Monday, October 31, 2011

A Bit on Halloween

Surprise: Halloween’s Not a Pagan Festival After All
The holiday and its customs are completely Christian, and some are uniquely American.
by: Father Augustine Thompson, O.P.
Excerpted from Catholic Parent magazine in 2000.

We’ve all heard the allegations: Halloween is a pagan rite dating back to some pre-Christian festival among the Celtic Druids that escaped Church suppression.  Even today modern pagans and witches continue to celebrate this ancient festival.  If you let your kids go trick-or-treating, they will be worshiping the devil and pagan gods.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  The origins of Halloween are, in fact, very Christian and rather American.  Halloween falls on October 31 because of a pope, and its observances are the result of medieval Catholic piety.

It’s true that the ancient Celts of Ireland and Britain celebrated a minor festival on October 31 – as they did on the last day of most other months of the year.  However, Halloween falls on the last day of October because the Feast of All Saints, or “All Hallows,” falls on November 1.  The feast in honor of all the saints in heaven used to be celebrated on May 13, but Pope Gregory III (d. 741) moved it to November 1, the dedication day of All Saints Chapel in St. Peter’s at Rome.  Later, in the 840s, Pope Gregory IV commanded that All Saints be observed everywhere.  And so the holy day spread to Ireland.

The day before was the feast’s evening vigil, “All Hallows Even,” or “Hallowe’en.”  In those days Halloween didn’t have any special significance for Christians or for long-dead Celtic pagans.

In 998, St. Odilo, the abbot of the powerful monastery of Cluny in southern France, added a celebration on November 2.  This was a day of prayer for the souls of all the faithful departed.  This feast, called All Souls Day, spread from France to the rest of Europe.

So now the Church had feasts for all those in heaven and all those in purgatory.  What about those in the other place?  It seems Irish Catholic peasants wondered about the unfortunate souls in hell.  After all, if the souls in hell are left out when we celebrate those in heaven and purgatory, they might be unhappy enough to cause trouble.  So it became customary to bang pots and pans on All Hallows Even to let the damned know they were not forgotten.  Thus, in Ireland at least, all the dead came to be remembered – even if the clergy were not terribly sympathetic to Halloween and never allowed All Damned Day into the Church calendar.

But that still isn’t our celebration of Halloween.  Our traditions on this holiday center on dressing up in fanciful costumes, which isn’t Irish at all.  Rather, this custom arose in France during the 14th and 15th centuries.  Late medieval Europe was hit by repeated outbreaks of the bubonic plague – the Black Death – and it lost about half its population.  It is not surprising that Catholics became more concerned about the afterlife.

More Masses were said on All Souls Day, and artistic representations were devised to remind everyone of their own mortality.  We know these representations as the danse macabre, or “dance of death,” which was commonly painted on the walls of cemeteries and shows the devil leading a daisy chain of people – popes, kings, ladies, knights, monks, peasants, lepers, etc. – into the tomb.  Sometimes the dance was presented on All Souls Day itself as a living tableau with people dressed up in the garb of various states of life.

But the French dressed up on All Souls, not Halloween; and the Irish, who had Halloween, did not dress up.  How the two became mingled probably happened first in the British colonies of North America during the 1700s, when Irish and French Catholics began to intermarry.  The Irish focus on hell gave the French masquerades an even more macabre twist.

But as every young ghoul knows, dressing up isn’t the point; the point is getting as many goodies as possible.  Where on earth did “trick or treat” come in?

“Treat or treat” is perhaps the oddest and most American addition to Halloween and is the unwilling contribution of English Catholics.

During the penal period of the 1500s to the 1700s in England, Catholics had no legal rights.  They could not hold office and were subject to fines, jail and heavy taxes.  It was a capital offense to say Mass, and hundreds of priests were martyred.

Occasionally, English Catholics resisted, sometimes foolishly.  One of the most foolish acts of resistance was a plot to blow up the Protestant King James I and his Parliament with gunpowder.  This was supposed to trigger a Catholic uprising against the oppressors.  The ill-conceived Gunpowder Plot was foiled on November 5, 1605, when the man guarding the gunpowder, a reckless convert named Guy Fawkes, was captured and arrested.  He was hanged; the plot fizzled.

November 5, Guy Fawkes Day, became a great celebration in England, and so it remains.  During the penal periods, bands of revelers would put on masks and visit local Catholics in the dead of night, demanding beer and cakes for their celebration: trick or treat!

