Allhallowtide

Allhallowtide is a triduum. No, I’m not writing in tongues. Ecclesiastical language can often be foreign to the secular world, and the fact that it’s All Souls’ Day for some has me thinking about feasts that come in threes. I first heard the word “triduum” at Nashotah House. There, of course, the great spring coalition of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter made the holy triduum of required marathon chapel attendance. It was not unusual to spend a dozen hours in chapel during that stretch. Always considered less important, but perhaps far more human, was the autumnal triduum of Allhallowtide: All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween), All Hallows (All Saints, or Hallowmas), and All Souls’ Day. In Mexican tradition the three days make up the Day of the Dead. For people who live close to the economic edge of perpetual poverty, that makes perfectly good sense. Even for the liturgically literate, however, parsing the triduum of Allhallowtide takes some effort. We all know Halloween, and the title All Saints is self-explanatory. All Souls’ might require some thought.

All Souls’ commemorates the “faithful departed.” We can’t all be saints. (Well, in some traditions all Christians get to use the title, but alas, in the more Catholic world, no.) What about those who’ve died believing, but not earning a place among Ralph Vaughn Williams’ masterpiece? The ordinary, like us? All Souls’ is our day. Since the macabre is considered puerile, what with its possibilities of ghosties, and ghoulies, and one-eyed beasties, the church has continued to give a polite nod to Halloween (at Nashotah it used to be done up in great style) but doesn’t take it seriously. More evangelical denominations say it’s demonic, but in actuality, historically, it is the opposing triduum to that of the spring. Liturgical life holds an incipient balance for those who don’t take things too literally. Understanding our mythologies covers a multitude of sins.

Perhaps this chilly, rainy Allhallowtide in the northeast has me far from the hot and dry Day of the Dead, but I admire the Mexican acknowledgement that something should be done about those who’ve died never knowing affluence. Somewhere just to the north lies one of the most successful (until recent years) economies in the world. Social fragmentation, violence, and drugs (which draw big money from that self-same northern economy) bring many of our fellow North Americans to their knees at the feet of Santa Muerte. The light is fading fast at this time of year, and the wind is ripping the desiccated leaves from their skeletal branches, preparing us for the long chill that is to come. While work prevents too much investment in the liturgical year, I look with a peculiar longing over this triduum, and this soul, in any case, is grateful for a weekend to contemplate it all.

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Dying for Religion

devotedtodeathReligions never lose their ability to surprise. This entire concept of belief is one with which I am intimately familiar but about which I’m completely puzzled. If we’re honest, we don’t know from whence belief comes or why it is so effective in keeping people balanced. (There are fanatics for rationalism just as surely as there are for religious faith.) When I saw R. Andrew Chestnut’s Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, The Skeleton Saint, I figured it would be a good read for October, when Halloween comes so readily to mind. Although I’ve studied religions all my life, I’d never heard of Santa Muerte, “Saint Death.” Probably this is because, as a representative of folk religion, Santa Muerte is not an “official” religious figure. Folk religions are what the faithful actually believe, rather than what the religious officials declare that they will believe. Many a deluded bishop would learn to his chagrin, if he deigned to speak with mere laity, that his platitudes count only in the high court of theological heaven. Saint Death is more like the experience of the rest of us.

Chestnut, a scholar of Mexican religions, discovered Santa Meurte while living in Houston. His book is a narrative introduction to the background and history of the religion, its beliefs and practices, and a consideration of what the skeleton saint offers so many Latinos. Although the news in the northern reaches of America often does not bear it, Santa Meurte has regularly made the headlines in southern climes. As a symbol of death, and therefore potential protection from death, Santa Meurte has gained notoriety by her worship being taken up by drug runners and convicts. Mexico’s regrettably long struggle with poverty and sometimes corrupt governments has led to a society in which death is very familiar. As Chestnut demonstrates, Santa Meurte likely has her roots in the Grim Reaperess of plague-ridden medieval Spain, and she has been a somewhat hidden figure in Mexican Catholicism for at least a century or two. Her first public exposure came in 2001, and since then her association with the criminal element has been repeatedly highlighted in the media.

Santa Meurte, however, is a source of consolation for those who have little in life to anticipate but death. Often, in societies driven by the acquisition of wealth, plutocrats forget that justice comes in the guise of the Reaper. To the believer, Santa Meurte is not evil. She is a natural offshoot of the Catholic veneration of saints in a culture where human aspiration is quickly and unfeelingly snuffed out. Those in positions of power claim the Santa is Satan, but they may be looking in the wrong place for evil. Pointing to the Gospel statements that death will be overcome, they overlook the passages that insist on giving away all that you have will make you ready for the kingdom of heaven. Death, even if trumped at the final trump, will greet us all by and by. Santa Meurte is a very practical saint. Chestnut’s book is a good choice to read when the chilly wind shakes the trees for their particular October rattle of dry, lifeless leaves.

