Bright to dark the seasons turn,
When I was a child, Halloween was my favorite holiday. I could never figure out why adults thought it was only for children. It wasn’t the costumes or the candy that intrigued me so much as the atmosphere of mystery combined with playfulness. Years later, I would encounter that same paradox in the dance of Radha Krishna, in Rumi’s poems and crazy Zen stories, in Sufi tales and in that fool for Christ, St. Francis of Assisi. But the profound secret that creation’s mystery springs from divine playfulness was first revealed to me at Halloween.
The pranks of mischief night and playful logic of trick or treat I loved; even more, the contemplative silence after midnight when, too candy drunk to sleep, I sensed the very darkness alive with spirit. Whether the Holy Spirit or the tingling of a trillion sprites, I knew not. It didn’t matter. I apprehended a “cloud of witnesses” around me, and feasted on luminous darkness.
“Cloud of witnesses” is the New Testament’s evocative term for the abiding presence of the saints. In more ancient cultures, they are “the ancestors.” Honoring them is a profoundly important aspect of Samhain, which is why the Church chose this Pagan New Year’s festival for the Feast of All Souls (October 31) and the Feast of All Saints (November 1).
Samhain, pronounced saw’in, is the turning point from the revelation of light to the mystery of darkness, the threshold where nature turns outside-in. The veil between spirit and matter is thin as a wisp. We sense a soul-world inside this world of matter. The Celts believed that, at this hour, spirits of all who died in the past year return to wish us farewell before commencing their final journey.
If our ancestors were troubled, we unconsciously carry their troubles today. Therefor, we need to reconcile those troubles with love-offerings, lighting a fire to burn away grievous memories and purify the heart. If our ancestors were joyful, we carry their joy today. We celebrate that joy with a fire of thanksgiving. Too often in the Christian West, we spurn the veneration of ancestor as ignorant or primitive. Yet we pay our therapist $150 an hour to heal us of ancestral wounds. We carry our ancestors in every strand of DNA, every habit of inattentive behavior.
Samhain is a time for tricks and laughter, yet a time for deep contemplative silence. It is the bitter sweet celebration of “Summer’s End,” one derivation of the word, “samhain.” Samhain on October 31 is the diametric opposite of Beltane on May 1, the Pagan celebration of Spring. Samhain is thanksgiving for harvest, sacrifice of the old, and return to silent Source. Samhain is maple leaf and pumpkin, apple and spider’s web, little signs of the season transformed into mythic powers, offered in the hearth of mindfulness. Write a prayer on a leaf for someone recently lost. Bind a thread around your wrist to represent a relationship that has bound you, but is now ready to be gracefully let go, so that you can move on. Offer that leaf or that thread in the bonfire of Samhain.
The origin of the word “bonfire” is the “bone fire” of Samhain, where the weak and old of the flock were culled, so that the strong would survive the Winter. This sacrifice was offered, not with the heartless industry of modern agribusiness, but in reverence for the continuity of life. Today we may not sacrifice sheep and heifers, but we can still make a harvest alter or a bonfire, offering prayers and intentions.
Over the hills of Britain on the Eve of All Souls, the bonfires blazed, as in the marvelous opening of Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native. Citizens lit brands from the village bonfire and took them home to kindle their own hearths. Those hearth-coals smoldered through the coming year, each home nurtured by the original light of Samhain.
It’s the turning of the year from bright half to dark. For six months, angels and elemental nature sprites have outwardly busied themselves with greening, blossoming, bearing fruit. Now the cycle turns from manifestation to silence, Summer’s riot to the Winter-space of contemplation. Energy sinks inward, leaf to seed. Matter itself is enlivened with a concentrated force as creation gently implodes. Stumps, crystals, soil itself, glow with an inward light. You cannot understand Samhain unless you hold all matter sacred. It’s all about the Incarnation….
So in this season, many of us experience a quickening of our inner life. Nature wanes stark, but consciousness ignites. In the Church’s liturgical year, Advent begins, heralding Winter Solstice and Yule. The embryonic soul leaps inside the mother, matter. Christmas means birth of Christ, not just in a moment of historical time, but in the womb of nature.
Jesus prayed that God’s kingdom might manifest On earth as in heaven. In Celtic worship, the same law is expressed: As above so below. When fully present with us on earth, Christ is the Green Man.
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