Samhain, The Thinning Veil Between Worlds, with a Witch
by Peg Aloi, guest contributor
Photo by Jordi Puig/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0
Like most Americans of my generation, I looked forward to trick or treating at Hallowe’en for many years. It was fun to get dressed up and wander the neighborhood with a plastic pumpkin, feeling it grow heavier with candy and other treats. And in those days, the treats were wonderful: homemade cookies! Candy apples! Caramel popcorn balls! My mother made these home-made goodies each year, too, and neighborhood kids looked forward to trick or treat at our house.
Hallowe’en was a sensory holiday for me then, and still is. The colorful costume parades, the chill in the air, the crunch of leaves underfoot, juicy apples and home-made doughnuts, the smell of burning leaves and autumn bonfires: these sensual memories mean autumn to me. Walking home from a friend’s house in the early darkness, the sight of a tree without its leaves against a violet sky filled me with spooky dread, but also a sense of awe.
And Hallowe’en was always the point when it was clear that winter was really coming: you had to prepare a costume that you could layer with an extra sweater underneath, in case it got cold. On some level the gathering of sweets mirrored the hoarding of nuts by the crazed squirrels scrambling through the fallen leaves. Children dressed as fantastical beings in diaphanous gowns, silvery suits, clothing we’d soon forgo in favor of wooly skirts and itchy pullovers. One last decadent night of hell raising before hibernation! Hallowe’en came one week after my birthday, and it was like celebrating non-stop for a week.
But being a practicing witch means I have a very different perspective on this holiday as an adult. For modern witches, Hallowe’en is known as Samhain, a Scottish term meaning “summer’s end” that marks that halfway point between autumn equinox and winter solstice. We also call it Hallows, or sometimes All Souls Night. Growing up a Catholic, I sometimes attended church on All Saints Day, the day after Hallowe’en, and, as a child, didn’t quite understand the connection between the two days, and assumed the church held their Mass the day after simply because the night of Hallowe’en was just too busy and who would want to go to church when they could go door to door gathering candy?
These days, I tend to celebrate this feast of the dead in somber and often unusual ways. The coven I work with has an elaborate cycle of rituals beginning in spring and culminating at Samhain with a rite called Harvest Home, in which a young “harvest lord” is symbolically slain by his consort as a sacrificial offering to fertilize the crops and balance the cycle of life, death, and rebirth: the Eternal Return. I have been to large public rituals where guests were invited to speak of their loved ones who had passed over; I have attended vigils that were peaceful and serene, with candles everywhere and plates of food left for the dead and denizens of the Otherworld.
Some witches celebrate this holiday as the Celtic New Year, and do rituals and rites appropriate for new beginnings. This year, Samhain occurs just after the New Moon in the sign of Scorpio, a very portentous timing. The sun has also just entered the sign of Scorpio, a sign associated with death and regeneration. It is said that at Samhain, as at Beltane (May 1st), the “veil between the worlds,” or the barrier separating the world of the living from the world of the dead, grows thin and permeable, and allows us to commune with our beloved dead and our ancestors. For this reason many witches and pagans create altars dedicated to their ancestors and dead loved ones, with photos and mementos, favorite foods or flowers.
If you haven’t noticed, this holiday has become enormously popular, with the big box stores putting out decorations and supplies as early as Labor Day, and with more and more emphasis on parties, costumes, and decorations, which can mean big business for retailers (a number of whom specialize in Hallowe’en year ‘round). Related holidays are receiving more notice too, such as Mexico’s Dios de la Muerte (“The Day of the Dead”), and I know a number of witches of European ancestry who decorate sugar skulls with their children. And nearly every television network is showing horror films this month, some of them every night. Is it that our culture is becoming more interested in occult matters generally, a sort of second occult revival? Or are we merely so susceptible to social trends and their trappings that we have no idea why we’re so obsessed with the baubles and symbols of death?
Or perhaps, in our yearning for some decadence in the midst of frightening times, we grab hold of outrageous forms of fun. We recall what used to thrill us and delight us as children (horror and sugar), and even if it’s about death, it makes us feel alive, and somehow comforted. We occupy our neighborhoods with treats, and flashlights, and gaudy clothes, and glee. And know we’ll make it even more fun next year.
And the witches among you (we’re there, oh yes), we’ll also decorate our doorways with cornstalks and pumpkins, and put candle-lit skulls in our windows. We’re staving off the darkness, too.
Peg Aloi is an adjunct professor at The College of Saint Rose and film critic living in Albany, New York. She’s a practicing witch who regularly writes on media for The Witching Hour and Orchards Forever.
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Facing Our Darkness on Halloween Night
by Caroline Oakes, guest contributor
Photo by Susy Morris/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0
Like most people, since I was a child, Halloween brings a heady rush of excitement that definitely goes beyond costumes, jack-o-lanterns, and even trick-or-treating for good chocolate.
