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Saturday, October 31, 2015

A Hallowed Eve: The Many Spiritual and Cultural Traditions of Halloween

Halloween has always been a complicated holiday, laced together with many threads of different spiritual traditions and cultural customs. It has always stirred up controversy, morphing into an excuse for mischief and mayhem and a celebration of ghoulishness which has led some to boycott it altogether. Put perhaps this is a hasty decision, which fails to take into account the whole picture of the historical development of the day and what it tells us about the richly complex human search for the meaning of life, death, and eternity.

     In the ancient Pagan world, there was a variety of autumnal festivals dedicated to one deity or another and celebrating the coming in of the harvest. Half way between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice, the Celts would celebrate their “new year” at Samhain (“Summer’s End”), which marked the third and final phase of their harvest season with the gathering of nuts and berries and the slaughtering of livestock that could not be fed through the winter. It was a time of plenty and abundance, merry-making and story-telling. One legend commonly associated with this time of year was that of Mongfield, a legendary sorceress-queen who was said to have married the King of Tara in ancient Irish mythology.

    However, on the other end of the spectrum of festivity, there was the threat of the coming winter and the constant struggle for survival it would bring. With this ominous reality hanging over the people, Samhain became a time of soul-searching and intention seeking as Druids took part in various divination and scrying rituals and attempted to tell the future and predict the outcome of the year. Bonfires were also an important part of the celebration, being identified with protective and cleansing powers, as well as the ability to ward off the cold and darkness of winter. Also, they served as a point of communal gathering and the sacrifice of a portion of crops and livestock to the gods, both in thanksgiving for the harvest and to seek their favor in the months to come. No fire was allowed to  be lit during Samhain until the ceremonial bonfire was lit by the Druids at a designated hill which they held sacred.

     As a deeply mystical people who intently focused on the workings of nature, the Celts ascribed a spiritual element to the shifting of the seasons which their calendar was centered upon. In the waning days of autumn, darkness lengthened, the leaves fell, and foliage withered. The world seemed to be dying, and yet the Celts found comfort in the knowledge that the Wheel of the Year would continue to turn and spring would come back again. With all these thoughts about death and afterlife on their minds, they believed that in October the veil between the mortal and spirit worlds grew thin, just as the air felt crisp and thin.

     This concept of an otherworldly portal nurtured the belief that the spirits of the dead, gnomes, faeries, and other mythical creatures might visit the living on Samhain. Hence people would leave out food for any spirit visitors who might show up and special bread was baked on Samhain for the occasion, often using the symbolically significant ingredients of rye, caraway, rosemary, and buttermilk. At the feast, a place would be left empty for any ancestors who might wish to visit and break bread with them. Later, the bread would be given to those less fortunate. Visits would also be made to the burial mounds of dead relatives and friends and bring symbolic offerings to leave there such apples (symbols of eternity) and nuts (symbols of wisdom).

     In addition to visiting spirits, it was also a day of departing spirits. Since the Celts believed that the souls of the dead did not immediately leave earth, it was thought that those who had died within that year were finally rounded up by the Lord of Death on Samhain night, beckoning them with a horn blast to prepare to make their journey to the Otherworld.  Tradition held that the “new day” really began at dusk, so the night time celebrations had special significance, and brought to the fore a sacred animal: bats. Because of their ability to fly at night, and because they were considered to be “in between” the bird and mammal families, they were considered to be perfect messengers to deceased loved ones in the world beyond. Their presence around ceremonial fires, drawn by the abundance of tasty flying insects, associated them with the season as well.

    When Christianity spread across Europe and came to the Celtic peoples through St. Patrick and others, the traditions associated with Samhain showed no signs of abating. Celtic Christianity always had a distinct flare for bringing out the best in old and new and taking the mysticism and deep respect for nature found in Druidic society and applying it to Christ, High King of the Universe. Since there were many things perfectly compatible with Christian teaching within the celebration of Samhain, the Church incorporated them into the celebration of All Hallow’s Eve, or Hallowe’en on October 31, which served as a Vigil celebration of All Saints Day on November 1.

