Friends in Heaven

Note Statue of Mary on the top

Nana’s Rock Garden
Circa 1962

 

There are a variety of magical traditions, such as Hoodoo, Appalachian Folk Magic and Pennsylvania Dutch Hexcraft  that are uniquely American.   These beliefs and practices evolved in particular areas of the country when people of various ethnic backgrounds shared their folklore and magical traditions.

Traditional practitioners of these magical systems get fewer and fewer with each generation.  Most mainstream people want no part of what they view as superstitious beliefs from another time— beliefs that, in their opinion, are as obsolete as horse-drawn plows and rotary dial telephones.  Others feel the need to be more orthodox in their Christianity and avoid magic for that reason.

When a contemporary person DOES want more magic in their lives, they tend to walk away from Christianity altogether and therefore have no interest in the American systems of folk magic which incorporate the Christian pantheon and utilize the Bible and Christian religious symbols in the work.

I never gave any of this much thought until I became interested in not only honoring my ancestors and praying for their continued spiritual progress, but to do so in a way that showed respect for their beliefs and traditions.  Ancestors on my mother’s side were working class Irish Catholics as far back as I can trace.  My efforts to honor them made me aware of just how quickly culture, be it Irish Catholic or otherwise, can disappear into a world of cell phones, Mc Mansions and conspicuous consumption.

My grandmother’s Catholicism had a focus which was praying for the dead.  She constantly prayed the rosary for deceased relatives and friends, but also for complete strangers.  She did this as if it was her job, but she enjoyed it and it occupied a lot of her time.

When I was young, I left Catholicism to explore Wicca, Paganism and other paths.   At that time, I fell in love with the idea of distant, Irish ancestors who lived close to nature and practiced forms of magic and medicine that were “untainted” by Christianity.  I suppose that, at the time, these faceless, fantasy ancestors seemed more interesting than the immigrant factory workers whose photographs adorned the walls of my Nana’s simple home.

Here we are, forty years later, and it’s only been the last ten years or so that I am able to acknowledge and feel remorse for how I disrespected those ancestors who, generationally, are closer to me.  I particularly feel bad about not seeing the beauty and selflessness of my grandmother’s practices.

When visiting the graves of her relatives to offer prayers and flowers, she would often walk up to a random grave, generally with a very old headstone, and offer prayers and flowers for that spirit.  She used to say that someone who has been dead a long time likely has no one alive who feels connected enough to pray for them, so they appreciate the gesture.

Grandma believed that her practices and devotions earned her many “friends in heaven” with whom she had reciprocal relationships.  She believed the spirits of the dead whom she had prayed for would intercede on her behalf during times of trouble.  This is not to say that she gave only in hopes of receiving something in return.  She was not like that. But she believed in the power of partnerships and reciprocal relationships at a time when most people didn’t articulate concepts like that.

When I decided to honor her by adopting her spiritual practices I realized that I could not remember how to pray the rosary or perform a Novena.  I have friends who identify as Catholics and former Catholics but none of them could help me either.  They had either forgotten these practices or were raised by secular Catholics and never taught these things.

It took some doing to find someone who’d accept my pantheistic tendencies and be willing to help me relearn Catholic devotional practices.   It was then that I realized how different contemporary Catholic culture is from the community that I grew up in.

I’m not even 60-years old yet and already one is hard-pressed to find someone of Catholic origins who appreciates the spiritual and devotional traditions of their grandparents, who avails themselves of the beauty and efficacy of those traditions and who intends to pass these practices down to their own grandchildren.

I hope that five hundred years from now people won’t be writing books and articles about a once-upon-a-time-America, when Catholic grannies prayed for the dead and practiced Catholic folk magic, and where southern Protestants passed their Hoodoo traditions on to the next generation.

So much spiritual history and magical traditions have already been lost over the centuries. It saddens me to think that folk magic beliefs that are unique to our country or to our particular ancestors may also be lost.

That is why over the Easter weekend, I took my 9-year old granddaughter to visit the graves of my mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. While we were there, we randomly visited some very old graves, where we offered prayers and flowers, and I taught my granddaughter how to make friends in heaven.

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Vintage St Joseph Statue from St. Joseph School in New Orleans, Louisiana

Saint Joseph

I have not visited eBay in quite some time and suddenly had this inclination to check it out yesterday. I was lucky to find this vintage, Italian plaster saint that was recently restored by a professional conservator.

This is a wonderful piece of old New Orleans nostalgia as it is from one of the most beloved Roman Catholic schools in the Crescent City. This statue was often used by the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul in classroom “Saint Joseph Altar” celebrations, a time honored Italian American tradition in New Orleans.

It was made in the 1920’s. I love the energy of old things that have been prayed with many times over. They represent an existing path to Spirit made with love and devotion over many decades.

I can’t wait to add Saint Joseph to my altar. He should arrive by the end of the week.

Saints Alive ~ Another Perspective on Catholicism

Like many people raised in the Catholic church, I walked away as a young adult to explore other paths and interests. I was definitely a pantheist at this point and had interests in magic and the paranormal.

I was young and searching for meaning and purpose in life, to become a more self-aware and enlightened person and to find answers to all of the unexplained phenomena I had witnessed thus far. I didn’t see the Catholic church as the right vehicle for my journey to discover my life’s purpose. My spiritual questing and hunger for information brought me here, there and everywhere.

When you have a strong Christian background, especially Catholicism, but you are also earth-honoring and magically inclined, you can start feeling like you belong in the land of misfit toys. Both Christian and Pagan friends are uncomfortable with some of your beliefs and practices. Although most of them claim to be non-judgmental and ecumenical the truth is usually that they like to see themselves that way but aren’t able to put it into practice in actual life.

In 2010, I really felt the need to get away–not to think, as thinking hadn’t gotten me anywhere, but to pray without distraction. I hadn’t been out to Pine Ridge since 2007, so when my friend Bernie asked if I wanted to come out and support him in Sun Dance, I jumped at the chance.

I had a lot of experiences there that I can’t write or speak about, but there was one conversation I had with a friend of the family that really had a huge impact. It was, in part, about my Catholic upbringing and since this is a difficult subject for a lot of people I thought that I should share.

We were talking about the spiritual power that you can feel coming off the Sun Dancers on the last day of their ordeal. My friend pointed out that one of the reasons they are such effective vessels for spiritual power is the fact that they employ pathways that were forged by their ancestors for generations.

He also pointed out that white people often do the opposite– turn their backs on their family and their more recent ancestors and their religion thereby giving up the power of their spiritual and blood lineage.

I felt like I was hit in the head with a hammer. I knew that I was meant to hear this! We talked about how wide and deep spiritual paths become with repetitive prayers and practices, and how each generation can tap into the roads forged by the ancestors who came before them.

Catholics especially, because of their belief in Saints and Guardian Angels, are already accustomed to petitioning spiritual intercessors and already have practices (rosary, novenas) that keep the pathways open and strengthen ones connection to spirit.

I totally understood what he was telling me about spiritual legacy and inheriting the keys to the spiritual highways paved by your ancestors, but I come from a very dysfunctional family with a lot of alcoholism and other issues, so I didn’t understand if this would work for me.

We talked at length about what I might do for my ancestors and myself and I got started as soon as I returned home. Here we are almost four years later and I am more grateful for that conversation than I could ever express.

I LOVE where I am now and will post more about that another time.