Mystic Connections

Those of us who find rationalism a bit too constricting sometimes find solace in mysticism.  My reading of late, which is mostly research for Nightmares with the Bible, frequently touches on mystics of the past.  This isn’t a new fascination.  All the way back in college, as a religion major, I mentioned to one of my professors that I found it appealing.  A frown settled across his academic face.  “Mysticism is dangerous,” he said.  He went on to explain that churches (he was Presbyterian, and I Methodist) had belief systems into which mystics—those who experience the divine directly—didn’t fit.  A direct experience of the divine could cast doubt on church doctrine and nothing, as you might guess, is more important to true believers than dogma.

That discussion at such an impressionable age set me aback.  Here as we enter (for the non-orthodox) the Triduum, or “Great Three Days” the faithful are hoping for some kind of divine experience, I expect.  Many of us will spend two-thirds of it working.  In any case, if nothing mystical happens why do we bother?  Mysticism is equally deplored by science since it suggests something that doesn’t fit into rationalism’s toy box.  A universe where the unexplained—and oh so subjective!—direct experience with naked reality threatens to undo all the neat columns and tidy formulas that describe the entirety of existence.  Conventional churches tend to agree because you never know what God might do if you open that box.

There are religions that welcome mysticism.  They recognize that human-built systems are only approximations—Platonic shadows, if you will, cast upon the cave wall.  Mystics are those who, temporarily unchained, dare to turn around and face the fire directly.  Who knows?  They might even catch a glimpse of the sun itself.  More conventional religions are run like businesses.  You come to a certain building at a certain time.  You perform prescribed actions on cue.  You place your money in this specific receptacle at this specific time.  Leave and forget it all until next week.  Our younger generations don’t find this engaging, just as they see through the lie of the inherent fairness of capitalism.  I can still see the frown of my theology professor.  The old systems are falling apart even as those not too weary after work will head to Maundy Thursday services for a slip of bread and a sip of wine.  The mystic, however, doesn’t know what might happen next.

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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