The wind is picking up dead leaves fallen from the trees, swirling them around, making them dance. It feels appropriate, somehow, for our days of the dead—All Saints’ and All Souls’ days—to coincide with the waning of the liturgical year as well as the physically darker days of late autumn. The swirling leaves are just the physical markers of change.
October 31 is All Hallows’ Eve, November 1 is All Saints' Day, and November 2 is All Souls’ Day, our own "days of the dead" when we remember all our brothers and sisters either living in heaven or still being purified in purgatory.
The word “remember” is especially important here, because we don’t particularly like to remember death, either our own or that of people we love. We don’t like to remember that, one fine All Souls’ Day, we will be prayed for by our friends and family. It’s probably a relief for most of us to relegate that remembrance to these gloomy autumnal days.
And that is probably a mistake.
Think about it for a moment. When you do die, do you really want to be unprepared? For many people, death comes at an unexpected time and in an unexpected manner; so if we’re to be ready to meet God whenever that moment arrives, then there’s no time like the present to begin our preparation. And you can’t just do it once a year; you have to do it over and over again, every single day.
This isn’t a new thought. “Memento mori,” or, “Remember you must die” was a practice of the Stoics adopted by the medieval Church, with skulls inscribed on rings or sitting on tables as visual reminders. Nowadays that would be perceived as morbid, wouldn’t it? Yet the point of the reminder wasn’t to be macabre or promote fear, but to inspire, motivate, and clarify. And we could all use some inspiration, motivation, and clarity these days.
C.S. Lewis, one of the twentieth century’s most influential writers, devoted a chapter in Reflections on the Psalms to the transitory nature of life. Death in the Psalms centers around immortality and the fact that “death is inevitable.” He cites Psalms 89:48 as the “clearest of all” reflections: “remember how brief life is.”
But he also has something to say indirectly about one of the days we’re marking now.
There are actually three days, if we’re to count the eve of All Saints—All Hallows’ Eve. The name (hallows means holy) has over time morphed into Halloween, but the celebration has ancient roots in the pagan Celtic feast of Samhain, the new year. Early Britons believed it was the time when ghosts and spirits came out to haunt, and they could appease the spirits by giving them treats.
When Christianity came to Britain, missionaries chose in many instances to incorporate local practices rather than banning them (that’s one of the reasons there were no martyrs in the conversion of Britain!). So Samhain became All Hallows’ Eve.
But its pagan origins make some people uncomfortable—and that leads us back to C.S. Lewis.
Lewis, you’ll remember, was writing about the Psalms. His view of Scripture, specifically the Old Testament, rests on his understanding of myth and its role in Christian revelation. He saw in the old pagan myths a divinely inspired foreshadowing—or anticipation—of Truth that is actualized by and through Christ’s experience on earth. What he’s talking about is something we might see as a “celestial upgrade:” God using the past and its limited understanding of the divine to reveal more of his truth.
Seen through this lens, Halloween can rightly take its place in our three holy days of the dead. And while we might see a reflection of the appeasement of the spirits in trick-or-treating, what we can properly do on this day is hold a vigil and pray for all the martyrs and saints whose memory we will honor the next day.
So how then did we come to celebrate All Saints’ and All Souls’?
The tradition of honoring specific martyrs and saints, as well as declaring a special day for each saint, started in the fourth century and was celebrated in the spring; Pope Gregory IV decided to include all the saints in the feast day, called it the Feast of All Saints, and in 837 it was moved to November.
On All Souls' Day we pay homage to all people who have died and offer prayers for the souls still in purgatory. Starting in the seventh century, churches read the Office of the Dead, and offered Requiem Masses for the departed. In many cultures, people mark the day by visiting the graves of family members and reflecting on the lives of their loved ones.
It is fitting that we should designate these days to remember our dead—our own families, and the saints of our community of faith. But at the same time it’s important to remember our own deaths—memento mori—and not merely relegate that remembrance to these dark autumnal days. Memento mori calls us to repentance, to forgiveness, and to contemplation in a year-long observance and celebration, both of the life we know now and of the one to come.
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