Ancestor Worship in Contemporary Los Angeles
It has been a challenging 10 days since my last newsletter.
I do indeed have a major new ghostwriting project, and that has at least temporarily alleviated a lot of my financial stress. It is a daunting task, but mostly, what is daunting is work — and I like work. Work is something that just takes time and effort and thought, and though I am fond of complaining that I have too much on my plate, I do tend to be happier when I am yoked to the plough. It makes me feel useful. Devil, idle hands, unquiet minds, Protestant work ethic, you know the drill.
On the other hand, over the past week, there’s been a major health crisis that hits very close to home. I am sorry that I can’t say more in a public newsletter. It has been a source of tremendous worry, and though a loved one who was in the hospital is now home, there remains a long road ahead. I have been frantic, as have many of those close to me. We are getting the help and support we need at this time, however, and we are hopeful for what is to come.
In this challenging time, I have turned to the ancestors. I talk about my ancestors often; I use Paul’s trope of a “cloud of witnesses” often, probably too often. What I haven’t made clear is that at 55, in these High Middle Ages of my life, the ancestors have become my religion.
(I have lived as an atheist —my upbringing —as an evangelical, as a Roman Catholic, as a Mennonite, and as an Orthodox Jew. I’ve been married five times and I have thrown myself into new spiritual practices with the same sort of temporary, briefly sincere enthusiasm. My life story is immensely - overly - interesting to me, but at some point, reciting the details of one’s unusual spiritual autobiography, like detailing one’s rich romantic and sexual history, becomes both tedious and self-indulgent, and everyone deserves better.)
On Monday the 15th, I had a phone meeting to land the ghostwriting contract. I had just minutes to sell myself and my skills to someone I had never met. On Friday the 19th, I had to drive someone I love to the emergency room. Throughout each stressful occasion, I turned not to the formulas I was taught by Holy Mother Church or the Assemblies of God or Kabbalah or Chabad, but to my late father, my grandmothers, and all who came before them.
I called their names: Hubert, Peggy, Elsa, Arthur, Jacqueline, Hedwig, Samuel, Mathilde, Ethel, James. I thought of photos I had seen, names in old family histories and in genealogical charts. I thought of grain merchants in a Moravian shtetl, and a mother of ten, trying to keep the brood alive while they forded rivers and navigated mountain passes to become Western Illinois pioneers in the earliest days of our Republic. I thought of my papa’s laugh. All these forebears had their own faiths, though more recent generations on all sides have become unobservant. I know a little of what they believed; I have prayed novenas, I have fasted and danced on Yom Kippur; I have sat in the formidable silence of a Quaker meeting. I no longer know or comprehend the God to which my ancestors spoke. I am more sustained by their lives than by the object of their faith.
I have told the children that in crisis, I ask my father and grandmothers and others what to do. I tell the kids that those who have gone ahead look back and comfort. Whether they can directly interfere in our lives is unclear to me, and I am quite content to remain in that uncertainty. I am prepared to believe that the ancestors themselves are somewhere where they are unaware of anything we do — but they are still worth communing with because something of them lives on in me as a resource, a sort of emergency power supply. Perhaps it’s a biological thing, and in times of great crisis, I can access an accumulated inheritance of wisdom and perseverance encoded into the DNA they gave me. Perhaps it’s all a delusion, but a sustaining one regardless - I have convinced myself that the ancestors are with me and with the children, and so I act with the certainty that they are, and I get through.
I know very little about Shinto, which I understand practices the veneration of the ancestors. I know a bit more about the Roman household gods, the Lares. The Lares or Penates were ancestors from generations back, sometimes into family myth — but if you remember the movie Gladiator (admittedly not the most reliable historical text), the hero has figurines of his slain wife and young son as his most precious possession. The film wasn’t far off the mark — in Roman society, one could and should venerate and seek the counsel not only of one’s ancient and most illustrious forebears, but those whom one had known, loved, and lost. That could include (though I do not like to think of it) one’s own dead children.
A display of Roman household gods, deified ancestors.
I do not have little figurines of my father or great-great-grandmother Jasquay. I have photos, and stories, and memories not only of the ones I knew but of the ones whom my grandparents knew. These stories and recollections do not mythologize or idealize, but they coalesce to form a collective whole — which is why I like St Paul’s image of the “cloud of witnesses” so much, because I do think of all of these forebears traveling above me and my children, cheering us on, eager to welcome us in due course, but also certain (I hope) that we have much more yet to do before we join the Great Majority.
We live in an age where we experience a great deal of anguish about how many people around us seem to believe the wrong things. The best lack all conviction, the worst filled with passionate intensity, and because we are inclined to nostalgia, we see the ranks of the worst growing day by day, and the sheer numbing foolishness of their beliefs just seems to expand endlessly. Whom you regard as the worst will have a lot to do with whether or not you prefer Fox or MSNBC, or whether you read The Nation or the American Conservative. Whatever your brand of politics, that you oscillate between despair, and resolve to steel yourself for battle, is almost a given in this blazing and unsettled summer of ‘22.
My left-wing friends tell me my ancestor worship is not only silly, but deeply regressive. We are supposed to cast a critical eye on the parochialism, prejudice, and paranoia of those who came before; we must repudiate their mistakes, atone for their misdeeds, and tear down the monuments that honor our forebears in their gross imperfections. To spurn so much of the past strikes me as adolescent rebellion mixed with hubris and misplaced outrage. No thanks.
My right-wing religious friends tell me gently that I should consider what it was that my ancestors worshipped. They are messengers, perhaps, but surely, I should consider the Message more important? Great-great-great-great-grandfather Avraham rested in Torah; great-great-great-great grandmother Bland trusted in Scripture. Maybe, despite all my doubts — and my spent enthusiasms in synagogues and churches — I ought to consider one more return, to kneel in prayer or to daven with tefillin on my arm. I can’t rule anything out; a zig in my life usually means a zag is coming and one is no doubt lurking. But not yet.
Over the past week, as my family faced this health crisis, I asked many, many people to pray or send good vibes or whatever it is they do. I have contacts across a vast array of traditions, and they have been immensely kind in their response to my need. I do not ask what prayers they sent, or what thoughts they thought, or what formulas they recited. That’s their story. All I know is that I am strengthened in my role as comforter and protector by what others do in private, and I believe that somehow, what my friends, family, and acquaintances are doing — whether they call it “storming the gates of heaven” or asking Hygeia to anoint the sick with droplets from her healing bowl — somehow, somehow, somehow, all this care and devotion and kindness has wonderworking power.
As for me, I will go through the day focused on doing my happy duty to the living. And in that work, I will be sustained and strengthened by the dead.