Q&A: How do you honor your Irish Christian ancestors?
In a really interesting article on “Pagans, Polytheists and St. Patrick’s Day,” Sionnach Gorm asks:
How do we, as devout polytheists, reconcile the historic reality that our ancestors (at some point in the 5th-6th century CE and with no evidence of coercion) chose to turn to a god of bells and tonsures, of monks and scriptures, of Rome and the Papacy?
If you want some more information about how we know with a fair amount of certainty that the conversion to Christianity in Ireland was a peaceful one, definitely check out the article. Unfortunately, after laying out the details of this history, Gorm leaves us hanging – shying away from that pressing question, “So… how do we deal with this history now that we know it?”
It’s a hard question to answer, because it’s not necessarily one where facts and figures will help us. Really, it’s the question we always have to ask ourselves when we are confronted with real diversity: how do we deal with people who are different from us not just in superficial ways that we can explain away or ignore, but in substantive ways that challenge us and our values at a fundamental level? It’s too easy to say that our Irish ancestors were manipulated or bullied into adopting Christianity, or to insist that they must have been naive or misled. To make those kinds of claims is to make the same mistake that Christians (and plenty of others) have made for so long in attempting to explain away the “primitive” traditions of ancient pagans and contemporary indigenous peoples. No, if we want to grapple with this question, we have to start by acknowledging that our ancestors were just as reasonable, insightful and complexly human as we are today.
Not only that, but if we want to honor the ancestors with intellectual honesty, we also have to confront the reality of our own inner diversity and complexity. We can’t retreat into cultural relativism and insist that some folks are just so wholly and completely different from ourselves that we’ll never be able to understand them. That excuse, too, has been used too often to explain away our own lack of imagination and the discomfort we feel when the boundaries of our knowledge are being pushed to their limits.
The fact that we are alive today means that, in some way, the biological and cultural lineage of our ancestors is a part of us and has helped to make us what and who we are. We are connected, no matter how strange or different our ancestors seem, and if we can reach out through the mists of history to find that connection and understanding, then we can do the same with people from other cultures and backgrounds who share the world with us today. Honoring the ancestors forces us to confront this diversity within our very own cultures and histories and so, hopefully, breaks down the all-too-common assumptions about cultural purity and religious legitimacy that tend to plague our community.
I have a confession: it really doesn’t bother me that some of my ancestors were Christian. In fact, sometimes I totally get it. Christianity has a lot of beauty and value to offer, and that was true then as it is today. Something many Pagans forget (or perhaps don’t know) about the historical St. Patrick is just how “counter-culture” and socially subversive his missionary work was in Ireland at the time, especially when it came to his strong stance against the common practice of slavery. Personally, I completely understand the appeal of a new religion asserting the values of universally shared community and equality in the eyes of God, that welcomed “men and women, slaves and nobles, free and unfree” alike, and how such a religion might take root in a tribal Irish society that was often fragmented and highly stratified. There are even times when I look at the modern Pagan community, so often thrown into a frenzy by the perennial debates over “proper ritual technique” or the “proper identity” of gods and their worshippers…. and I wonder if we’re not at risk of slipping back into a kind of uncritically fragmentary society ourselves, in which our differences and demographics are given greater weight than our shared relationships and communities. And yet, modern Pagans are so often also on the forefront of social advocacy, showing solidarity with marginalized communities who have suffered from oppression and bigotry. This fierce devotion to equality and radical inclusivity is something we actually share in common with some of those early Irish Christian converts. So yes, I get it. I get how issues of justice and equality trump nitpicking about theology and etiquette (but also how some subtle theological shifts can come back to bite us if we’re not watching).
I also get the ambivalence of my Irish ancestors who sometimes looked askance at Patrick himself, a foreigner who (having been held as a slave in Ireland in his youth and then escaped) returned to Ireland on a mission of cultural and religious conversion that was also, in a way, what we would today call cultural appropriation. A Christian who used the financial resources provided to him by his fellow Christians to make deals with pagan chiefs in order to buy influence in Irish society, but also to buy people out of slavery. A Briton who came to identify more strongly with his adopted Irish community than his fellow countrymen – even his fellow Christians, whom he admonished for being “ashamed” of his Irishness. Someone who was not even technically Irish, and yet became the first person in recorded history to articulate a sense of shared Irish identity. There is a strange elusive quality to Irish identity itself, and the claim to have “Irish ancestors” when those ancestors would not have identified themselves as such until the coming of Roman-influenced Christianity brought with it a sense of their own otherness. I recognize all of this in the on-going struggles within the modern Pagan community around issues like cultural appropriation, racial inclusivity, spiritual authenticity, the authority of paid and volunteer clergy, and the various ways we seek (or eschew) mainstream legitimacy. I recognize that giddy vertigo of searching for a solid sense of clearly defined community-identity and suddenly realizing there is no there there.
And so I can also understand my Christian ancestors who, sure, were on board with challenging certain political institutions and finding new ways of constructing social identity, who were up for experimenting with alternatives approaches to living in community together… but also still left offerings for the Fair Folk, still lit bonfires and wove golden-wheat crosses and made pilgrimages to sacred wells on holy days. Holding onto those things of value from their own heritage, instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater (and maybe occasionally rolling their eyes at clergy who were more concerned with theological consistency and piety than with meaning and beauty). Yeah, I can relate to that.
And that’s how, as a modern-day animistic polytheistic Irish(ish)-American Druid, I come to terms with the choices – and compromises, and inconsistencies – of my Christian ancestors. I relate to them. I don’t try to exactly imitate them, or justify all their choices, or explain away our disagreements. I just try to seek relationship, a meaningful connection that transcends our differences even as it reaffirms them. That’s how I honor my ancestors.
So, how do you honor yours?
“A Celtic cross in the churchyard of Old St Stephen’s Church, Fylingdales, overlooking Robin Hood’s Bay, Yorkshire, England,” by Spencer Means (CC) [source]
With Parentalia, the nine-day Roman festival held in honor of family ancestors, beginning tomorrow, this is food for thought.