Making magic for the dead

Halloween crunches through piles of leaves, stays out after dark, laughs past graveyards, and burns the jack-o-lantern candles down to rich orange rind. Next day November blows in, cold and somber and holy with All Saints and All Souls days.

Halloween, the unholy day of costumes and candy, was made for kids. Our Halloween costumes came from old clothes and imagination, not from stores. Trick-or-treating was limited to nearby neighbors and relatives. Loretta always made sticky popcorn balls, Grandma sometimes made fudge, and some people gave store-bought candy. I envied town kids who could walk to dozens of houses for candy instead of being driven from farm to farm. We believed mightily in souls and the afterlife, but insouciantly relegated ghosts to the realms of fiction and fun. They were part of Halloween, spooky stories unconnected to real life, which was ruled by parents and the church.

We always went to church on Sunday, sometimes on Wednesday evenings, and always on the official holy days. A holy day of obligation meant you had to go to church, or suffer dire consequences: mortal sin and eternal damnation if you were unlucky enough to get hit by a car before confessing and getting absolution.

Stained glass windows lit the church of my childhood, brightly colored saints with staffs and sheep and sandals. Big Catholic families, all neighbors, filled rows of pews on both sides of the center aisle. An ornate altar stood right against the east wall, with statues and a tabernacle. I watched with envy each week as altar boys — no girls allowed back then — held long tapers to light the candles and, after Mass, equally long candle snuffers to put them out. Votive candles sometimes flickered in side alcoves, lit by people praying for some special intention.

I loved it all, the sitting, standing, kneeling, singing, praying. I loved the foreign sounds of Latin and puzzling out the words, comparing English and Latin sides of the prayer book, Pater Noster to Our Father, Dominus to God, pacem in terris to peace on earth.

We all went to church on the day after Halloween, for All Saints Day, a holy day of obligation. All Saints Day meant ALL saints, not just those officially named by the Holy Roman Catholic Church. Anyone who made it to heaven was a saint. That might include dead presidents or dead relatives. All Saints celebrated all of them, official or unofficial, Church-recognized or family-remembered.

All Souls Day, November 2, followed All Saints Day. All Souls was about everyone dead, not just those in heaven. Because, of course, lots of people languished in Purgatory, doing penance for their sins but looking forward to eventually, some day, making it to heaven.

In Catholic teaching, souls go to one of three places after death. The saints (people who lived really good lives and already made up for all their sins through prayers, good works and suffering) went to heaven. The really bad people went to hell — we were pretty sure about Hitler and Stalin, but beyond that, it got a little fuzzy. All the in-between people went to Purgatory, where they somehow suffered to atone for their sins. We thought of Purgatory as kind of like prison — you got a sentence of a certain length, depending on how much sin you had to make up for.

Clearly, Purgatory was where most of us would land, a way-station before finally getting to heaven. The great-uncle who never went to church (one sin per Sunday, inexorably piling up, year after year) was probably stuck in Purgatory, along with the high school senior who died in a car accident on prom night, and all the other people who were not holy-holy during their lives on earth. All of these people, as well as the saints, were included and remembered on All Souls Day.

Though there was no obligation to go to church on All Souls Day, we went because of the magic. From noon on All Saints Day until midnight on All Souls Day, anyone could spring souls from Purgatory, giving them a do-not-pass-go, get-into-Heaven-free pass. In official church terms — a plenary indulgence.

You did this magic by going to church and saying certain prayers: the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be, six times each. Kneeling, of course — lips moving silently, hands folded, spine straight, no slouching. I remember the magic of being able to spring souls from Purgatory — from old, long-dead relatives to someone who died this year to “the soul who has been waiting the longest in Purgatory,” which was always a favorite.

The really magic part was that you could rescue multiple souls each November. You could pray again every time you visited the church on All Saints and All Souls days. We discussed whether going out of the door and turning around to come back in was enough to constitute a new visit. Probably not, as I recall. Better to put your coat on against the November wind, and march down the church steps to the gravel road that ran past the front door and then back up the steps and inside to kneel and pray again.

I don’t remember coordinating prayers with anyone else, as in “I’ll pray for Grandpa and you pray for Grandma.” Maybe six people prayed for that great-uncle, or maybe you already prayed for him last year. I’m sure that President Kennedy got a lot of prayers, though we couldn’t call down the magic for him until almost a year after his November 22 assassination.

Coordination didn’t matter. After all, you might have made a mistake. Maybe you counted wrong and said only five Our Fathers, which clearly wouldn’t have worked. Or maybe you didn’t walk far enough from the church steps to count as a separate visit. Or maybe you were not sincere enough or attentive enough. The rules made scruples (the Catholic name for OCD) almost inevitable and almost virtuous.

In the larger picture, prayers aren’t really about efficiency and organization, but about intention and caring. Nor, I think, is All Souls Day really about praying people out of Purgatory, but about the traditions of candles and ofrendas and Yahrzeits and memorials of all sorts — about connecting with the dead, in ceremony and memory.

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