Guy Fawkes Day arrived in the American colonies with the first English settlers.  But by the time of the American Revolution, old King James and Guy Fawkes had pretty much been forgotten.  Trick or treat, though, was too much fun to give up, so eventually it moved to October 31, the day of the Irish-French masquerade.  And in America, trick or treat wasn’t limited to Catholics.

The mixture of various immigrant traditions we know as Halloween had become a fixture in the United States by the early 1800s.  To this day, it remains unknown in Europe, even in the countries from which some of the customs originated.

But what about witches?  Well, they are one of the last additions.  The greeting card industry added them in the late 1800s.  Halloween was already “ghoulish,” so why not give witches a place on greeting cards?  The Halloween card failed (although it has seen a recent resurgence in popularity), but the witches stayed.

So too, in the late 1800s, ill-informed folklorists introduced the jack-o’-lantern.  They thought that Halloween was Druidic and pagan in origin.  Lamps made from turnips (not pumpkins) had been part of ancient Celtic harvest festivals, so they were translated to the American Halloween celebration.

The next time someone claims that Halloween is a cruel trick to lure your children into devil worship, I suggest you tell them the real origin of All Hallows Even and invite them to discover its Christian significance, along with the two greater and more important Catholic festivals that follow it.

Father Augustine Thompson, O.P., was an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia when he wrote this; he is now Professor of History at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology for the Dominican Province of the Holy Name.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Fall Retreat Reflections: Breaking Into the Darkness

I was doing some reading the other day and came across a few quotes that correspond to our experience on Fall Retreat.  The first is from Von Balthasar:

"Man's alienation from God has so buried in oblivion so many of man's own deepest aspects [of being, that veneration of self, that true self-awareness] that these can be brought up again into the light of memory and human self-understanding only through God's Incarnation."

The push away from God, which has become more and more apparent in recent years, and into his own projects has shifted man and woman's view from one capable of looking up to see the heights of humanity and down to fathom its lows, to one focused in a purely horizontal fashion - that which lies in the pleasures and desires on earth.  Into this sort of doldrum existence we often find ourselves (it seems like its symptoms are boredom and self-centeredness) the Incarnation shines light and reveals to man and woman what they were really created for.

The second quote is from Fr. Giussani, an Italian priest who passed away several years ago:

"The Christian something new, extraneous, which comes from outside and therefore is something unthinkable, that canned be supposed, that cannot be traced back to any reconstruction of our own, but that breaks in on life...This encounter opens my eyes to myself, spurs on an unveiling of me, shows that it corresponds to what I am: it makes me aware of what I am, of what I want, because it makes me understand that what it brings is just what I want, that it corresponds to what I am."

Monday, October 24, 2011

Fall Retreat Reflections: Fundamental Decision

Note:  I hope to post a few reflections from our Fall Retreat experience this year.  Below is the first installment. 

“We have come to believe in God's love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus Caritas Est). 

These words from Pope Benedict sum up the experience of our Fall Retreat:  Into the Darkness You Shine.  We have come to believe in God’s love – that light that shines into the darkness of our brokenness, the pain from the hurt we’ve experienced, the parts of our humanity dead from sin.  God’s love for us is light, and in Him, there is life. 

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn. 8:12).

We have come to believe in God’s love.  This is indeed a fundamental decision that must change everything.  The decision to believe in a personal God, intimately involved in my existence, who longs to be in relationship with me, so much so that he sends his only begotten Son to take on man’s flesh as a sacrifice of redemption is in itself an event.  The essence of Christianity is not rules and regulations, holy days of obligation, commands, lofty and abstract ideas, but a living and breathing relationship with a God who manifested his love for humanity in the Incarnation, Death and Resurrection of His Son.  A relationship with Christ changes everything – it is a fundamental decision. 

It’s remarkable how fundamental it really is.  Life, in itself, thrusts us into the midst of relationships.  We are inextricably bound up within them – family, friends, relatives, etc.  In our most natural form, we are made for and are dependent upon human relationships.  It is not coincidental that God meets us within this experience of humanity and calls us into relationship.  The relationship with God is fundamental in precisely this fashion.  It is a relationship with the Mystery in whom I have my being and dependence.  Recognition of this Mystery, of this personal God, changes everything – not unlike a romantic relationship, or a beautiful friendship that demands everything, including change.  Yet, the demands are submitted to freely, and bring about greater freedom. 

The encounter with Christ fully awakens my humanity.  The light of truth permeates my entire being, and makes life fully life.  This Light makes man fully man. 

