Sunday, October 29, 2017

Alloween: the Spirit and the Mystery

I drink my coffee black and eat my chocolate dark.  Luna is the name of my black cat.  I even have a tall, dark and mysterious husband.  To top it all off, I was born under the sign of Scorpio, right smack dab in the middle of the time of year when it gets dark earlier and earlier each evening, so I guess it makes sense that I have a preference for things dark and mysterious, and that something comes alive in me during the fall.

I most became aware that I have an inordinate obsession with fall and in particular the celebration of Halloween when I was teacher at a Catholic school in Louisville.  I came up with a two week project on Halloween that had my students develop what I called a Halloween packet full of research on different aspects and origins of the holiday and stories revolving around it.  My principal, who meticulously went through our lesson plans asked, “Amy, isn’t this a bit much on Halloween for eighth graders?” Her reaction demonstrated to me that not everyone is as thrilled with the costumes, scary stories, and trick-or-treating as I am.

One of my main concerns about moving to south Florida 11 years ago was how much I would miss the changing of the seasons.   I can remember my disorientation that first year when October and November passed without any noticeable change in the heat or the vegetation.  I still struggle a little bit each year, and have learned how to make the most of Halloween and fall decorations. 

On the Autumnal Equinox Sarah Wilson shared a video that expresses my sentiments about fall in the South exactly. 

A woman wakes up on the first day of fall excited and happy.  She goes to her closet and pulls out a cozy sweater and scarf with fall leaves on it.  She puts on a pair of fuzzy boots and makes herself a big mug of pumpkin spice coffee.  Then she heads out the door only to find a couple of guys outside in shorts and short-sleeved shirts.  She immediately starts sweating in her scarf and too hot sweater and with a big frown on her face slams the door, knocking her fall leaf wreath right off.  She probably went straight to her air conditioner and cranked it down a few degrees just to get in the mood.

Needless to say, the killing frosts of autumn do not touch south Florida, but if you look closely, the signs of change are there.  We lose a fraction of the intensity of the sun.  Instead of 90 degrees it’s 83 or 84, and occasionally we get a South Florida version of a cold front.  Today might be the day. The ocean loses its aquamarine hue and no longer feels like bathtub water.  And we do have our own version of a killing force of nature. 

Hurricanes don’t freeze us.  In fact, it’s quite the opposite. They leave us sitting in our dark un-air-conditioned homes thinking about all the dead foliage we have to clean up.  And we’re grateful that’s all we have to do.  We’re grateful we have all of our loved ones accounted for; we still have homes standing, water to drink, and passable roads. 

This fall many people in Texas and the Caribbean came face to face with the killing and destructive forces of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. Though it takes a different form, we are familiar in South Florida with the killing breath of autumn.

Our religious and cultural traditions reflect this dying time of year and ask us to take a look at death and perhaps make friends with it.  After all, it is as natural a part of life as birth. 

Many of you attended Bill Schoolman’s service on The Right to Die, last month.  In his discussion of the need for our society to take a closer look at how we allow people with terminal illnesses to suffer needlessly, he accounts for this cruelty by suggesting that we as a culture, a society, are so obsessed with youth that we almost make it seem unnatural to show age, to show signs of the passage of time.  We treat death as unnatural, but as I was explaining recently to a high school student that I tutor in English about the symbolism of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, I haven’t heard of any one yet, no matter how great he or she was in life who was able to overcome death.    Maybe you could count Jesus, but even though many believe he rose from the dead, he still didn’t get to stay. 

I was explaining to my student that Santiago, the protagonist of the novel, is fighting more than a fifteen hundred pound marlin and the sharks who want to feed on his great catch. 

He is an aging fisherman.  He feels his decline deep in his bones. 

Santiago doesn’t care that he has no money for food.  What’s most important to him is the will to live and to prove that he is still a hunter and a fighter. 

He’s still alive.  But no matter how he fights, the sharks keep coming, just like the deterioration of the body.  Just like death. 

We can die our hair, freeze our fat, and get Botox, but it doesn’t change the inevitable.  Nature’s passage into this darkening time of year helps keep us honest about that.

Celebrating this time gives us a chance to collectively take a look at death.  Coming together helps us examine it at arm’s length, maybe make friends with it, or at least develop an acquaintance, and as our cultural tradition of Halloween invites us to, maybe have a little fun with it. 

The ancient Celtic ritual of Samhain and the Christian versions of it All Saints Day, All Souls Day, and Dia de los Muertos provide an opportunity for deepening our spiritual understanding of death.  These traditions welcome connection with whatever lingers of the dead, the ancestors, those we have buried, or burned to ashes, those for whom our hearts still tenderly long.  We revisit their memory, rekindle their spirits by fire or candlelight and commune with them, talk to them.

And like Odysseus on his trip to the Underworld, we may receive news from home (our spiritual or ancestral home), and we receive something along the lines of prophecy, perhaps the direction we should go to get back home.

Can I provide a rational explanation for the times in my own life when I have felt the veil lift between the living and the dead?  Perhaps not, but I have had experiences that were for me powerful and spiritually moving, despite whether or not I can prove the veracity of them, or that they mean what I want them to mean.

