now,
the laughter, the hope, the dreams.
May our loss turn in our hearts into something different,
may we find a profound joy in the gift of knowing those we have loved,
and may it teach us to cherish those around us even more.
May our remembering of the lives we have known,
teach us to live fully into the lives we still live,
deepen our ties to the community we are surrounded by,
to the families of our birth or the families of our choosing.
For our stories continue on,
our world needs our loving all the more
in the seasons of cold winds, and long nights. Remembering that the wheel continues to turn,
and the warmth we once knew will return – again and again.
Reading Samhain from The Wheel of the Year by Celia Cartwright
Samhain is the feast of the dead – All Hallows Eve, the Celtic New Year. In ancient times it was not possible to keep whole herds throughout the winter, so the minimum breeding stock was kept alive, and the rest were slaughtered and salted. Samhain was the time when the killing and preserving was done.
Crops too had to be gathered in by 31st October, and it is therefore not difficult to see why Samhain was considered a time of change, of transition from one way of living to another, from Summer to Winter, from sunlit outdoor life to a period of time when more light and warmth were to be found by the hearth.
This time of transition was seen as one in which normal reality was disturbed as the earth moved through a ‘joint’ in time. Chaos reigned and this was marked in ways we can see through the watered down versions that remain as part of folk history, particularly in Celtic and Gaelic speaking cultures. It is in the ‘trick or treat’ custom, where the boundaries are smudged, where boys and girls exchanged clothing and made mischief.
According to tradition, the time of Samhain lasts for three days, from October 31st to November 2nd, during which it is said that the veil of time is lifted, and we may commune with the Otherworld, and those who have gone before us…. After this period in which time is suspended, we return to the everyday world in a new cycle of activity, which lasts until the following Samhain – thus it is seen as the border between the old year and the new.
Time of Stillness and Reflection Prayer On Turning by Jack Riemer (adapted)
Now is the time for turning. The leaves are beginning to turn from green to red and orange. The birds are beginning to turn and are heading once more toward the South. The animals are beginning to turn to storing their food for the coming winter. For leaves, birds, and animals turning comes instinctively.
But for us turning does not come so easily. It takes an act of will for us to make a turn. It means breaking with old habits. It means admitting that we have been wrong; and this is never easy. It means losing face; it means starting all over again; and this is always painful. It means saying: I am sorry. It means recognising that we have the ability to change. These things are hard to do. But unless we turn, we will be trapped forever in yesterday’s ways.
God, help us to turn – from callousness to sensitivity, from hostility to love, from pettiness to purpose, from envy to contentment, from carelessness to discipline, from fear to faith.[silence]
Turn us around, O God, and bring us back toward You. Revive our lives, as at the beginning. And turn us toward each other, God, for in isolation there is no life. Amen
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
I first became interested in Paganism more than a decade ago, firstly through getting to know Yvonne Aburrow, who is a Wiccan priestess, and secondly, through an Open University course I was doing, before I started my ministry training. The course included a module called Belief Beyond Boundaries, which had a big section on Paganism. I was so interested in what I read and heard that I bought a book about it – Paganism: an introduction to Earth-centered spirituality, from which our second reading came. As I read, I made a fascinating discovery: there were huge chunks of the book in which I could substitute the word “Unitarian” for the word “Pagan”. Let me share some of these with you:
“Paganism has no central hierarchy or dogma. … Most Pagans enjoy spiritual diversity and would not think it appropriate for all Pagans to believe the same things, practice in the same ways, or be organised under the same structure.”
“Most Pagan traditions stress personal responsibility and put the burden of developing spiritual practices, beliefs, and ethics on to the individual. Even those traditions that offer established beliefs … encourage their members to test ideas so that members build the mental muscles necessary to judge the soundness of beliefs for themselves.”
“Pagans have no theological basis for accepting the belief that human nature is flawed. They also reject the idea that people need religion in order to be saved from this supposed flaw in themselves, and embrace the concept that people are born with all the potential skills they need to make moral and ethical judgements.”
The authors also list seven principles of Paganism, five of which I guess will strike a chord with many Unitarians:
“1. You are responsible for the beliefs you choose do adopt.
- You are responsible for your own actions and your spiritual and personal development.
- You are responsible for deciding who or what Deity is for you, and forming a relationship with that Deity.
- Everything contains the spark of intelligence.
- Everything is sacred.”
Of course there are also things in Paganism that are very different to Unitarianism; the emphasis on magic and ritual, worship of the Goddess (by many Pagans) and so on. But the earth-centred spirituality that all Pagans share is also shared (at least to some extent) by many Unitarians. John Macintyre explains it thus: “Pagans do not believe that they are set above, or apart from, the rest of nature. They understand divinity to be immanent, woven through every aspect of the living earth. Thus, Pagan worship is mainly concerned with connection to, and the honouring of, immanent divinity. The rituals are akin to a symbolic language of communication between the human and the divine: one which speaks not to the intellect alone but also to the body, the emotions, and the depths of the unconscious mind, allowing Pagans to experience the sacred as whole people within the act of worship. The approach is primarily mythopoeic, recognising that spiritual truths are better understood by means of allusion and symbol rather than through doctrine.”
