Halloween means different things to different people. For me, it literally is the Eve of All Saints Day. That ‘s the day the Church remembers that we are connected with those who have gone before us. There is an icon that shows a wide variety of saints down through the ages who form the “cloud of witnesses” that have contributed in their their time to the legacy of the Church. On All Saints, we think of the spiritually connective tissue that links those of us in the Now to our past. And in my reflection, I also add the link to those who are to come in the future, the people who will be celebrating All Saints Day one hundred years from now, a thousand years from today. That gives me a sense of gratitude for the past and a sense of hope for tomorrow.
I come to a deep sense of that connection to the past when I visit the monastery in Conyers where there is a place behind the church where the monks are buried when they die. I have attended a number of those liturgies of “The Burial of the Dead” there in this holy plot of land.
When a monk dies, the body is washed, placed in the monk’s habit, and then put on a bier and placed in the Church where vigil prayers are kept through the night, a monk always present by the side of the deceased brother, chanting the Psalms. This vigil lasts through the night until on the next day when a Funeral Mass is held by the community. After the liturgy, the body is taken by the community outside for a blessing and then is lowered into an earthen grave, to join the graves of brothers who had also been in the community.
It is a very REAL moment as the body has not been embalmed, so there is no hiding from the gray, lifeless pallor of the skin. Rather than the heavy make-up and lighting effects that I grew to detest in Southern funeral homes, this stuff is in-your-face reality. The monk is dead, at least the body is. A simple shroud envelops the monk as he is lowered into the Georgia red clay.
The only stage prop is the Pascal Candle, which is the very same candle that was carried into the darkened church on Easter morn, a single light that proclaims that light has overcome darkness, and there is an experiential recognition that goes way beyond our Hallmark Card, Cadbury Egg Easter extravaganzas. In this moment, this simple, single candle delivers a message of hope in the middle (“midst” for you South of Gods) of ding-dong death.
One of my Flannery O’connor moments came when I was officiating at the funeral of a dear friend, a South of God minister, Hank Durham. Hank had been a part of a Bible study group that met at the monastery to translate the Gospels from the original Greek into English, even if our rendering had a distinctive drawl. I have written about this group of men, half Baptist ministers and half Trappist monks. We would meet monthly for many years, and the fruits of friendship, understanding, and scholarship were priceless. Through the time, Hank became a valued friend. I was so honored that his wife asked me to join my pastor, Dr. Estill Jones, in officiating at the funeral.
When Estill and I walked out for the service, Hank’s copper-colored coffin was in the center of the sanctuary of the chapel. All was in order until we got to the front of the casket. There before God and everyone was a flower arrangement, which is not out of the ordinary in and of itself. Such is the custom in the South of God funeral. No Paschal Candle to which I referred earlier, but a flower arrangement.
But this floral arrangement was “special” as the SNL Church Lady would opine. It was a flowered white cross. Okay so far. But in the center was a red plastic toy telephone, with the receiver off the hook, with a banner proclaiming “Jesus Called”.
Estill and I turned toward the front of the chapel so that the congregation could not see the two of us laughing. I would swear I heard Hank laughing from within the casket. We stood for some time, trying to compose ourselves in this most solemn moment. The congregation, no doubt, marveled at the deep spirituality of this short-tall mixed pair of ministers pausing in reverence., where, in fact, we were laughing our asses off.
Finally, we turned to face the congregation, with Estill muttering the opening lines of the rite. Humor, retrospectively, is most appropriate as it takes as its root, humus, of the earth, dirt. For from dust we come and to dust we shall return, comes to mind. Our bodies are ultimately fallible and will cease to function with heartbeat and breath. We are marked by death from our first breath, but the Church audaciously places the mark of the Cross, as a proclamation of Life, not death.
On this All Saints Day, my mind returned to the saints buried in the simple graveyard of the monastery, with a concrete cross to mark this person beneath, decomposing in the clay, as Christ’s own forever. Quite a claim.
It made me think of some specific saints that I knew from that group of monks, these holy persons living with a vow to follow the Christ in his way of being, servanthood.
Folks like Patrick, who was a New York cop before he heard a call to the monastery to radically seek a connection to God. His story is told in the popular travel narrative, Blue Highways.
Father Anthony, a charismatic priest who was popular among the laity of the area, who had a gift of healing. He ran the retreat house for years and did not suffer fools. Ask me how I know this.
Gus, was the abbot, an actual friend of Flannery, recorded in her journals and letters. He was the monk who allowed me to come to the monastery to write and try on my vocation as a possible monk. He is also the monk who laughed out loud when I confessed that I could not fade that celibacy thing.
Joachim was the most joyful person I have ever known It was my treat of helping Joey set up the creche for Christmas. He had a special devotion for the Blessed Virgin Mary and instilled in me a special appreciation for her receptivity that I am trying to embrace.
This past year, Father James, a highly regarded spiritual writer died and is on my mind for his passion for communication. He attempted to convey the monastic spirit in a way that might be accessible to folk who live in the normal nine-to-five world.
Similarly, this year, my pastor, Dr. Estill Jones died at ninety-six years of age, after teaching New Testament at the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky and pastoring churches in Georgia. His contribution to the formation in my development is incalculable. He put up with my probing questions and encouraged my explorations of faith. For a man short in stature, he made up with his giant spirit. I loved him as a spiritual father.
And so All Saints comes and goes. A reminder of our deep connection with those who have come before us. We rest in the cloud of witnesses who have formed the larger tradition, but sense and remember the specific ones that have touched our brief lives with their care and love.
All Saints brings into sharp focus those folks who have touched us. But why not do that on a more frequent manner? Why not pause, even after the day itself, after the glucose coma of Halloween has subsided and focus on the ones that have touched us deeply?
Who are the people that spring from the rest of their graves in your memory, not to haunt, but bless your lives with love, care, even laughter? As my friend the owl outside my window prompts me, Who?