Year after year, exhilaration sets in as children and parents begin their animated zig-zagging through neighborhoods in the deep dark of night, dressed as something or someone they aren’t really, knocking on the doors of perfect strangers, coming face-to-face with the unknown and unseen.
Now, I am aware that some parents and a number of churches are less than enthusiastic about the traditions of this liminal night, and are going so far as to pull their children out of Halloween activities entirely, or are offering “Godly” alternatives. (Heard yet about “Jesus Ween”?)
While some people’s claims that Halloween should be assailed as inherently “evil” or “of the devil” and not consistent with Christian values are questionable — both theologically and historically — the real regret here is the opportunity that is lost by missing the point of Halloween.
In pre-Christian, Christian, and now post-Christian times, October 31st has traditionally been a night to name and face our fears, a time to face “the dark” — the dark outside of us, and the dark inside of us.
When we give our children the freedom to take those first steps out into the dark of Halloween night, we are allowing them to learn, first-hand, that the foreboding darkness that will envelop them will not, in fact, consume them.
They learn on their own that, even if they wear a mask of something they think is really scary, they don’t actually become that scary thing. In the act of putting on the mask, the scary thing loses much of its power, and the child’s own sense of inner power, inner light, and identity is affirmed.
As Halloween comes and goes each year, children slowly and safely wander farther from home, becoming more secure in their growing knowledge that what looks (at first) like something deep, dark, and foreboding can also be full of surprise, delight, and even joy.
The subliminal messages here are positive and healthy ones for our children and for our planet. The world around us, even the world inside each one of us, is neither all evil nor all good, neither all light nor all dark. There is always more than meets the eye.
So, parents banning Halloween night? There is real irony here. Parents forbidding their children (and themselves) this chance to face their fears, telling them instead that they cannot dress up, they cannot go outside in the dark, they cannot trick-or-treat, may actually be promoting fearful messages — that the world is a terrifying place, no one is safe, and we have no power over the inner and outer demons of our lives.
These are messages that perpetuate the dangerously dualistic, black and white, uncompromising way of seeing the world that is polarizing our society today.
But when we shed some light on the dark complexities of Halloween night, even the simple exchange of trick-or-treating can carry an important subtext: at every open door on Halloween night, children and their parents are enacting the universal (and spiritual) principle of giving — namely, that it is good (indeed it is a sign of our inner humanity) that we can willingly open our doors and give generously to complete strangers, even to those who wear masks, making them unrecognizable and frightening to us. There is always more than meets the eye.
Halloween can be as grace-filled as it is black-dark, a night to discover, year after year, that when we venture out into the darkness of the unknown, the night can be beautiful. Others are kind. Evil is actually a lot like a monster mask, and after an exhilarating few hours of exploring the dark, we can always return to the light of home, safe and sound.
And sometimes with a boatload of pretty darn good chocolate.
Caroline Oakes is a writer with a degree in ascetical theology from The General Theological Seminary. You can read her “Mind and Spirit” column in The Bucks County Herald. She lives in in New Hope, Pennsylvania.
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These Dark Times Require Grounding Principles
by Maia Duerr, guest contributor
“Buddha Moon - Buddha Stones” (photo: H. Kopp-Delaney/Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)
Winter Solstice. The longest night of the year. The other day I was wondering what it must have been like to be one of the early humans, before there was a body of cultural and scientific knowledge built up to assure us that the light would, indeed, return as we turned the corner on this day and headed once again toward spring. It must have been terrifying to see the sun drop lower and lower in the sky each day and the night grow longer and longer without really knowing if that trajectory would reverse.
So this is a dark time — not only astronomically but also the world feels dark right now.
The (Advent) Road Between “Already” and “Not Yet”
by Debra Dean Murphy, guest contributor
The Advent tension is a way of learning again that God is God: that between even our deepest and holiest longing and the reality of God is a gap which only grace can cross.
—Rowan Williams, A Ray of Darkness
I’ve been reading Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Road this Advent, and am struck by some thematic parallels between this bleak book and these dark December days of longing and foreboding. The correlations are subtle, tenuous, even arguable, perhaps — and not intended, I’m confident, by the author himself. Maybe it’s more like a shared sensibilitity: Advent’s unflinching gaze at the trouble and pain to come, given clear-eyed expression in the ancient prophets’ warnings; the sober, spare narration of terrifying desolation in The Road; and the palpable urgency that informs and animates both.
Yet hope is wrested from the scattered wreckage. Advent’s apocalyptic warnings locate the strange mission of a strange Messiah who’s “winnowing fork is in his hand,” but whose own dying will undo forever the power of sin and death. The violence and despair of McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic landscape and the unspoken calamity that created it do not have the last word.
