Belated Thoughts on the Feast of All Souls
I’m having no luck with timely posts over the last couple weeks. So in the interest of consistency, here are my belated thoughts on Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day.
I observed with some incredulity this year as some ‘evangelical’ Christian groups tried to replace Halloween with the unfortunately-named “Jesus Ween.” Intended to be a ‘Godly’ alternative to Halloween, the idea is that instead of focusing on demons and death we should focus on Jesus Christ. I have no doubt that the proponents of this alternate celebration are well-intentioned, but they have forgotten something very important: Halloween is already a Christian holiday.
Oh yes, some of my more skeptical friends have already launched into a tirade about how Halloween was a Pagan festival that was usurped and corrupted by us heathen Catholics. There is a little bit of truth in this, but not so much as you might think. It is true that the various cultures across European Christendom are an amalgamation of Christian tradition with the traditions that had been there before, but this is nothing to condemn the Church for. On the contrary, one of the most wonderful things about the Christian Church is that, when you become a Christian, you do not have to abandon what came before except where there is a direct conflict. The very oldest traditions of our faith incorporate elements of Jewish, Greek, and Roman culture combined with newer, uniquely-Christian traditions. There is no such thing as a ‘pure’ Christianity separate from the cultures in-which it developed and grew. No, Christianity is a beautifully-diverse combination of the best elements of tens and hundreds of cultures and faiths it has come in contact with over the centuries—all merged together and conformed to the universal truth.
You see, as Christians we recognize that there are elements of truth in the practices and traditions of other world religions, and even in many non-religious cultural traditions. Until the sad separations of the Church later in her history, nobody thought it was a good idea to ‘purify’ the Church of these influences on her practice. On the contrary, we can and should embrace the elements of truth in other faiths when we find them. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The Catholic Church recognizes in other religions that search, among shadows and images, for the God who is unknown yet near since he gives life and breath and all things and wants all men to be saved. Thus, the Church considers all goodness and truth found in these religions as ‘a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life’” (CCC 843).
So, for example, a Buddhist who meditates as part of his religious and cultural tradition need not abandon meditation if he chooses to become a Christian. No, he need only shift his meditative practice so that it focuses on God, Christ, and the other elements of the Christian faith. He can, and should, keep the elements of his pre-Christian spiritual practices that help lead him to the truth, and only abandon those that lead him astray.
In western Europe, Christianity encountered many small, regional religious and cultural traditions that we lump together under the label ‘Pagan.’ Many of these groups had rich rituals and annual commemorative festivals. As Christianity spread into these areas under the tutelage of the Catholic Church, those who converted were permitted—even encouraged—to maintain their distinctive cultural celebrations with a new, Christian spin. So the Christian remembrance of Christ’s resurrection triumph was merged with the Pagan celebration of the spring equinox—a time to celebrate the resurrection of nature after winter’s end. The Christian remembrance of Christ’s birth was merged with the Pagan celebration of the winter solstice—when the deep winter begins its long march to spring. And yes, the Christian remembrance of the Saints and the faithful departed—our celebration of the dead—also merged with similar Pagan traditions around nature’s [temporary] death and a preparation for the cold, dark winter.
Halloween, a shortened name meaning ‘All Hallows Evening,’ is the eve of All Saints Day—a Christian solemnity occurring each year on November 1. All Saints Day is followed by All Souls Day on November 2. On these three days, we Christians are called to contemplate death and our connection with the faithful departed. You see, unlike some of our non-Catholic brethren, we believe the all the faithful are intimately bound together in a Communion of Saints (which we profess in the Apostles’ Creed, one of the oldest extant synopses of Christian belief). The Church is made up of all believers—we here on Earth, the Saints in Heaven, and the expectant souls undergoing a final cleansing in Purgatory. When the faithful die they are not cut-off from the body of believers in Christ’s Church. We are still bound together in faith. Death is not an end, but a beginning.
