I’ve noticed this Halloween time an increased enthusiasm for the holiday. Maybe it’s always been there and I’ve been too preoccupied to notice, but as I walk my dogs through our neighborhood this October, it strikes me with greater force than in years past. Orange lights mingled with stretchy cobwebs; huge green cat eye cutouts in the windows of homes; entire yards covered with headstones and skeletal hands reaching for unsuspecting ankles. It’s fun and silly, a little spooky and usually playful. Orange and black, blood drippings and exclamations of “boo!”
More often recently, I’ve heard people say Halloween is their favorite holiday. I find this fascination fascinating, especially when I look more closely at this week.
It is, indeed, holy, as the word “Halloween” implies—the eve of the hallowed time. The eve of all the hallowed ones. The eve of the dead.
Like so many things in our culture, what we now know as Halloween is the interweaving of beliefs, of customs, of spiritual practice and tradition. In the time of the ancient Celtic peoples, this time marked Samhain, the new year. Traditionally, the Celts saw the evening of October 31st as the time where the veil was thin, where those who had passed had easier access to the living. In Mexican culture, Dia de los Muertos, October 31 through November 2, mirrors this—a day when the dead are reachable, and we reach to them. Altars are decorated to honor those who have passed, filled with pictures, mementos, food, lit candles, rosary beads, cigarettes and liquor bottles—whatever those commemorated loved best, vices and virtues alike.
In Christianity, the liturgical calendar as well honors this week as a time of liminal space, where the encounter between heaven and earth is strong, the veil is thin, and all those who have moved to eternal life are acknowledged, honored and even called upon. Not only is it All Soul’s Day on Nov. 2nd, but All Saints Day on the 1st. We honor the great ones and the small ones—living and dead. We name the community that extends far beyond this time and place.
In Catholicism, this honoring of the “great cloud of witnesses” is a common tradition, and one that is often misunderstood or simply not practiced. From the outside it can look like praying to the saints or the dead or even worshiping multiple gods. In reality, it is about ongoing relationship, about access and presence, about a great cosmic dance between the living and the dead, all held in the all-encompassing reality of One God. It begins to behold heaven not as some place up there, in the sky, but perhaps an overlay on this time, a dimension, a way of being. I love this entire concept, this ongoing relationship between heaven and earth, and have come to understand it through experience.
When I lived in Ireland, studying Irish Literature at Trinity College, Dublin, I used to find my way to various Catholic churches. Longing for mass and the community it brings, I went to the church on my block in Dublin 8. I tried out the Catholic student mass at Trinity. Once I was halfway through the service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral before I realized it wasn’t a Catholic mass! Finally, I discovered a little Carmelite parish tucked away on Whitefriar street, drawn by its name—Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. My Grandpa Duffy loved the Carmelites, sending all his boys to Mt. Carmel High School on the south side of Chicago. My siblings and I went to Carmel High School in the Northwest suburbs. Praying before meals, dad would often prompt, “Our Lady of Mt. Carmel…” to which we would all respond, gruffly, as if we were in a football huddle, “pray for us.” I thought I might feel at home in a space held by this familiar Lady.
I’ll never forget being there one Sunday for mass. I was looking around the space, feeling lucky to be in Ireland, finally settling in to the changes in my life abroad, slowly growing accustomed to the Irish life. I noticed a shrine to the right of the space to St. Therese of Lisieux and found myself smiling. My Grandpa Duffy, who died when I was ten, had a deep devotion to her, and my mom would often talk about how it was her intercession that brought my parents together. Suddenly, I knew my grandfather was there. It’s difficult to explain, but something happened in that moment that was so tangible I couldn’t help but notice. I felt a presence, and in a moment I knew two things—my grandpa was there (with me, next to me) and he was not only happy for me, but deeply proud of me. I found myself weeping, not in fear or sadness, but from a profound sense of with-ness, of accompaniment. It was a sensation and a knowing that would stay with me, giving me courage in my new ventures, and something I would return to as reassurance that I wasn’t alone.
This, I believe, is the real significance of this time, this Hallowed Week. We are reminded that we are never, ever alone. We are surrounded by so many who have gone before, loved ones who have died, saints we have never met. One of my teachers, a chief of the Lakota tribe, says, “there is always, always guidance available to you.” This is what All Saints Day and All Soul’s Day reminds us of—there is always not only guidance, but simple companionship. We are never alone. All we have to do is open to the Presence that is there, to receive the love that is being extended.
Since encountering my Grandpa in that church on Whitefriar street, I began to turn to him for help and for reassurance. My dad had often told me to do just that, in times when I was feeling low or struggling— he would say, “tell grandpa, he wants to hear you, he wants to help you”. But somehow, those words didn’t make sense, or they seemed silly or unbelievable. How could a dead man help me? But now I see.
Death brings those we love into an always-available state. No longer hindered by this human body and limitations, they are literally free to fly—to our aid, to our needs, to our joy. Of course I have no idea how this happens. Is it energy? Is it consciousness? All I know is that it does, because I have experienced it.
We all can experience it—a presence that is not scary and probably doesn’t have a form, but is nonetheless very much there. To help, to accompany, to love. This ground, filled with their presence, truly is sacred, truly is hallowed.