This honouring of the divine in every aspect of the earth has evolved into a cycle of festivals called the Wheel of the Year. These are eight seasonal festivals that are celebrated every six or seven weeks throughout the year. The ‘wheel’ is made up of the four solar festivals – Winter and Summer solstice, and the Spring and Autumn equinoxes. In between these dates are the cross-quarter days, also known as the fire festivals or Greater Sabbats. These four festivals celebrate the agricultural year and take place on or around 1st February (Imbolc), 30th April or 1st May (May Day or Beltane), 31st July (Lammas) and 31st October or 1st November (Samhain).
The Pagan New Year occurs in the Autumn. Today, Pagans will be celebrating the festival of Samhain, which literally means ‘summer’s end’. It falls on the last day of October or the first day or November, depending on which book you read. In this festival four themes are interwoven: the end of the harvest, the beginning of the new Pagan year, the honouring of the dead, and the opportunity to take stock of their lives, and make a fresh start.
In ancient times, not only did the Celts believe the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead dissolved on this night, they thought that the presence of the spirits helped their priests to make predictions about the future. To celebrate Samhain the Druids built huge sacred bonfires. People brought harvest food and sacrificed animals to share a communal dinner in celebration of the festival. During the celebration the Celts wore costumes – usually animal heads and skins. They would also try and tell each other’s fortunes. After the festival they re-lit the fires in their homes from the sacred bonfire to help protect them, as well as keep them warm during the winter months.
A bastardised version of this ancient festival has survived in modern Western society under the name ‘Halloween’, which when I was small was spelled with an apostrophe between the two Es, to indicate that it was short for “All Hallow’s Eve”. I find it sad that celebrating the end of the harvest has degenerated into lighted pumpkins and ‘trick or treating’, and that the Pagan (and Christian) custom of honouring the dead at this time of year has evolved into small children (and adults who ought to know better) dressing up as zombies and ghosts, not to mention witches.
As well as having Pagan origins, All Hallows Eve was the first of three days celebrated by the medieval church, the other two being All Hallows (or All Saints) Day on 1st November, and All Souls Day on 2nd November. Anglicans and Roman Catholics still celebrate these days: All Saints Day is “an opportunity for believers to remember all saints and martyrs, known and unknown, throughout Christian history”, and All Souls Day is “an opportunity for [them] to commemorate the faithful departed. They remember and pray for the souls of people who are in Purgatory – the place (or state) in which those who have died atone for their less grave sins before being granted the vision of God in Heaven.” All of which is a long way from the Pagan custom of honouring the dead, but the link between the two is interesting.
Quite a few Unitarian churches now hold special services on All Souls Day to remember those who have died in the past year. It is an opportunity to hold them in our hearts and to share our grief at their loss, and to support those who have lost family members and friends.
Another aspect of Paganism is the fact that they embrace the dark side of life as well as the light, rather than sweeping it under the carpet and pretending it doesn’t exist. The Pagan year is divided up into dark and light halves – the dark half starts with the Autumn Equinox, which is when the nights start getting longer than the days, and finishes with the Spring Equinox, when the reverse happens. They are also not afraid to honour the dead. Samhain is the second festival in the dark half of the year. It marks “a change from the activities of summer to the quietness of winter.” I like this acknowledgement of the changing pace of the year; it allows Pagans to slow down and reflect on their lives, which doesn’t happen much in most religions. Its place as the Pagan New Year festival also means that it is a time for thinking about the past year, about what was well done, and what was not so well done, and about making plans for the next twelve months.
I think that the stocktaking purpose of Samhain is a very important one that all human beings could benefit from – the injunction, once a year, as I said, to look back on how we have done, what we have done well, what we could have done better, and to make resolutions for the year ahead. For many of us, this will happen at New Year, for Christians, during the season of Lent. But the purpose remains the same.
As Jack Riemer wrote in the beautiful words of our Time of Stillness and Reflection, may God, the divine Spirit of Life and Love, “help us to turn – from callousness to sensitivity, from hostility to love, from pettiness to purpose, from envy to contentment, from carelessness to discipline, from fear to faith.” May it be so.
Spirit of Life and Love,
May we honour the Pagan wheel of the year,
And may we take this time to reflect on our lives,
And resolve to do better in future.
May we return to our everyday world refreshed,
may we share the love we feel,
may we look out for each other,
and may we keep up our hearts,
now and in the days to come.
Postlude Lady of Lewesdon Hill by Elizabeth Harley