In the midst of the 60 people mysteriously gathered together for the weekend – people of completely different backgrounds, different ages, desires, hopes, thoughts, pasts – Jesus Christ was present.  He presented himself as one to be encountered.  He shined his light into the dark places of our lives.  He called each of us out of the darkness and into his marvelous light. 
This experience is a great example of the Church.  The Church is the place where Christ becomes present for us today.  What is present in the Church is nothing other than the dynamic relationship of a God in love with his children.  This Presence is alive and made known through a cloud of witnesses – a group to which we are all called, a group that makes the light of Christ a lived experience in the world. 

Friday, October 14, 2011

Light vs. Darkness Theme in The Office

As a fan of The Office, I have picked up on quite a nice theme...especially as we approach Fall Retreat.  Over the 7+ seasons the show has existed, the one consistent thread has been the battle between Dwight and Jim.  And, Jim always has the upper hand. 

While I really do love Dwight and his eccentricities, and would love a Dwight bobble-head to go along with my Benedict XVI bobble, his belief that he is a dark, diabolic mastermind pushes him over-the-top.  Occasionally his plans work out, and it appears that malice and darkness will win in this prank war between Jim and Dwight. 

Jim.  What do you say about Jim?  He is reasonable, fairly helpful, and has romantically captivated the hearts of viewers through his relationship with Pam...or, has at least captivated the heart as much as a viewer of a mockumentary wants.  He is your stereotypical good guy.   He represents the light, and he somehow always has the upper hand on Dwight.  It simply is that way, and would seemingly be wrong any other way. 

The light vs. darkness, goodness vs. evil theme has shown up often throughout history, art, music and TV.  It's everywhere, even in the office. 

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Essence of the New Evangelization

I came across this excerpt from Cardinal Raymond L. Burke on the New Evangelization.  It is from an address that he gave at the 129th Supreme Convention of the Knights of Columbus in early August.  The full text can be found here.

The Essence of the New Evangelization
What is the essence of the new evangelization to which the Church in America and indeed the universal Church is called? An extraordinary synthesis of the teaching of Blessed Pope John Paul II on the new evangelization is found in his Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, “At the Close of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000.” In the face of the grave situation of the world today, we are, Blessed Pope John Paul II reminded us, like the first disciples who, after hearing Saint Peter’s Pentecost discourse, asked him: “What must we do?”12  Even as the first disciples faced a pagan world which had not even heard of our Lord Jesus Christ, so, we, too face a culture which is forgetful of God and hostile to His Law written upon every human heart.
Before the great challenge of our time, Blessed Pope John Paul cautioned us that we will not save ourselves and our world by discovering “some magic formula” or by “inventing a new programme.”13  In unmistakable terms, he declared:
No, we shall not be saved by a formula but by a Person, and the assurance which he gives us: I am with you. 14
He reminded us that the programme by which we are to address effectively the great spiritual challenges of our time is, in the end, Jesus Christ alive for us in the Church.15  In short, the program leading to freedom and happiness is, for each of us, the holiness of life in Christ, in accord with our state in life and with careful attention to our “time and culture.”

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Happy Preach to Your Pets Day!

October 4 - Memorial of St. Francis Assisi

St. Francis, the founder of the Franciscan order, has an incredible story - one that includes, but far surpasses his love of creation/animals.  Francis had a hardcore conversion, did hardcore work for the poor, practiced hardcore penance, and had a hardcore relationship with the Lord.  So, let's look beyond the blessings of animals, the cute garden statues and your forever suppressed desire to speak with animals.

It's been 5 years since my semester abroad (Gaming, Austria - notice the mountain scape at the top of this page), and during that semester I said one prayer more than any other:  "Who are you, Lord, and who am I?"  St. Francis used to pray this often, as recounted by one of his fellow brothers, who would wake in the middle of the night to find Francis in prayer.

I was moved during my time abroad, and still am today, by the simplicity of this petition.  Lord, reveal your face to me, and as you reveal yourself, may I come to know myself.  What a request!

This petition has a fantastic amount of humility welling up inside of it - Francis recognized the dependence of his being on God, and found freedom within this.  He found the freedom to know God and to know himself - and not be afraid of all of himself.   Fr. Giussani says in The Religious Sense:

"So here is the paradox:  freedom is dependence upon God.  It is a paradox, but it is absolutely clear.  The human being - the concrete human person, me, you - once we were not, now we are, and tomorrow we will no longer be:  thus we depend."

St. Francis' petition strikes the core of my human situation - because I depend, the more I come to know my Source, the more I come to know myself.  As I come to recognize myself, I see more clearly the Image in which I was created.  Looking elsewhere is futile.