Monsters Incorporated

Monsters

Monsters. What’s not to like? With a title so innocuous and limited US marketing, this 2010 British indie film only just came to my attention. I hadn’t even heard anything about it as I sat down to view it. The premise of invading aliens is as old as H. G. Wells, if not earlier, but this is a film without over-the-top CGI and a very human story. Showing far more tension than bloodshed, Andrew and Samantha, their Anglo names very prominent, are caught in alien-infested northern Mexico. Somewhat predictably, Samantha has a rich daddy who happens to be Andrew’s boss, but the couple has to find their way back to the United States as giant insectoid-octopi rampage through the night, destroying just about anything they can get their tentacles on. So far it sounds like standard Saturday-afternoon fare. As Andrew and Samantha reached the Rio Grande, however, overlooking the huge wall the US government built to keep out the aliens, I realized what the film is really about.

During the Bush years, shortly after the Berlin Wall had come down, a new wall was snaking its way along the Mexican border. America had become weary of “Give me your tired, your poor.” This was the land of opportunity, instead, for the chosen few. Never mind that we know that many of the jobs most of us don’t want are gratefully accepted by those who may not be technically legal in this country. Never mind that we deny social justice, in many ways, to those who make our lifestyle possible. Andrew and Samantha face the massive wall that says, “keep out.”

Of course, they make it back to Texas. They discover, however, that the aliens have breeched the walls as well. And they really pose no threat beyond wanting to draw strength from the abundant light-sources of a power-hungry world. The film’s ending is a bit ambiguous, but then again, the plight of the alien generally is. I watched the film with no expectation beyond a bit of sci-fi action to help give me the energy to make it through another week of work. Instead I saw a brash American coming to a deeper sense of humanity while standing in a church where hundreds were mourning their dead. The death of one small girl was as much a tragedy of as the breeching of the borders. Until humanity prevails over artificial borders, there will indeed be monsters. Were that they were only giant insectoid-octopi.

Persistent Idealism

Few spans of human life are so idealistic as our college years. There we meet many people from beyond our hometown, and we learn the treasures of diversity and different ways of doing things. Ideas mix and blend, and with professors who’ve learned so much telling us all the places we can go, the possibilities seem endless. I find the idealism of college kids refreshing. That’s one reason, I suppose, that I enjoyed teaching them so much. At work you’re far more often told why things won’t work and how they can’t be done. And I find myself thinking back to college and wondering when people lost their sense of vision. When did idealism die?

Yesterday I spent on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. Between appointments I was crossing a quad area and noticed a bunch of blue and white balloons. We’re all still kids inside when we see balloons. I stopped to look. Then I noticed, across the street (in which sat a very obvious police car) a small group of students waving a Palestinian flag. Several police, frankly looking bored, stood between the two peaceful groups.

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Looking back to the balloons, there were a series of tents set up and a sign read “Israel Block Party.” Obviously this had been a carefully planned event, and we all know the heinous story of the constant persecution of the Jews throughout much of “civilized” history. The simple table across the street bore the sign “Free Palestine.” Less than ten students stood around, handing out literature, peaceful, yet literally flying their flag. Yes, the Palestinians have also been oppressed for much of their history. If only adults could live so peacefully as these students. My heart went out to them.

The issue of Israel and Palestine is one of the deepest scars in our collective human psyche. Indirectly, that conflict is responsible for many tragic terrorist acts, including the attacks of 9/11. And it is so frustrating because both sides (and there are actually more than two) are victims. We like our good guys in white and our bad guys in black. I’m still an idealist, after all. Yet in Israel/Palestine we have two historically oppressed groups vying for the very same land. And in the middle of this maelstrom, the Bible. The very book that can be read as an eternal promise by God that the people of Israel should own this land. By 1947, however, we’d stopped relying on God and began relying on guns. And atomic bombs. And life has never been the same since.

Images of the wall going up between Israelis and Palestinians just after the wall went down in Berlin reminded me of Bush’s proposed wall between Texas and Mexico. Here in Texas just about everyone in the lower paying jobs I’ve met is hispanic. And friendly. Grateful in a way that many of us wouldn’t emulate in such low stations. We are all people. We all experience the same feelings, needs, and desires. Why not tear down the walls and let us look at one another? Take a good, long look. And my idealistic self says, if we face another human being with love everything will be all right.