Rufus Opus recently posted about people upset over the Roman Catholic Church making Mother Theresa a Saint (honestly we all knew Sainthood was in the works for both her and for John Paul II prior to their deaths), with the assertion that it was ironic that magicians who worship ancestors including relatives who they knew in life to be shitty people, would take issue with the canonization of Mother Theresa.
Honestly, I have no dog in the fight over whether or not Mother Theresa was a Holy woman of good works or a shill for a corrupt mafia like abuse factory. (These seem to be the prevailing extremes of the debate). I like for people to do good in the world, and I like for others to inspire people to do good, but I don't know enough about the realities of the situation, and at this point can't know enough, to form a meaningful opinion on the person of Theresa of Calcutta, and even if I could it wouldn't matter, I don't have a say in whether or not she's a Saint. Not my farm, not my pig. In the end, this is ok, because the person, warts and all, is not what will matter in fifty years, and even less so in a hundred and fifty. The canonization is an institutionalization of the ideal image expressed by the good people perceive, so glorifying here won't serve to glorify the bad things people allege; in the future, hopefully, it will just be an inspiration towards goodness. That said, again, I don't particularly care about the Theresa argument. I care about the sub-argument which Rufus Opus spawned, the debate about ancestor worship versus Sainthood.
In the short discussion I found myself agreeing with someone who, 90 percent of the time I find to be incorrect, and the other ten percent I can usually agree to disagree. Conversely, I disagreed with someone I respect a lot, who I know has experience with both Saints and the Dead. I was surprised in both cases. Some of the views of people who I know are mostly edgy lodge magicians weren't surprising because they don't seem like they'd work with either ancestors or saints. But I was surprised by the distinctions people were making which to me seemed artificial or at least not useful. So it seemed like a good time to put out some more thoughts on chillin' with dead dudes.
One commentator summed up the perceived distinction pretty succinctly. No one is worshiping Mother Theresa as an ancestor, but as a literal Saint.
Well I think there is confusion in what each means.
Ancestor worship in ancient pagan religions has a lot of similarity to Sainthood and I would like to say it's where Sainthood comes from, but we find this same concept in most cultures and religions, so I think it's sort of just a universal thing. Those who are great in the eyes of the people, or the leaders of the people, become venerated as particularly Holy and powerful after death. They get remembered and honored with special occasions and memorials.
Contemporary sorcery and witchcraft work with ancestors in a way that I wouldn't always equate to ancestor worship. It doesn't involve the same kind of honoring, or elevating, it doesn't necessarily have festival like feast days or memorials and temples for an individual great ancestor. It is much more of a working relationship, a partnership, or an alliance.
But still, all of these concepts work together in their basic idea, even if execution and exterior details may change. In the end, in ancestor worship, ancestral magic, and in the cult of the Saints, the basic idea is that someone died, and that dead person now resides in the spirit world. Because they are in the spirit world they have some ability to intercede on our behalf with the spiritual powers and forces that may affect our lives. Because they were once living they have sympathy and understanding for our plight as people and are more willing to help us, and better able to understand our needs than other spirits might be.
It doesn't matter if we're dealing with Saints or ancestors, the basic function is the same. They're an intercessor who helps us because they were on the same team as us at one point.
The fact that the Catholic Church selects a Saint came up as a differentiation. But if we look at ancient paganism, where ancestor worship was a little more evident than in a lot of modern Neo-Paganism, we see the same thing. Leaders of the community selected particular deceased figures as institutionalize ancestors for the whole community to venerate. You still honored your own deceased family, but as a personal and more intimate thing. The community at large had its mighty dead, or great ones, who were selected to be remembered. We do this in modern magical systems too. The EGC adds former OHOs of the OTO to the list of Gnostic Saints, the whole list is in fact a selected list of magical “ancestors” to the philosophical and occult current being channeled. In Afro-Carribean religions we find spirits who are held in common by many lines and houses who are traced to particular legendary figures rather than to particular gods. So again we have magical ancestors who are selected by the community rather than who are natural ancestors to us.
The idea that your ancestors are your own because you have their DNA...well, I like that on one end because it connects to one way in which I explain the concept of witchblood, but it isn't always true. In witchcraft and sorcery you seek out and make connections with particular spirits. Some ancestors may be your blood relatives, some may be other people who were important to you in life but weren't related, others might be important to your work as a magician. They become your magical ancestors when you seek them in the world of the dead and make alliance with them, and when you tend to them and feed them and keep communion with them. They become the spiritual lineage that you pass along. If you are a witch brought into a family, or as I understand it, a sorcerer brought into a house, you take on the ancestors of that practice whether they are your ancestors by birth or not.
So the fact that Saints aren't related to you doesn't change the working parameters. In fact, to me it only makes sense to work with Saints similarly to how one might work with an ancestor. You could, if working in a Catholic context, work with them without seeking them out for an alliance, they are spirits established for that purpose already with modes for approaching and working with them. But you could seek them out and approach them like ancestral spirits as well.
Another distinction that came up is that Catholics suggest that by naming someone as a Saint they have intercessory power that no other spirits have. This isn't true, and is particularly not true in the sort of folk Catholicism that would be most related to Saints in magic. Catholicism frequently recognizes that we pray for the elevation and comfort of the dead in the afterlife, and they likewise pray for our well being on earth. They are intercessors. “Someone up there is looking out for you,” is a reference to this idea. Prayers asking dead parents or grandparents for guidance or the idea that they are up there looking out for you is this same intercessory model that is applied to Saints. Saints are the guys who have easy access to the royal court, and know the people in charge, so they have a little extra pull, but everyone who is deceased and goes to heaven is a saint with a small S, and they all can go pray for their homies here on earth, within the Catholic worldview. So with that in mind, Saints entirely fall within the realm of ancestor worship and ancestral magic. Even if they Catholic worldview did accord them some special status though, that would only matter within the Catholic worldview and wouldn't change that the idea is still basically the same.
So yeah, Saints, ancestors, magic, it all goes together pretty easily.
I don't really care who the Church makes a Saint. It doesn't affect my magic. I do think it's useful for people to see how the cults of the Saints and folk traditions of the Saints can reflect living systems for working with the dead outside of a necromantic context.
I also think it's important to recognize that your ancestors in magic don't have to just be some relatives you know who weren't exceptionally magical, or relatives you didn't know but heard weird stories about. There is a lot of power in connecting with the dead in your own family, but you still have to connect with them and make them your allies in magic. Nothing is stopping you from expanding that garden of ancestors and tending some souls that might be willing to help you, and might have extra power and insight to offer even if they weren't your blood relatives.