Twenty years ago, I was living in a Benedictine monastery considering becoming a nun.  It’s an old monastery on top of a hill in Southern Indiana.  A gorgeous Romanesque chapel sits on top of that hill and at the foot of it is the cemetery.  On All Souls Day, the Catholic feast day that I now know derived from the pagan celebration of Samhain, the sisters led a procession from the chapel to the graveyard at Vespers, the sunset prayer service.  Gray skies threatening a thunderstorm, incense thuribles swaying on chains, sending out rich, piney and earthy scents of frankincense and myrrh.  Chanting and the litany of saints. 

A movie could not have set the stage better.  The wind threatened to blow out all of our handheld candles with the little cardboard disks wrapped around them to protect our hands from dripping wax. 

It wasn’t until we were all safely inside on our way to the dining hall that it started to rain, but the sun was shining in the westward windows when we reached the hall.  I turned to one of the sisters next to me.  Her post middle-aged face was bright like a little girl’s.  I bet there’s a big rainbow, she said.  We ran together to the colonnade that wrapped around the chapel.  Standing in the rain, we looked up to find a perfect half-circle of a rainbow arcing right over the top of the chapel.  Can I explain the occurrence scientifically?  Of course I can.  It was raining and the sun came out.  The water refracted the light.  But can I explain the timing and the placement?  Not a chance.  Can I prove that it was the souls of the departed reaching out, connecting for a passing moment with the living?  No, I can’t.  All I know is what my soul needs, what my heart knows and longs for. 

Last summer I visited another graveyard in Southern Indiana, my ancestral graveyard.  My grandparents, great grandparents and great-great grandparents are buried there.  My beloved grandmother who died 27 years ago is buried there.  It had been 15 years or so since I had visited her grave, yet when I stood there reading her name, remembering.  I found myself saying, I still miss you, Mamaw.  When I looked up, I saw through my sunglasses rainbows in the clouds.  I thought it was some trick of the eye with the sunglasses, maybe it was.  But it lasted until we got in the car and started driving the country roads to my uncle’s house.  It lasted so long I felt compelled to mention it to my Dad. 

I know there are lots of things I want to believe, and I want to believe that something of those nuns, something of my grandmother, and something of my mother who died last year lives on, even if it is only in my memories and in my heart. 

And there is great wisdom, great consolation
in celebrating this great inexplicable mystery, this darkness from which we all come and to which we all must return.

When my mother died, I was by her side along with the rest of my family.  Let me tell you, when death overcame her, I understood the ghoulish masks of Halloween and how they mock the face of death.  I left the hospital that night with a twisted and distorted image of my mother’s beautiful face burned in my memory.

And that night I dreamed of her.  She was alive again and had an important message. “I’ve come back to make amends,” she said.  The dream was so powerful it woke me up shaking a little bit and I had to remind myself that my mother’s “ghost” would never hurt me.  In the middle of the night after such a loss, it’s easy to lose your grasp on the rational world.  

The next day, I told my Dad about the dream, and he shared with me that all during the time my mother was dying, he kept whispering in her ear to make her peace and to forgive her siblings.

My parents are devout Catholics.  Dying in a state of forgiveness is very important to them.  And my mother really struggled with forgiveness when it came to her family.  She was the oldest of eleven.  They were all victims of abuse and alcoholism is a family trait.  There were many misunderstandings and hurt feelings over the years.

We have no idea whether or not Mom made her peace with them in her heart.  She was in a coma when the priest gave her last rites.  This gave my Dad some anxiety about her soul.  But love has a way seeing things through despite the seeming finality of death.   You see, my Mom had us, the family she created and we became her agents on this earth. 

Dad called each and every one of the living siblings and invited them to the services and to our house.  At the visitation, an aunt I had never met before, but who was my mother’s maid of honor appeared.  I walked her and some of my other aunts over to a table and showed them pictures from my mom and dad’s wedding at which they were all present.  An uncle I barely knew showed up and agreed to be a pallbearer.  My sister, brother, and I spent time during the visitation and after the funeral getting to know them all, hearing stories that helped us understand the pain my mother carried.  Perhaps together, my Dad, my siblings, my aunts and uncles and I, did for my mom what she could not.  We invited each other in.  We made amends. 

Forgiveness, the healing of souls, the connection of love that is stronger than the grave — THAT is what Samhain, Halloween, All Saints Day, All Souls Day, and Dia de los Muertos are all about.

Do I know for sure whether my rainbow experiences at the monastery and at my grandmother’s grave, and the dream I had about my mother are real connections to the beyond, or not.  No.  I don’t.  Are they figments of my imagination?  Maybe.  Probably.  But, I do know for sure that part of me needs these little miracles.  They keep me strong and they keep me alive and thriving.  They keep my grandmother and my mother alive in me.  They passed me the torch of love and I’ll carry it with me to the end. And when it’s time.  I’ll pass it on too. 

Another thing I know for sure is that one thing doesn’t die.  Love.  The way we touch the hearts of others.  The loss others feel when we die proves that.  The love I still feel for my grandmother 27 years later proves it.  She lives and will continue to live because she taught me to love, and I will give my love to others.  Her love was the product of her mother’s love and all those who loved her.  And my presence here today is the product of my mother’s love.

So let’s take this time these next few days and dare to look at the grave.  Stick our hands in the ashes and the dirt and remember and listen for the messages from home about how to get back home, and most importantly feel the love that doesn’t die.

Alloween: The Spirit and the Mystery, a sermon delivered by Amy Stauber from the 1stUUPB pulpit on Oct. 29, 2017.

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