By Father Dean McFalls
St. Mary’s of the Assumption Church
The nearly-full moon will rise high early tonight as costumed kids venture into darkened streets and parties full of spooks. Soon, someone will shriek, a lone cat will scream and a wild dog will howl. In jam-packed cinemas, movies like “the Antichrist”, “Saw 6”, “The House of the Devil”, and “the Vampire’s Assistant” will entertain young and old by scaring them out of their wits. Meanwhile, mothers will hover over little ones, hoping and praying that nothing cause them harm. Yes: it’s Halloween once again.
Yet, as anyone with common sense and most every Christian will tell you, the whole parade has gone too far. Far from seeking to appease the dead, as did the ancient druids and other primitive peoples, and far from drawing near to the thin membrane between this world and that, in order to glimpse the mysteries of what no one can yet fully comprehend, and far from trying to overcome our instinctive fear of self-extinction, hard-wired by the God of Life to better ensure our survival, our modern version of Halloween has mutated into an obsession with death, with horror and gore, and with that which is irredeemably evil. We have long-since crossed the line. Thinking in our deluded way that it’s all fun and games, we’ve tricked ourselves into swallowing a dangerous potion which will treat us all to a sour outcome.
By taking the dark side to an extreme, we risk missing the most awesome and wonder-full dimension of this profoundly meaningful holiday. It goes without saying that, despite the warnings of concerned citizens, Halloween can be a whole lot of fun. We dance around the things which frighten us and usually get away with it, too. But far beneath the masks and masquerading, the subconscious and unconscious impulses to reconcile forces governing our existence keep welling in and up, like tides swelling invisibly under a midnight sky, breaking against sandstone cliffs and pulling back to the sea.
Wednesday night, I became more aware than ever of this as four-hundred people gathering in our church for a funeral vigil. I felt more than emotion surging from the unseen depths, more than a sense of appreciation for the fragile gift of life. I sensed that death, too, had its own mysteries to reveal.
There, before us, the young mother looked more beautiful than ever. She seemed now ten years younger than she had, as she hovered between life and death at Stanford hospital. She appeared, in fact, to be that bride we read about in Revelation 21, prepared for an eternity with Christ the Lamb.
That morning, I’d returned early to a local hospital as an older woman died.
Leaving behind her nine children and a large flock of grandchildren and great-grandkids, she slipped gracefully through the threshold and was lifted up gently by angels sent from heaven. Standing by her side, feeling her warmth slowly fade away, I prayed she’d find her way quickly to the open Heart of God. Her soul was doubtless already watching from above.
In the next unit, I stood at the glass door separating the zone of precaution from the place where nurses freely circulate. Wanting to enter, but tired of putting on all the protective gear, I just offered my intercessions once more for a young mother who, nearly two months ago, entered with Swine Flu.
Now, unable even to see the face of her recently born baby (a photograph is her only visual reference), she lies there, week after week, losing hope.
Beyond her labored breathing and the sleepless beeping of monitors, the window gave way to blue skies, trees swaying in the morning breeze, and a large open field, glowing green in the sun’s golden light. That field told me, from its distant point of view, that everything will one day be better.
As I walked down toward the elevators, I saw a dark figure moving along to my right. Turning to greet him, I was surprised to find my shadow. It must have been the combination of sleep-deprivation, the awareness of a recent death, and the bright rising sun. For just a micro-second, that shade at my side was as real as anyone I had met, and in fact more real than me.
As Psalm 90 both witnesses and laments, life on earth is, in the end, brief.
“You turn man back to dust, saying, ‘Return, O children…’ For a thousand years in your sight are as yesterday, now that it is past, or as a watch of the night. You make an end of them in their sleep; the next morning they are like the changing grass, which at dawn springs up anew, but by evening withers and fades…” (v. 3-6). “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart…Fill us at daybreak with your kindness, that we may shout for joy and gladness all our days…And may the gracious care of the Lord our God be ours; prosper the work of our hands!” (12-17)
On Sunday, Catholics celebrate All Saints Day, commemorating those who persevered until death in the love and service of Christ. Monday, we pray for the dead. Altars are decorated, masses celebrated, graves visited, and a wide variety of activities undertaken to remind ourselves that life continues after dying, and that, in Christ, those who have died in faith will rise again.
But today is still Halloween. I’m going to let the eerie feeling of being just a mortal sink in. As the moon begins to rise, I’m going to look for the first emerging stars, it’s true. But not before I’ve gathered up the fallen leaves.
Fr. Dean McFalls, St. Mary’s Parish, Stockton. We ask your prayers for that young mother in the isolated unit, and for all those who seem too soon to be faced with the threat of dying, of leaving behind unfulfilled dreams.