Hope and human goodness and a glimmer of divine grace seep through the cracks of the scorched, dead earth. “You shall fear disaster no more,” says the prophet Zephaniah in one of the appointed Advent texts. McCarthy’s nameless father and son seem to claim this foretelling for themselves as their savage, beautiful story comes to a close.
In Advent we walk a tightrope, taut (and fraught) with the tension of living between the times — between the “already” of the first Advent of God and the “not yet” of its completion. The Advent scriptures and liturgies and hymns bring this tension alive, teaching us, as the archbishop of Canterbury writes, “something of God’s own simultaneous ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to all religious aspiration and expectation.”
But tension — along with ambiguity, paradox, and mystery — are not what we want from our religion. Middle class Christian piety pays a kind of lip service to Advent (the wreath is a nice touch, we think), but darkness, foreboding, “unquenchable fire”? Please. We are on our way to the manger, for heaven’s sake. The tree’s been up for two weeks. You’re scaring the children with all this talk of vipers and the wrath to come.
But Advent asks us to see and speak truthfully, to reckon honestly with our troubled times, to share in the righteous anger of a God who will, as the gospel of Matthew says, “decide with equity for the meek of the earth.”
We make the journey through Advent a bit like travelers on an unknown road, but not as those without hope. For in the fullness of time the desert will bloom and rejoice, our weeping will turn to joy, and all flesh, we pray with fervent Advent longing, shall see it together.
Image caption: “A Stranger, The Second Advent” (photo: cawa/Flickr, used under its Creative Commons license)
Debra Dean Murphy is an assistant professor of Religion and Christian Education at West Virginia Wesleyan College and serves on the board of The Ekklesia Project. She regularly blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture, and Politics.
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The Gift of Matthew Sanford
by Maria Clara Paulino, guest contributor
When I first heard the interview with Matthew Sanford on the radio, I was moved beyond words. I wanted to hear it again. The second time I heard it, online, I was more moved still.
I wanted to understand what had touched me so deeply beyond his extraordinary story of loss and victory, and the candid and engaging quality of his telling. There was something else I could hear in the silences between his words that mesmerized me. What was it, exactly? I still do not know, but I keep asking the question.
On the surface, Sanford’s life and mine have little in common. Very different stories indeed. Why, then, do I feel so strongly that I know what he is talking about? It cannot be the accident, the hospital, the paralysis — all of it so tragic that to say I understand would be worse than arrogance; so tragic, indeed, that it almost drowns out a subtler resonance. And yet, is it not this resonance that Sanford points to when he mentions silence, darkness, and quietness as portals to a deeper awareness?
It could be an illusion, this feeling that there is something in common, something that I understand. But it could also be that the commonality resides not in what human beings experience but in the way we experience it; that it is not in the action but in the gap, in the silence that follows and precedes action, that we meet as equals and see the other in ourselves.
A similar question comes to mind when I think of what Sanford calls “the gulf” — the isolation of personal experience from other personal experiences, the “existentialist” separation between self and even those the self most loves. I do not share with him the exact same reason for this gulf, his particular experience of pain and loss; what I share is the awareness of the separation and the anguish that results from that awareness.
Sunset at the mouth of the Douro in Porto, Portugal. (photo: Simon Blackley/Flickr)
As Sanford acknowledges, we all share it. We know we cannot be sure that the emotion we feel is perceived in the same intensity and depth by anyone else, however much intimacy there may be between those concerned. And, when two lovers watch the sun bleeding into the ocean, do they see the same shades of orange and red? Yet, if we share the desperate awareness of this gulf, is that not a most powerful commonality?
Mystics and theologians, Buddha and Christ have claimed for such a long, long time that separation is the illusion, yet we hang on to this illusion with all our might. It is clearly more soothing to us than that which we have in common. After all, “to have in common” means to have one’s boundaries less clearly marked, to feel with another — pretty scary stuff that may explain why we lend so much weight to our differences and place so much value on them, from individuals to societies, from East to West and North to South. Even when we hate the differences (those seen as negative always embodied in “the other”) and in direct proportion, it seems, to how much we hate them, we pour our attention on them; we bring them out under the glaring sun so everyone can stare at them until they seem insurmountable in their three-dimensional “reality.”
But, Sanford claims, if we find ourselves in darkness, or in a very quiet place, we become more attuned to a different, subtler reality; and if we are strong enough to become vulnerable, to stay with the fear — in short, if we “surrender” — we may glimpse the contours of authentic feeling (how scary is that?) and hear the song of our oh-so-common human experience of striving and losing, loving and letting go, living and dying at every moment of existence.
And this may be the most healing story we can tell ourselves.
Ms. Paulino lives in Rock Hill, South Carolina and teaches Art History and Criticism at the University of Winthrop and the University of Porto. In her “Writing in the Margins” she muses on a home in-between: languages, places, ways of seeing.
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