Feeding the ancestors with eloquence

My ancestor shrine, revised

Quoting Martin Prechtel (see two previous posts) on the Mayan view of the ancestors:

You feed your ancestors with words and eloquence. We all have old, forgotten languages that our languages are descended from, and many of these languages are a great deal more ornate. But even with our current language, we still have the capacity to create strange, mysterious, poetic gifts to feed the ancestors, so that we won’t become depressed by their ghosts devouring our everyday lives.

After my first divination with Glenn, I had two dreams in which I was involved in rituals. As a result, I decided to perform a daily morning ritual, standing under a tree and reading aloud from the Hebrew prayer book we bought my daughter for her Bat Mitzvah. I started with the “Ma tovu”, which begins “How lovely are your tents, Ya’acov / how fine your encampments, Yisrael”.

The line that always lifted me was “And as for me, my prayer is for you, gentle one / May it be for you a time of desire”. Then I would read the whole prayer in Hebrew, and eventually I memorized the flowing, luscious words that dripped off my tongue. Sometimes a phrase would get stuck in my mind, usually “el heyhal kodshekha beyiratekha”–which I cannot translate, but even not knowing exactly which English words they correspond to, I find them viscerally lovely.

I directed these words at God, but maybe the ancestors are in God or with God, or however you describe the other world, so maybe it fed them, although I was reciting mostly for myself, hoping to feel a connection with God.

Lately I have been reading the Bible. I don’t know any Greek or Aramaic—perhaps they are more eloquent than English. But the archaic phrasing of the King James Bible is also wildly compelling. The first lines I committed to memory were:

Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt and thieves do not break through nor steal. / For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. / The light of the body is the eye; / if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body will be full of light.

I can’t recite those verses from Matthew without catching my breath.

As a writer, I am always striving for the right rhythm, for an arrangement of words that conveys both precision and elegance. Can I feed my ancestor, the Civil War diarist William Davies, by writing about him? Can he hear the words in my mind, or do I have to read aloud to him? Is he listening?

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