The ghoulies, ghosties, and spooky noises have disappeared for another year, although many houses still have a pile of candy either left over or gained by family trick-or-treaters.
Yesterday was the first day of November, the official beginning of the new church year and usually listed as All Saints’ Day. This year, churches will celebrate tomorrow as All Saints, as it is celebrated traditionally as a major feast day on the Sunday closest to the calendar date.
Today we celebrate All Souls, a commemoration that usually follows All Saints but which this year is between the actual date of All Saints and the celebrated feast in the church. It is not celebrated as lavishly as All Saints, except in cultures that mark el Dia de Los Muertos, a Mexican and Central-American fiesta unrelated to Halloween. Families decorate the tombs of their loved ones, and often spend an entire night at the gravesites, eating and drinking and remembering the ones who have gone before them. Flowers are abundant and painted caricatures of skeletons and skulls decorate family altars and even shops. It is truly a feast of the dead rather than a fun holiday where children can dress up and ask for candy at neighborhood houses. Many other predominantly Roman Catholic countries decorate the family graves and spend time in prayer and remembrance, sometimes feasting and sharing with their loved ones.
For the Episcopal and some other churches, All Souls is a celebration of the small-s saints, those who have died in the faith but not canonized by the church and given a commemoration day of their own. All Saints belongs to the Big-S Saints like Francis, Catherine (the multitude of them), Augustine, Hildegarde, and others who we know by name. All Souls belongs to the ordinary people; the faithful departed who might not have done significant miracles but who were present in the lives of those who knew and loved them. They are the mothers, fathers, family members, beloved friends, inspiring teachers and leaders, and heroes who do thousands of small miracles every day, often unrecognized.
Beginning perhaps a week or so before All Souls, churches ask people to submit names of their departed, especially those who have died in the past year. The individual submissions are combined to form a list that rests on the altar until it is read aloud during the prayers at a mass held on November 2nd.
All Souls is an important day in my calendar. I have so many people on my list that it would take several minutes just to read them. There are my birth father, adoptive father and brother, lots of aunts and uncles both related and honorary, and neighbors and friends who have loved me and helped me at various points in my life. Some were friends only for a few years, while others remained friends for decades. There are some people inspired me in so many ways, and some who supported me through difficult times. All of them feel very close to me on this day, and although I am not able to cry, the tears are just below the surface simply because I miss them so much.
One particular saint was my adoptive mother. She and the family took me in when I was about five months old and made me part of that family. She was a two-time breast cancer survivor who died when I was fourteen, a time when it felt like I could do with a mother even if I didn’t recognize it at the time. Many of my saints were women who filled her shoes from time to time, making sure I had what I needed, whether clothes, advice, a place to visit when I got lonely, and more than occasionally put an extra potato in the pot for dinner just for me.
I miss Mama more the older I get. Knowing she and I had suffered the same disease made me miss having her advice and experiences so that it wouldn’t be so frightening. Luckily I had a friend who filled in, going to the doctor and surgeon with me and even taking me to the hospital and picking me up after my surgery. Another friend took me to some medical tests and stayed until I was ready for a ride home. Those two have been priceless. Fortunately, one of them I can still rely on; whatever I need, she seems to be able to supply.
When I visit back home, I always manage to visit the cemetery where many of my family lie. I wish I could visit that cemetery today, but it’s on the East Coast, over 2,300 miles away, so I will have to content myself with looking at their graves from a distance on Google. Still, in my heart and mind, they will be with me today as they are whenever I think of them and probably many times when I don’t consciously have them in mind.
I love it that my church has a commemoration where my saints can be remembered, even by those who never knew them, merely by hearing their names read on a list. I appreciate that I can join with others in remembering their saints along with mine, making our community stronger and more connected. Not all denominations have such a remembrance, but since I have found it, I have gained comfort and a designated time to celebrate all of them together. The night of All Souls becomes a thin space, a veil between the world of the living and the dead which is almost able to be penetrated so that the two worlds can join together. It’s a precious and priceless feeling, one I wouldn’t trade for anything.
Who are your saints? If you haven’t made a list already, sit for a few moments and write them down. Then remember why they are your saints and thank them for their gifts to you, and thank God for having put them in your life at just the right times. It won’t be a wasted few moments, I assure you.
May the souls of all the faithful departed rest in peace, rise in glory, and remain with us in spirit until we can join them in the glory of God and the heavenly kingdom. Amen.
Image: All Saints Day, Holy Cross Cemetery in Gniezno, Poland. Author: Diego Delso, delso.photo, License CC-BY-SA. Found at Wikimedia Commons.
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for an Education for Ministry group, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. Her domestic partners, Dominic, Gandhi, and Phoebe, keep her busy and frequently highly amused. She also remembers her feline saints: Peter, Dammit, Tinker, Chester, Jane, Maggie, Nicholas, Sama, Lucky, Whitey, Tigger, and countless strays over the years and who were my joy to feed and love.