    Christians too shared a deep regard for deceased souls and the honor of those who had gone ahead into the next world. However, instead of the Pagan belief that souls wondered the earth after death, Christians believed in Purgatory, a “waiting place” where souls were purged of their imperfections before entering Heaven. Prayers offered lovingly for the decease would go towards the purification process and enable them to reach Heaven sooner. Aside from this, meditating on death, in and of itself, was considered to be healthy for spiritual development. After all, it assured than human beings never forget their mortality and come to think of themselves as gods, and who never stop putting their focus on the Divine and the world to come.

     Samhain bread would be turned into “soul cakes”, made with a variety of ingredients and in various designs. Both the doughnut and the pretzel are said to have been forms of soul cake, the former representing the circle of eternity and the latter representing praying hands. People who continue the traditional Pagan custom as “mummers” going house to house singing particular verses and requesting the tasty cakes in alcoholic beverages. While the ceremonies varied across Christendom, a typical rhyme ran something like this:

A soul, a soul, a soul for a soul cake
Come save a soul for a soul cake
One for Peter and two for Paul
And Three for the One who made us all
    Now this seriously simplified the spiritual significance of the evening, but the idea was that before a soul cake could be given out, the “mummers” had to say prayers for the deceased family members of the house they were visiting. Meanwhile, special vigils would be held at cemeteries and within monasteries to offer prayers for the deceased. They would continue on through All Saints Day on November 1, celebrating the triumph of the saints and martyrs spending eternity in the presence of God, and All Souls Day on November 2, again to focus on the souls in Purgatory.

     Again, old traditions from Paganism remained a major part of All Hallows, including the concept of the dead making visits to the living. People would dress up to scare off or befuddle any evil spirits who might make appearances, and also came to the consider the veil-thinning time something of an excuse to turn the world upside down. It was a day was darkness was coming in, and people believed they could show their dark sides as well. Most of the time, this was in the form of pranks and mischief-making, but nothing terribly harmful or serious.

     However, during the Protestant Reformation in the British Isles, Catholics were targeted by Protestants rabble-rousers for celebrating the triple feasts of All Hallows, All Saints, and All Souls, and often were tormented by mobs and gangs in the streets who accused them of celebrating “Pagan Practices”. The close proximity to Guy Fawkes’ Day, which celebrated the failure of a Catholic plot to blow up King James I and his parliament, did not help matters. Bonfires would be lit, Guy Fawkes and the pope would be burned in effigy, and no Catholic was safe to venture outside for fear of his life. But for Protestants in England it was, and remains, a festive occasion, complete with special potatoes to eat and fireworks to explode.

    In conclusion there are many links with the modern secular celebration of Halloween and the traditional spiritual traditions of both Pagans and Christians. Unfortunately, I’m afraid much of the meditative reflection on the eternal has been drained in favor of an excessive display of plastic pumpkins, glittery witches, and electric flying bats. But worse is the excessive bend towards gruesomeness and gore. While I can certainly understand the gray areas of life, and acknowledging our own complex human natures (which some have called “the dance between light and dark”), perhaps there is something unhealthy about allowing oneself too heavy a dose of the macabre, especially if it is for its own sake, and not directed towards some higher good such as soul-searching about the meanings of existence and the essence of humanity.

     As a Catholic, I can enjoy multiple aspects of the season, from both Pagan and Christian spiritual and cultural traditions. I can appreciate the turning Wheel of the Year, and reflect on the cycle of life, death, and rejuvenation that gives us hope for an afterlife. I can think upon the mortality of myself and others, and how we should focus on both living well and dying well in light of our eternal destiny. I can munch on doughnuts and pretzels, and make prayer vigils for the souls of the departed so that my love might reach them should they be in the “waiting place”, and thus be purged and enter the presence of the Divine. I might follow the path of the Celtic saints and find a special place in nature where the veil between the natural and the supernatural feels thinnest, and time seems transparent, and one can meditate upon the things of Heaven with the greatest clarity. And there, in the crisp stillness of autumn, and hallowed gathering of darkness, I may recite a Celtic prayer such as this:
May God bless all the company of souls here
May God and Mary bless you
You too were here, as we are now
And we hope to join you soon
May we all be adorned in the Bright King of Heaven

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

St. Teresa of Avila....

was a Catholic Carmelite nun, reformer, and mystic who lived in 16th Spain. A female Doctor of the Church and author of "The Interior Castle", we celebrate the 500th anniversary of her birth this year, and in her honor, I will be posting several of her mystical poems!


