The beginning of November brings the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, along with ancient beliefs and practices that pre-date Christianity. So there’s a bowl of what looks like eyes on my dining room sideboard – suitably scary lollies for any trick-or-treaters who might venture up our side street this Halloween.
Even though it comes dressed up as skeletons, witches and monsters, Halloween sounds a lot more fun than the All Souls Day of my childhood, a day when we were encouraged to pray for the souls in Purgatory.
Purgatory is a specifically Roman Catholic belief as a place where one is readied for heaven. The word has links to the unpleasant process of purging – getting rid of something or someone in a violent way. It sounds more like something dreamed up by some long-ago church dignitary who thought that God was being seen as a bit soft on sinners, especially those who might have died in unexpectedly un-holy circumstances.
It doesn’t sound like the God that Jesus talked about, the God who knows we sin, but loves us unconditionally all the same. I wonder if the moment a person dies they realise how far short they’ve fallen of living up to the expectations that God had gifted them with. Maybe that’s their moment of Purgatory – shame, sorrow, love and forgiveness, all mixed up in God’s welcoming embrace.
Some years ago I lived in a one pub/ one shop/ two churches little town. Every year the catholic community gathered in the local cemetery to tidy the graves, light candles and talk about the friends and family buried there. I didn’t join them because I didn’t feel that I belonged in quite the same way. I recite the Apostles Creed and I say that I believe in the communion of saints, because I do. But I’m much more focused on the communion of saints that I know, the family and friends who have touched my life, those who have died and the rest of them, scattered around the world, catholic and whatever, but still part of me.
Recently I read about a practice called the 200 year present. You begin by looking back to the youngest age that you can remember and the oldest person who was part of your life then, and calculate back to their birthdate, roughly. And then you do the second part of the process, which is, you think about the youngest member of your extended family — minus two months. And then imagine how long she or he would possibly live? If you do this you can say that you were held and touched, and you will have touched the lives of people who cover a 200-year present.
I like that, knowing that in my present I can look both back and forward. I not only belong to a family but a community as well, friends and acquaintances with whom I share my life and who will touch into me after I die. It’s a version of the Communion of Saints that I can handle. I don’t pray for those I was told in catechism class were now the Church Triumphant, I pray to them.
And as for the trick-and- treaters who come knocking, I’ll welcome them as ‘companions on the journey’.
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