Sometimes the mind wanders. Halloween is what remains of an old pagan holiday, supplanted in the Christian Church by “All Souls Day” on November 2, and in Orthodox tradition also a birthday, Saint John the Wonderworker, on October 31. History is fascinating and often instructive.
The modern word “Halloween” – which these days mean costumes, candy, and frivolity – comes from the Old English description of a Celtic service honoring the “hallowed” or sanctified souls, a hallowed evening, which was shortened to “Hallow e’en,” and then Halloween.
All this put me in mind of how often we miss the history and how real it can be – and uplifting. Since this week is also “All Souls,” one is reminded of moments when faith gets incontrovertibly real.
Of course, faith is real when tested, confronting fears, challenges, praying for relief, facing a sickness, injury, or mortality, perhaps sitting with a friend or relative doing the same. But more.
Faith can also be upliftingly real, grounded in specific places and times – transcendent moments when all of life’s blur and worry vanish, become irrelevant, clouds parting, history and reality sweeping us, lifting us up – to see invisible things from a high hill, feel relief in what we see.
Two such moments come to me, worth sharing with a smile – as we think about “All Souls,” those who have gone before, remembering, reaffirming what we so often think little about.
Both occurred on hilltops, places momentarily removed from modernity. They could have been hilltops in Maine, Montana, or nearby, where awe lifts quiet souls but were in Greece and Israel.
Conducting dribs and drabs of foreign policy, oversight to security coordination, one trip found me standing on Mars Hill, a large rock formation overlooking the Athenian agora, a place wherein the exact spot I stood … Saint Paul himself spoke to the assembled thousands.
Not much on references, I know his sermon is in the Book of Acts, and location is described as the “Areopagus,” or Mars Hill. It is a prominent rock outcropping northwest of the Acropolis.
In that sermon, Paul addressed modern distractions, pointing out God’s mercy, closeness even in our times of distress, and that “He is not far from each of us,” comfort also close.
Hard to describe, but standing exactly where Saint Paul did – that rock being such that you know you are standing where he did, a small flat spot the obvious location for speaking – you shiver. You suddenly know he was real, know his words were real, know the miracles were real.
Philosophers say, using a metaphor, proof of God’s existence is like finding a pocket watch in the desert. The watch’s design implies the Designer. More personal – and to me transcendent – was just standing on Mars Hill, realizing all was exactly as described, with all the implications.
The second hillside was the Mount of Olives, outside Old Jerusalem, seeing a little triangle of water nestled between two mountains – exactly as Christ would have, realizing it was the Dead Sea, north of which was the Sea of Galilee, beside which Christ fed the 5000 with five loaves and two fishes.
An epiphany of sorts, for a modern American, was realizing all this was tangible, intractable, unchanged, and indisputable, Old Jerusalem, Mount of Olives, what was seen now – just as then.
Hard to describe is realizing, despite the din and distraction of modern nonsense, that so much of what history says happened, where, and how is entirely verifiable, incontrovertible, and true.
Whether on All Souls Day, the birthday of Saint John the Wonderworker, or Halloween, the reality of those verifiable things – as plainly recalled – is powerful, heartening, uplifting, encouraging.
History does matter, including the history of things we seldom ponder. Sometimes the mind wanders, climbs an ancient hill, recalls an experience that grounds the heart. Such moments are good. Few imagine Halloween taking one to the Sea of Galilee, but it did me. Beyond the modern wraith is simple faith.