Thoughts about all saints day as we await Sandy...

One of my hopes is that sometime in my active ministry, my faith community will reclaim the calendar of the Church in all its richness.  Not just the obvious fasts and feasts like Advent/Christmas and Lent/Easter - would that there WAS real fasting and feasting, too - but also the lesser days of depth like All Saints Day and the quarter point times that help us embrace the seasons in new ways.  Too much of the sacramental was discarded and destroyed in the Reformation - especially by my over zealous forebears from the non-conformist tradition - and I often feel malnourished by the anemic way Protestants enter these sacred days. 

Most of us don't even pay attention to the ebb and flow of the church calendar and when we do it feels watered-down and abstract rather than earthy, embodied and mysterious.  Advent is rarely a time for slowing down because we are addicted to the over-consumption model we've learned from the Christmas-machine.  Lent, too, is rarely a time for prayer, fasting and caring for the poor because we've got schedules to keep and people to meet and obligations from dawn til way past dark.  And if we compromise the BIG days, it is small wonder that we don't even note the lesser and more nuanced times.

Perhaps that is one of the reasons I have come to cherish that my Celtic ancestors began their new year in the darkness of November with Samhain.  My blogging friend, Blue Eyed Innis, recently posted a link to a site noting the Celtic origins of Halloween and All Saints Day:

November 1st was traditionally known as samhain, literally translated the “end of summer” and pronounced something like sow-een. This was the end of the Celtic year, the start of winter, a time for reflection…One of the Celtic idiosyncrasies was the concept of beginning in darkness and working towards the light. As the year started with winter, the days started at sundown. Thus the night from October 31st to November 1st was part of samhain, known as oiche shamhna or “evening of samhain“.

Samhain was one of the four “quarter days” of the Celtic calendar, along with imbolc (February 1st, start of spring), beltane (May 1st, start of summer) and lughnasa (August 1st, start of the harvest). We do not have any undisputed information about how these festivities were conducted in pre-Christian times. Samhain seems to have been a specifically Irish tradition and first mentioned by Christian chroniclers. Feasting seems to have taken the best part of a week, a few days either side of the actual samhain day. (check it out @ http://thewiccangecko.wordpress. com/2012/10/26/samhain-a-very-irish-feast-the-roots-of-halloween-in-celtic-ireland/)

In this place - at this time of year - it feels like endings and beginnings are brewing.  Soon it will be dark at 4 pm.  There is already a chill in the air and the green of summer is long past. What's more, Hurricane Sandy is making her way inland today so at least for the next few hours there is a calm before the storm and we all lose power.  Later this week we anticipate gathering as a clan to remember the life, death and journey to life eternal of my sister Beth who died in early August.  Guess all of this is just conducive to  an All Saints/Souls Day kinda groove, yes?

What I value in the Roman Catholic sense of these two holy days - All Saints and All Souls - is the breadth and depth given to the mystery of death. While Protestants tend to treat both days as an unfocused albeit homogenized unity, a deeper mystery is at work linking the living with the dead - and the dead with the saints.  All Saints is a time to recall those who have already experienced and received the blessings of heaven in the life to come - what some theologians call the "Church triumphant" - while All Souls invites the living - the "Church militant" - to be prayerful for those who have died but not yet tasted the blessings of heaven - the "Church suffering."  Now I generally do not embrace the notion of purgatory as a place, but I do sense there is a process through which we all transition from life to death and life eternal.  And the poetry of these two days gives me a way to approach these mysteries without full or even deep understanding. I believe in the "communion of saints" - that great cloud of witnesses - that links heaven to earth in every way imaginable. And something deep within me aches to honor this mystery. 

I like what Fr. Richard Rohr has written:

Rudolph Otto in his book The Idea of the Holy says that when someone has an authentic experience of the Holy, they find themselves caught up in two opposite movements at the same time: the mysterium tremendum and the mysterium fascinosum, a scary mystery and a very alluring mystery. We both draw back from and are pulled forward into a kind of liminal space where we are not at home at all and yet totally at home for perhaps the first time.

In the mysterium tremendum, you know God as far and beyond—unreachable and beyond description! Here you experience God as dreadful and fearful, as the one who has all the power, and in whose presence I am utterly powerless. People at that stage tend to become overwhelmed by a sense of separation or alienation. If you stop there, you either become an atheist, an agnostic, or a loyal but distant soldier. The defining of sin and sin management becomes the very nature of religion.

But simultaneously with this dimension is an opposite feeling of fascination, allurement, and seduction, a being pulled and drawn into something very satisfying and inviting. This is the mysterium fascinosum. If you only have the alluring part without the deep reverence for this mystery, you get merely sentimental and emotional religion, usually without any real social consequences (“Sweet Jesus” Christianity, as it is sometimes called). Otto says if you don't have both, you have not had a true or full experience of “The Holy.”

As my sister, Beth, died she was clearly in a transition - and I don't believe it ended when she stopped breathing.  By faith I trust that she has been set free from all pain and suffering. By faith I also believe that this continued for a time after her death.  Like Henri Nouwen once said:  what we encounter in death is likely to be much like what we lived in life - and Beth's was a complicated and at times troubled and broken life.  So, beyond all reason, I found myself praying for her transition into light long after her physical light went out.  Some speak of this as prayers for the souls of the departed - and that works for me.

I like the way those @ Blog TheoLogika put it:

The Celtic New Year’s holiday is not a fall harvest festival in an urban culture in which 2% of the people produce enough food and fiber for the rest. The days are getting shorter in the northern climes. It is still 3 weeks to that least commercial of holidays – Thanksgiving. For all of our talk about spirituality, whether traditional or New Age, our cultural manifestation of these ancient festivals shows very little of the spiritual, whether Christian or Pagan. Our focus is not on the transcendent – the totally other. Nor is it on the immanent – the divine fire within. We are becalmed in a world with little dimensionality. And we wonder why everything seems flat, gray, and listless!

So this Wednesday, weather permitting, at midday Eucharist we will pray for the souls of the departed - and remember the saints, too.  And in this a new year WILL begin.


sandhilldiary said…
Thank you for this post, there's so much in it to unpack that speaks to me, in this the darkening quarter of the year, and with stormy weather outside reminding anyone paying attention that we are not the boss of that.

In lieu of a longer and more reflective comment, may I leave you with the hymn this brought to mind?

For all the saints, who from their labors rest;
Who Thee by faith before the worlds confessed...
RJ said…
One of my all time favorites... thank you.

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