Month: October 2016

Dwelling with the Darkness : On behalf of Halloween

It is Halloween. Have a good one.

Oddly enough, given the amount of carnage and suffering blighting our planet, not a few Christians devote a considerable amount of time and energy to warning people of the dangers of today’s festivities. Starting in the pressure cooker that is North American fundamentalism, concerns about Halloween have filtered into Protestant churches in this country, and now quite a few Catholics articulate them. The impression of Christians as miserable killjoys who like nothing better than stopping children having a party is not dented by this phenomenon. Nor does the somewhat sectarian proposal that distinctively ‘Christian’ parties, where children are kept free from the risk of the occult and encouraged to celebrate the saints appeal to me. Human joy is already good, a gift of creation. We don’t need to be suspicious of any party which doesn’t have crosses emblazoned on it; the baptised are not called to emulate the Flanders family.

Some of the sillier reasons for worrying about Halloween can be dispensed swiftly. It undoubtedly has pagan origins, along with pretty much every significant Christian feast. Doesn’t this make it problematic? Sed contra: as Chesterton writes ‘ is only Christian men, guard heathen things’. Grace completes nature, it does not destroy it. The gospel finds new meanings in the tales and traditions of ages past.

If the anti-Halloween enthusiasts don’t have enough time for non-Christian religions in one sense, they have altogether too much in another. For there is something distinctively Manichean about the fear of the occult that lurks behind many of their concerns. We encounter here a worldview populated by devils and demons, but stripped of the saints by whose intercessory powers Christians of earlier ages reassured themselves of victory over the latter. It is though the universe existed in some finally balanced detente between good and evil, with over-enthusiastic apple-bobbing risking tipping the scales and unleashing the hordes of hell. Now, some positions don’t deserve theological engagement, and the view that some five-year old who dons a witch’s mask is in profound danger of demonic possession is frankly absurd and tells us about nothing more than the psychology of its proponents. The product of the disturbed and disturbing culture wars of north America, it is shot through with a misdirected anxiety. As such it stands in need of redemption; it needs to hear the words ‘do not be afraid’.

That, of course, is the first point to be made about the value of Halloween: there’s a good amount of poking fun at evil in it. Devils and demons are risible, objects of fun – as they were for many medieval artists (the neo-Manicheanism of much contemporary Christianity shows in that this fun-poking is taken to be dangerous). For the Christian story, the first thing to be said about evil is that it is defeated. Whatever else we go on to say that must remain the dominant theme. The victory of the empty tomb sounds the death knell for all that hurts or destroys; the destiny of the world is not an open question. This being the case, a party at the expense of evil is no bad thing.

However, whilst defeated, evil persists. Confident of the victory of Christ, Paul still wrote of the creation ‘groaning in travail’. Hollow triumphalism meets its answer in reality. Children starve, wars are fought, people sleep and die homeless and alone on the streets. Our lives are punctuated by broken dreams, false starts, failed relationships and unhealed memories. Illness and sadness run through them like a thread, only for them to end in death, and the loss it brings with it. No approach to life which doesn’t face this head on deserves a hearing from humankind. Glib fixed-grin Christianity would receive its condemnation here if it hadn’t already done so in Gethsemane. We have to dwell with the darkness, to acknowledge its persistence, even to give it its due, in order to be adequately human. Halloween does this, and for this reason it is valuable. For sure, it does so in the context of a celebration and as such is shot through with a tension. But that tension is a tension that Christianity knows well. Many of us will sing tomorrow:

There dawns no Sabbath, no Sabbath is o’er,
Those Sabbath keepers have one evermore;
One and unending is that triumph song
Which to the angels and us shall belong.

Now, in the meanwhile, with hearts raised on high,
We for that country must yearn and must sigh;
Seeking Jerusalem, dear native land,
Through our long exile on Babylon’s strand.

That, then, is Halloween. A reminder of our exile, looking forward (it is the eve of All Saints after all) to its end. For now we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.


The rosary

October is traditionally the month associated with the rosary; last Friday was the feast of our Lady of the Rosary.


It is fair to say that the rosary is not fashionable in most Catholic circles. There are some good reasons for this. The form of prayer has attracted more than its fair share of piety and sickly sentimentality. There are some tracts about the devotion you would be well advised not to read too soon after eating. Being something protestants definitely don’t do, it has also served as a badge of jealously guarded Catholic particularity. None of these things are at all admirable and each is perfectly sufficient to put a reasonable person off their beads.

There are also, however, lots of very bad reasons to regard the rosary with suspicion, and these are probably the dominant ones. I am on my guard the second I hear anyone describe the prayer as ‘mechanical’. We are, after all, creatures of habit and spontaneity is not necessarily a good thing, as the speeches of Donald Trump confirm. There is worse to come: to varying extents people will intimate that it is not sufficiently inward-orientated, reflective, ‘spiritual’ (a word that when not used in its New Testament sense to denote the things of the Holy Spirit, ought to be banned from Christian discourse), deep, conducive to self-exploration or otherwise sensitive to the need for the thriving 21st century market in ‘spirituality’ (a word that, when not used in its medieval sense to denote the distinctive pattern of life of a religious order or fraternity, ought similarly to be banned).

The problem with the rosary, from this perspective, is that it is vulgar and material. You pass beads through your hands and repeat prayers. Your mind can wander, and to the extent that it is directed towards anything to do with the prayer, it is on drearily familiar stories from the Bible and tradition. There are no techniques to learn, no breathing exercises: prayer is supposed to be difficult, or else why would it be worth doing? Worse still, it is all deeply impersonal. Saying prayers said by millions across the world daily; how could that be suited to my personal spiritual needs?

All of this is really a complaint not about the rosary, but about the fact that we are human beings. A perennial temptation , and one on which it is very easy to put a holy gloss, is to try to be something other than the kind of things we in fact are. In particular, human history has been full of people – including those Alibigensians St Dominic founded his order to oppose – who would rather not be animal, embodied, social creatures. Praying with beads is, for these sort of people, a horrible reminder of our gross physicality. We would prefer to be exalted, angelic beings, able to focus on anything perpetually but the dreary world around us – the other people, the worries, concerns, noises, and affections that get called ‘distractions’, and above which we fancy prayer will raise us.

This attitude is disastrous, since as long as we deny what we in fact are, we are closed to God working in us through prayer. The central Christian truth is that God loves us just as we are. The only thing that stands in the way of that love coming to fruition is us not believing that God loves us just as we are, because we find ourselves unlovable. So we try to be something different instead, telling ourselves that God will love us if only we are more inward, more spiritual, less human. God, who will not force his love on us, and who calls us to be what he created us to be, can do nothing with this attitude other than provide the means for it to change, for us to simply allow ourselves to be loved.

This is, I think what the rosary does. Drawing us back to earth, to our commonality with others praying in the same words, allowing our minds to wander whilst keeping the rhythm of prayer, inviting us to think about how the story of our redemption speaks of a young woman and her son – it is all very human, very grounded. In this it speaks of the God who saves us as we are, since there is no other way we could be saved.