Blending in with the spirits, monsters, and long-legged beasties that go bump in the night.
Carving turnips and later, pumpkins, into Jack O’Lanterns.
Honoring the dead who move through the Veil between the worlds.
Calling the names of the saints.
Praying to our own Dead.
There is a lot going on over the next few days, friends, some secular, some sacred, some solidly both together.
But today, I’d like to write about that last one in the list: Praying to our own Dead, and how it’s not merely a Pagan/non-Christian tradition.
“I am a living member of the family of all souls,” the famous Unitarian preacher William Ellery Channing said. And he wasn’t the only one to use the expression, “all souls.” Not by a long shot.
While All Saints’ Day is a Holy Day of Obligation according to the Roman Catholic Church—meaning you’re obliged to go to church and participate in a special liturgy, including the Litany of the Saints—All Souls’ Day is not. It is, nonetheless, celebrated on November 2, the day after All Saints’.
In the Nicene Creed, the Profession of Faith that Catholics (and many other Christians) say in the liturgy, one of the articles of faith is belief in “the communion of saints.” In the New Testament book of Hebrews, chapter 12, the author writes of the “cloud of witnesses” surrounding believers. And people of many faiths, including my own Unitarian Universalism, talk about that cloud of witnesses.
What is the cloud of witnesses?
The cloud of witnesses is the gathering of our Mighty Dead. These are those whose fate is unknown, but whose spirits one may somehow believe linger and affect us.
The first part of All Souls’ and the idea of the cloud of witnesses in the Roman Catholic tradition is praying for the souls in Purgatory. Purgatory, that place where one is still reaching for God, and where one’s soul is being purged of the errors of Earthly life. (Yes, there are some serious theological disputes I could have here, but we’re talking about a particular tradition.)
The idea here is that one’s prayers help those who have gone before us, just as they helped them here on Earth.
Similarly, there is a belief that the prayers of those who have gone before us are efficacious for us.
That if you would ask someone to pray for you in life, and you believe in Eternal Life, it only makes sense to ask for their prayers to join with your own.
Do you see? Eternal Life, while I don’t believe in it in terms of Heaven and Hell, is a character of Being in this Universe. We never disappear. We are never banished from the Big Picture. In some way, all of the parts of us, minus perhaps our particular personality and consciousness, remain.
More on that to come.
In the Catholic tradition, it is not heretical to pray to your own dead relatives and friends and ask them to pray for you. In fact, there’s a whole tradition among traditional Catholics of some ethnicities, of keeping little shrines to those who have gone before into death and the hereafter. I once saw one of these in a French Catholic household, dedicated to the father of the family who had died many years before. It included photos of him, a Rosary (Catholic prayer beads), the prayer card from his funeral, and several candles.
And in any case, keeping an altar for my Mighty Dead is central to my identity as a priestess. It is part of acknowledging that while I do not know what happens to the energy of our bodies when we die, I am convinced that the dead remain in some way a part of us, a part of our consciousness, as well as parts of our bodies.
Ralph Waldo Emerson has a wonderful way of expressing this concept:
“Nature keeps herself whole, and her representation complete in the experience of each mind. She suffers no seat to be vacant in her college. It is the secret of the world that all things subsist, and do not die, but only retire a little from sight, and afterwards return again.” (Emerson, Essays: Second Series)
Nature keeps herself whole.
She suffers no seat to be vacant in her college. No seat to be vacant. No place to be empty.
These are such beautiful images for death and rebirth.
Emerson’s idea of retiring a little from sight and returning later is not in keeping with the idea of All Souls and the communion of saints (unless you sort of squint your philosophical eyes and turn your head to the side). It—Emerson’s quotation—is nonetheless one way to illustrate why I work to maintain my relationships with the Mighty Dead.
I work to love them and learn from them because I know they are just out of sight. And not just people, but, as Emerson said “all things” (emphasis mine). And this is the reminder I constantly need. That all things are my ancestors. I am my own ancestor, really, but that’s a whole other conversation.
All things fade from our sight and return.
All things fade from our sight and return. These finite consciousnesses we have, they only get us so far. Perhaps it is not that all things fade, but rather that our sight is not strong enough to see them as they continue.
In the names of Florence Antonia Finder Birmingham, Leo Van Birmingham, Doris Joann Birmingham, Cecilia Birmingham Mydlowski, Kristen Bennett Birmingham, Earl Buck, Zeta Beeton Buck, John Douglas Dawson, Annie Elizabeth Hull Dawson, Ann Dawson Torrey, Earl Buck, and John Dawson Carl Buck, I ask for prayers, that I might have authenticity, integrity, compassion, wisdom, love and peace in this life.
Blessed be thy bodies, thy former consciousness, and thy continuing existence. Amen.