Preparing for our spiritual winters
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
May our Lord Jesus Christ bless you all most abundantly, out of the infinite treasures of His grace! In these autumn days, we notice the changing of the seasons with perhaps a touch of sadness for summer’s dying, or trepidation for winter’s threatening cold. As the days shorten and the leaves turn, we know that the bounty of the year is passing. Of course, we no longer fear the hardships of winter as our ancestors once did, but we always miss in some sense the glories of summer, when they fade away each year.
In our spiritual life, we sometimes face this sort of fading. The ease and abundance of grace we perceive when all things are going well for us, and when the presence of Christ in our lives is clear, is not always what we experience. There is also darkness, when, because of, for example, some injury or disaster, or struggles with health, or with finding a job, or with our relationships, it may seem that God is distant from us, that the glory of His presence is passing into a time of cold and suffering.
What can we do then? We need more than simply to endure such spiritual winters. We need an avenue of new grace, a kind of furnace of charity to bring light and warmth back into our souls. The lives of the saints and the wisdom of the Gospels tell us that this new avenue of grace always has one of three basic shapes: renewal of prayer, the sacrament of Confession, and concrete acts of Christian charity. Whenever our faith begins to turn wintry, as happens to all of us sometimes, we can turn to these to find God again, working strongly in our life.
We also look forward to the coming Solemnity of All Saints on Nov. 1. This is a Holy Day of obligation. We have thousands of saints we know by name, whom we recognize to have lived the Gospel in exemplary ways. We know there must also be a great host of saints whose names are not known to us, not because they weren’t exemplary followers of Christ, but because they did so in simple ways, hidden from the spotlight of history. These are the saints we venerate on this holy day, thanking God for all His gifts of grace and holiness in their lives, and asking for their help in ours.
The day before, we also celebrate in another way “All Hallow’s Eve,” or Halloween. This vigil of the feast of All Saints has its own unique character, one not well understood by our commercialized culture. In its more benign form, Halloween has become just a party about kids getting “treats,” mostly candy, and for adults, the beginning of the Thanksgiving and Christmas shopping rush. It has also, rather harmfully, become a glorification of our culture’s fascination with “forbidden fruit:” here, monsters and the demonic.
These kinds of monsters are traditional to Halloween by their contrast with all the saints in Heaven. They represent death, or better, they represent the evils by which death is inflicted on us, including the “death of the soul” lost in sin and despairing of Christ’s salvation. The saints, we know, share in the final victory of Christ over all these forces. Halloween has traditionally made fun of monsters and demons, because in Christ’s victory, we too ultimately have nothing to fear from them. They cannot harm our souls, even in this life, and we glorify God for this salvation when we mock them in this ritualized way.
In this sense, in celebrating Halloween, we were play-acting the spiritual battle. Putting on scary costumes was traditionally a reminder of the interior spiritual battle against temptation, and that we all have the capacity to be great sinners against our neighbors, without the grace of Christ. The traditional “mummeries,” various plays and dances, which are no longer well known, expressed these spiritual truths very well.
The by-now-traditional “trick-or-treating” that has taken their place used to express with simple clarity the truth that Christ’s love from the Cross (the “treat”) conquers all evil. It showed that those evils do indeed mean us real harm (the “trick”), if we are not “armed” with Christ. And the connection of this play-acting with the next day’s solemn Mass was also clearly a celebration of the fruits of sharing Christ’s victory over sin and death, namely, eternal and blessed life in Heaven.
But this is not the way we think about Halloween today. We scarcely remember that it is really “All Hallow’s Eve,” and that it is about spiritual truths. Shorn of the victory of the saints, it has become crassly material and obsessed with ugliness. Demonic forces are cunning and delight in twisting good into bad. “The corruption of the best is the worst.” If we invite attention to them without great faith in Christ, we risk opening the door to their influence. It is not our own power that preserves us from them, but only Christ’s. On our own, we are weak and very vulnerable to their temptations. Separate from the communion of saints in the Church, without that faith, Halloween only exposes us to harm.
Just like on every other contested ground in our culture, what is needed from the faithful is not retreat, but a reclaiming of tradition. Abandoning the field to the enemies of Christ (I mean ideas, not people) can’t help us win either tolerance, or souls for Him.
We should celebrate Halloween, not secularly, but faithfully, in the sense in which the Church has done so for centuries: the sense of fighting, and already winning, the spiritual battle against evil temptations; the sense of the growing victory of Christ’s holiness in the lives of the faithful. That victory brings us all back to the Church, and that’s the true “treat” that we desire in this life.
Your brother in Christ,
Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
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