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All Saints and These Souls

Jeremy Sierra is a MFA student and lives in New York.  A congregant at St. Lydia’s, he blogs here under the category Jeremiah Speaking.

A guy, white with dreadlocks and funky shoes, came to the church where I work.  “Peace be upon you,” he said
“Um, hi,” I responded.
“Whey do you have Jack-O-Lanterns in front of the church,” he asked, “a symbol of a pagan holiday?”
“Because the choir kids carved them.”
“Do you celebrate Halloween?”
“Well, a lot of people who go to church here do.  We celebrate All Saints, and All Souls days, when we pray for people who have died.”

After he left I thought a little about Halloween.  I enjoy carving pumpkins as much as the next guy, and eating the seeds toasted in the oven with salt even better, but I’ve never really really liked Halloween. There’s the whole “lets dress up so that other people can judge us” thing, and I’m really self-conscious enough to begin with.  I can possibly trace this back to me at five years old in my robot costume, made of boxes and tin foil and plastic tubing, sitting on the hayride and unable to see out of the holes we had cut for eyes, crying inside my little cardboard prison because I cried a lot then, until we take it off and I spend the rest of Halloween unhappily in my grey sweatpants and hoodie.  So every year as October 31st approaches and people start talking (and talking and talking) about their costumes I’m thinking about how I’d rather be thinking about something else (like, my homework, or more likely what I am going to have for dinner).

The next day, someone came into my office crying.  She told me about the baby, not her baby but a friend’s, who had been born four months early and spent the last six weeks in the clean white of the hospital.  He died on Tuesday.  I was at a loss for what to what to say or do, feeling sad myself because I know this family, too, and afraid as I often am of not saying the right thing.  Fortunately a priest was there who knew what to do and say, and also knew that there isn’t much that can be done or said about this, about death.

On Sunday they will celebrate All Saints Day at the church.  During the service they will commemorate the faithful departed, reading out the names of those who have died.  I added this baby’s name, Miles, to the list, feeling someone else’s tragedy in the letters of his name.   The world is a difficult place and the answers are usually hidden form us, and in the end what else can we do but name our grief, say the names of the dead, say them to ourselves and to each other and to God.   Each name is full of hope and an angry question, and we are like the psalmists demanding that God do something about how messed up everything is.  Each name is a remembrance of the lost and the love we had for them.

Which brings me back, sort of, to Halloween, and these strange rituals: carving faces in orange gourds, dressing up as the saints and the dead, populating the sidewalks with apparitions, other possible selves, the imaginary and the unpleasantly real.  We are teasing, or maybe we are even celebrating, the things that cause us to crumple up with grief or terror, our smallness and our fear sand our death. Rather than pretending that the world is an easy place, we bring the worst of it front and center, sharing our sadness and our fears with each other.  When we bring all that out in the open it loses some of its power.  Death does not own us, we remind each other, even though it sometimes kicks us hard in the stomach.

So on Sunday I went ahead and taped some tea bags to my shirt (I now owe a certain someone about 10 cups of tea), a few ribbons, and there you go, I’m The Tea Party.  I went to St. Lydia’s where other people were dressed in costumes, some of them utterly charming, some not so much.  We shared a meal, and I was reminded that even that isn’t an easy thing to do sometimes.  Then we sang and held hands and said our prayers aloud, to ourselves and each other and to God, wearing our costumes.

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