I live without living in me,
and I expect a life so high,
that I die because I do not die.

I live already beside myself
since I am dying of love;
because I live in Him,
who wanted me for Himself:
when I gave my heart to Him
He placed this sign in it,
that I die because I do not die.

This divine prison,
the love in which I'm living,
has made God my captive,
and my heart free;
causing in me such passion,
to see God, my prisoner,
That I die because I do not die.

Oh, how long is this life!
How hard this exile,
this prison, these chains
which my soul has entered!
Just waiting to get free
causes me so much fierce pain,
that I die because I do not die.

Ah! so much bitterness in this life
without God as my lover!
Because if to be in love is sweet,
to wait so long is not:
take this burden God,
heavier than steel,
that I die because I do not die.

Trusting in You alone, I only live
because I know I'll die
because in death I know
that I will live;
death, where I'll find life
do not be slow, it is you I wait for,
that I die because I do not die.

You see how strong love is;
life, do not hinder me,
you see, all I need do to gain you
is to lose you.
Come on already sweet death
come quickly death
that I die because I do not die.

That life above,
that is the true life,
until this life dies
nothing can be enjoyed in living
death, don't be coy;
let me live by dying first,
that I die because I do not die.

Life, what can I give
to my God who lives in me?
In losing you,
then I am worthy of gaining Him.
I want to reach Him by dying,
Since I love my lover so,
that I die because I do not die.


I am Yours and born of You,
What do You want of me?

Majestic Sovereign,
Unending wisdom,
Kindness pleasing to my soul;
God sublime, one Being Good,
Behold this one so vile.
Singing of her love to you:
What do You want of me?

Yours, you made me,
Yours, you saved me,
Yours, you endured me,
Yours, you called me,
Yours, you awaited me,
Yours, I did not stray.
What do You want of me?

Good Lord, what do you want of me,
What is this wretch to do?
What work is this,
This sinful slave, to do?
Look at me, Sweet Love,
Sweet Love, look at me,
What do You want of me?

In Your hand
I place my heart,
Body, life and soul,
Deep feelings and affections mine,
Spouse -- Redeemer sweet,
Myself offered now to you,
What do You want of me?

Give me death, give me life,
Health or sickness,
Honor or shame,
War or swelling peace,
Weakness or full strength,
Yes, to these I say,
What do You want of me?

Give me wealth or want,
Delight or distress,
Happiness or gloominess,
Heaven or hell,
Sweet life, sun unveiled,
To you I give all.
What do You want of me?

Give me, if You will, prayer;
Or let me know dryness,
And abundance of devotion,
Or if not, then barrenness.
In you alone, Sovereign Majesty,
I find my peace,
What do You want of me?

Give me then wisdom.
Or for love, ignorance,
Years of abundance,
Or hunger and famine.
Darkness or sunlight,
Move me here or there:
What do You want of me?

If You want me to rest,
I desire it for love;
If to labor,
I will die working:
Sweet Love say
Where, how and when.
What do You want of me?

Calvary or Tabor give me,
Desert or fruitful land;
As Job in suffering
Or John at Your breast;
Barren or fruited vine,
Whatever be Your will:
What do You want of me?

Be I Joseph chained
Or as Egypt's governor,
David pained
Or exalted high,
Jonas drowned,
Or Jonas freed:
What do You want of me?

Silent or speaking,
Fruitbearing or barren,
My wounds shown by the Law,
Rejoicing in the tender Gospel;
Sorrowing or exulting,
You alone live in me:
What do You want of me?

Yours I am, for You I was born:
What do You want of me?


Oh Beauty exceeding
All other beauties!
Paining, but You wound not
Free of pain You destroy
The love of creatures.

