Ancestors, More Questions than Answers
“Some people believe that their latihan is blocked because their ancestors burden them, but it is their own fault. So, try to make yourself clean through doing your latihan; remain quiet and pray to God to help your ancestors so that in this way your latihan will have a positive effect on your ancestors.”
Provisional Translation by Ibu Hardiyati Syafrudin
94 DEN 2
Ancestors, More Questions than Answers
By Lawrence Pevec
If the possibility of aiding the souls of my ancestors, particularly my father and brother, who both died extremely distressed deaths, exists through my latihan, I am ready. Are there other things a living being can do to help? Can connections be made where the assistance is a two-way street? What actually is the relationship and responsibility between our present lives and the lives of our disembodied forebears? These questions are particularly poignant for me because both my father and only brother took their own lives. In most of Christianity suicide is considered a grave sin; unforgivable, un-redeemable. Certainly, for family and friends, those left behind, it is the most difficult kind of death to reconcile in the outer feelings.
My early religious training in Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant doctrine, established my values. Those two versions of the faith occupied the first two windus of the nine I’ve lived so far. When I joined Subud I was, in part attracted to the attention paid to traditions that are, if not entirely absent, not afforded the same importance in lay Christianity.
Islamic culture permeates Subud culture in many significant ways. Bapak never suggested Subud members needed to adopt Islam and I have never felt a need to officially embrace it although I have certainly benefitted from its wisdom traditions. The concept of windus (eight-year life cycles), prihatin/fasting, the selamatan cycle for the deceased and of course the attention paid to prayer offerings for ancestors in the middle of the month of Shaaban; the month that precedes the month of Ramadan. I write this as Shaaban begins on March 12 this year.
Most religious traditions contain an element of honoring our forebears. In some, particularly Chinese Patriarchal Religions, worshipers venerate long dead ancestors as gods and signify their importance to the living with ritual offerings and prayers. In Catholic Christianity there are special altars in the churches and cathedrals where parishioners and visitors may light candles as they whisper prayers of light and warmth for deceased relatives. I’ve lit candles to accompany my thought prayers in several of the great cathedrals of Europe and the US and this simple act has always brought a feeling of satisfaction and wellbeing.
Bapak said numerous times that our latihan not only brings about positive changes in our individual lives but also works on both our ancestral and descendant lines for seven generations. I feel this aspect of our Subud culture adds richness and promise to our lives. It links us to each other. The latihan is an inner experience but the action moves us outward in all directions.
Viewed from this side of the dense drape of death it seems that very little can be practically done for deceased family members in part because we have so little knowledge of the actual circumstances encountered after death. It’s not for lack of trying that most descriptions of dying, from persons who have done it and returned, usually leave the next-of-kin craving more information and clarity. Most of the accounts I’ve read about or seen in documentary films by near death experiencers changes their lives for the better in that they now know that death isn’t the end of existence. In fact, most of these accounts include some reluctance to return to life because the experience on the other side brings such relief . . . but does it in the case of suicide?
The closest I’ve gotten to receiving anything about my brother’s state or condition is that his soul is like a frightened child alternately fearful and angry. He was experiencing this condition to an untenable degree during his short life and mistakenly thought it could be better if he no longer lived. My father, who died when I was a very young child also had debilitating fear but it was focused on the well-being of his family rather than focused inward and didn’t extend to uncontrollable anger. For this reason, I often feel his presence in my life, mostly associated with the construction work (he was a talented builder and craftsman) I do.
As I stack on years in Subud (fifty-two) and go deeper and deeper into the realities of my spiritual life I become increasingly interested in connecting and engaging with my ancestors as well. As I get closer to death there seems to be a thinning of that opaque curtain between the two existences. Sometimes consciously, and more often unconsciously, I am able to connect with their lives and they with mine. I definitely feel this is a direct result of doing the latihan and I often feel grateful that I can participate in this great adventure.
In the past year I’ve felt some distance from my living family, many of whom are only a three hour drive away. Because of the pandemic I was unable to spend the holidays with them in the close-up manner I’ve done for more than forty-five years. At the same time, I’ve felt a closeness to my family of origin via photographs, letters and artifacts rediscovered in numerous stored boxes. I decided that this year, in this month, as I anticipate the coming of Ramadan, I would pay special daily attention to these long-gone family members. I realized in order to do this I needed a reminder, a visual trigger, a work of art, that would keep me engaged in the process.
I have been building a memorial sculpture/shrine. It’s situated in a place immediately visible when I enter my office / studio. The foundation of the piece is a small, oak, library type, card catalogue. It’s intended to be wall hung rather than the typical stacked configuration with 20” long drawers. The twenty-four shallow drawers that held the book cards are only five inches deep which would accommodate 3×5 index or recipe cards if they were trimmed slightly on the edges. It must have come from a very small library, perhaps a middle or grade school, and was given to me by a therapist friend when I admired it. I really liked the piece but had no intended use for it until now.
It is a work in progress. Creating a metaphor for the veneration of seven generations of familial ancestors is a daunting but happy task. I only have first-hand memories of one grandparent, the mother of my mother who helped raise me and my siblings. She and her five children, my maternal aunts and uncle, have all passed on. I never met my paternal grandparents. I have only a few photos of them. Both sides of the family in that generation were central European immigrants and some genealogical research has turned up a few items. Specific information concerning my ancestors is mostly lost so I rely on testing for the insight to build my memorial. If it feels right it is right. As the project develops I expect it will strengthen my connection with the individuals who made me and add depth and color to my story.
I’m interested in your comments and the ways you traditionally honor your forebears. Paying attention to our ancestors is an aspect of our shared Subud culture. We are all related somewhere in the distant past. Your ancestors are mine too.
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March 13, 2021
Lawrence Pevec lives in Boulder, Colorado, and enjoys working with World Subud Association Archives editing video contributions to the archives collection. He is part of the SICA-USA Cultural Conversation.