The celebration of Halloween on October 31 should be of little concern for Christians, provided that we keep the focus where it belongs. Playing dress-up and trick-or-treating is a harmless cultural incursion into a religious holiday (akin to Easter Egg hunts and Christmas trees), but we should also take some time to consider what Halloween is really about: a remembrance of the fact that all of us will die. We are mere mortals. “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). The Halloween holiday is a perfect time to consider our mortality, and to contemplate the condition of our immortal souls. Some might call this ghoulish or unhealthy, but I would argue the contrary. Death is a part of our lives here on Earth, and we must consider what it means for us. As James T. Kirk (William Shatner) said in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, “How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life. . . . “
But we don’t leave it there. As we follow the penitential season of Lent with the joyous celebration of Easter, and as we follow the expectant season of Advent with the Christmas festival, we also follow our day focusing on death with a day celebrating eternal life. October 31 is followed by the Solemnity of All Saints, where we remember and pray to those faithful Saints (known and unknown) who now enjoy eternal life in the presence of God. As I mentioned before, we are still bound in Christian communion with these men and women. We can, and should, pray to them and ask their intercession on our behalf. As they are in God’s presence and completely un-tainted by sin, we can count on them as strong allies. They have no power on their own, but they have God’s ear in a way that we on Earth can only imagine. We ask them to pray for us the same way we would ask a friend to pray for us, because we believe our Christian communion is strengthened in death, not broken.
And finally we follow-up All Saints Day with yesterday’s Feast of All Souls. While on All Saints Day we remember and ask the intercession of the Saints in Heaven, on All Souls Day we consider those who have not yet attained the beatific vision in Heaven. You see, while the unrepentant sinner goes to Hell and the spotless soul goes to Heaven after death, most Christians likely fall somewhere in-between—assured of our salvation, but still stained with the vestiges of our sins and shortcomings. An unmerciful God would condemn these unworthy souls to Hell. Thankfully, however, our God is a merciful one.
Since antiquity, Christians have believed that these people go to a place called Purgatory to have the last stains of sin washed away before they proceed to Heaven. The souls in Purgatory are not there permanently; it is a transitional state. All souls in Purgatory are destined for Heaven. As St. Paul says, “If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:15). For those of us who die in an imperfect state, the vestiges of sin must be burned away before we can attain the beatific vision in Heaven.
What happens to us in death depends on how we have lived our lives here on Earth. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body” (2 Corinthians 5:10). As such, once we have died we can no longer act on our own to remit our sins. It is too late to straighten ourselves out, or receive the graces available to us through the Sacraments of Christ’s Holy Church. Those who find themselves in Purgatory will be in a helpless state, knowing they are destined for salvation but unable to cleanse themselves of the remaining stains of sin and evil. The souls in Purgatory, therefore, must rely on us and on the Saints in Heaven to pray for them. As on All Saints Day we ask the Saints in Heaven to pray for us, on All Souls Day we are reminded that the souls in Purgatory need us to pray for them.
Prayers for the dead are rooted in ancient Judaism, which is of-course the foundation of our own Christian faith. When faithful Jews in the Maccabean era found idols around the necks of fallen soldiers, their leader Judas led the people in a prayer that the dead might be forgiven. “For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 Maccabees 12:44-45). We also find St. Paul praying in the New Testament for his dead friend Onesiphorus, saying, “may the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that Day” (2 Timothy 1:18). If in death one can only proceed directly and permanently to Heaven or Hell, then what would be the use of the Jews’ prayers for the idolaters? Or St. Paul’s prayer for his dead friend Onesiphorus?
So all the Christian faithful are spiritually bound together, in life and in death. At this time of the year we call special attention to nurturing this brotherhood—the Communion of Saints we have confessed since our earliest days. We ask the Saints in Heaven to pray for us, and we join with them in praying for the holy souls in Purgatory. We come together as brothers and sisters in faith, loving and caring for one another so deeply that, by the grace of God, our communion transcends the very boundary of death.
“O most gentle Heart of Jesus, ever present in the Blessed Sacrament, ever consumed with burning love for the poor captive souls in Purgatory, have mercy on the souls of Thy departed servants. Be not severe in Thy judgments, but let some drops of Thy Precious Blood fall upon the devouring flames. And do Thou, O Merciful Savior, send Thy holy angels to conduct them to a place of refreshment, light, and peace. Amen.” - A Prayer for the Souls in Purgatory