Oh, knot that binds
Two so different,
Why do You become unbound
For when held fast You strengthen
Making injuries seem good.

Bind the one without being
With being unending;
Finish, without finishing,
Love, without having to love,
Magnify our nothingness.

Already I gave myself completely,
and have changed in such a way
That my Beloved is for me
and I am for my Beloved.

When the gentle hunter shot me
and left me in all my weakness,
in the arms of love
my soul fell
and being charged with new life
I have changed in such a way
That My Beloved is for me
and I am for my Beloved.

He pierced me with an arrow
laced with the herbs of love
and my soul became one
with her Creator;
I no longer want another love,
since I have given myself to my God,
That My Beloved is for me
and I am for my Beloved.


Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
     no hands but yours,
     no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which to look out
     Christ's compassion to the world
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about
     doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.


Let nothing disturb thee,
Nothing affright thee;
All things are passing;
God never changeth;
Patient endurance
Attaineth to all things;
Who God possesseth
In nothing is wanting;
Alone God sufficeth.


"He pierced me with an arrow laced with the herbs of love..."


Saturday, October 10, 2015

St. Junipero Serra....

was canonized on September 23, 2015, at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C. by Pope Francis during his recent visit to the USA.

    Serrawas a Spanish Franciscan missionary to North America who worked among the Native Americans in the Spanish colonies there and founded nine major missions in California. This zealous and industrious evangelist overcame great obstacles, including his own debilitated health, in order to carry out his mission, and became a buffer between Spanish soldiers and the Natives who were being mistreated. His motto was "Always go forward, never back."

     The following is a letter from his just before setting sail for Mexico. It is a very touching personal message to a friend, asking him to comfort his parents while he was away, knowing that he would probably never return alive. It is a message of faith, hope, and love in the fullest sense.

     "I am writing this letter in farewell, while we are getting ready to leave the city of Cadiz and embark for Mexico. The day fixed upon is unknown to me, but the trunks containing our baggage are locked and strapped, and they say that after two, there, or possibly four days, the ship called Villasota, in which we are to embark, will sail...
     Friend of my heart, on this occasion of my departure, words cannot express the feelings of affection that overwhelm me. I want to ask you again to do me the favor of consoling my parents, who, I know, are going through a great sorrow. I wish I could give them some of the happiness that is mine; and I feel that they would urge me to go ahead and never to turn back.

     Tell them that the dignity of apostolic preacher, especially when united with the actual duty, is the highest vocation they could have wished me to follow...Tell them how badly I feel at not being able to stay longer and make them happy as I used to do. At any rate they know well that first things come first; and our first duty, undoubtedly, is to do the will of God. Nothing else but the love of God has led me to leave them. And if I, for love of God and with the help of his grace, can muster courage to leave them, might I not suggest that they also, for the love of God, be content to forego the happiness of my presence?

     Let them listen attentively to the advice they will receive on this matter from their Father Confessor; and they will see, in fact, that now God has truly entered their home. By practicing holy patience and resignation to the divine Will, they will possess their souls, and attain eternal life. They should hold nobody but our Lord God alone responsible for the separation. They will find how sweet his yoke can be, that what they now consider and endure as a great sorrow will be turned into a lasting joy. Nothing in this life should cause us sadness. Our clear duty is to conform ourselves in all things to the will of God, and to prepare to die well. That is what counts; nothing else matters. If this is secured, it matters little if we lose all the rest; without this all else is useless.

     Happy they to have a son a priest -- however bad and sinful -- who, every day, in the holy Sacrifice of the Mass, prays for them, as best he can, and very often offers for them exclusively his Mass so that the Lord send them help, that they be not without the necessities of life; that he grant them the grace of patience in their trials, of resignation to his holy will, peace and union with their neighbors, courage to resist the temptations of the devil, and finally, at the proper time, a happy death, in his holy grace.

     If, by the help of God's grace from above, I succeed in being a good religious, these prayers of mine will be all the more powerful and my parents will be the first to profit from them."

-- St. Junipero Sera

"Always go forward, never back!"