All Souls Day

Thin Places, Pagan Feasts, and Remembering Chandler

Pleasant Hill Cemetery, Brunswick, Tennessee

Today, in the Roman Catholic tradition, is observed as All Souls Day. November 2nd is the day that many in the Christian faith take time to remember all of souls who have departed this life and transitioned into whatever is next in eternity. It immediately follows All Saints Day, November 1st, which historically was the commemoration and honor of those people who had been made Saints by the Church and martyrs who had died for the Christian faith.

As a protestant, I am a product of The Reformation that began sweeping across northern and central Europe when Martin Luther, a Roman Catholic priest, published his “95 Theses” in Wittenberg, Germany calling corruption for what it was and encouraging wide-spread changes to the structure of the Church. One of Luther’s teachings throughout the years was that each of us is both sinner and saint. Because of this, we protestants don’t separate those who have crossed over from this life to the next into categories of “saint” or “soul.” It is all the same to my mind.

The beginning of this week holds a lot of significance for Christians across the world. Sunday was All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween) when, for Christians, we face death and fear straight on and laugh at it because we know that the Christ has faced them straight on and removed their eternal power over us. Monday was All Saints Day and today is All Souls Day. As I stated, those two days aren’t really separate in my mind except to acknowledge that my Catholic siblings have a different view.

We Christians celebrate these particular holy days at this time of year (historically they have moved around a bit) because of the ancient Scottish Gaelic pagan festival of Samhain (pronounced sah-win) which was celebrated in the northern hemisphere for thousands of years. It marked the end of the Harvesting time and the beginning of the “darker days.” There is a lot to be said for ways we Christians appropriated pagan holidays (some would say “redeemed”) and there are plenty of different interpretations of the ways the ancient Celts celebrated those holidays, but to keep it simple, as the days grow darker and we are reminded that we do not control much around us, ancient people and people today take time out to acknowledge this. We look witches and ghosts and all the things that scare us most in the eye and laugh and give them candy. Death which seems to be the scariest of them all is no different. As the days grow shorter and the nights grow longer, we look death in the eye and laugh because we know that it will not get the last word, it will not win in the end. We remember the saints who have left this life as a way of metaphorically egging death’s house to remind death that the Christ has defeated it and we need not be afraid any longer.

I am thinking about a particular saint who left this world two months ago. He was the brother of BFF. He died from Covid. He is one of over five million of God’s children who have died because of this pandemic. Today, I will light a candle for him and know that he won’t mind sharing it with all the rest.

It was a Sunday morning. He had been in the ICU on a vent for over two months. He had shown signs of getting better. The nurses called him “our miracle patient” because he was one of many who came in during that wave and he was the only one still alive. They were talking with his family about moving him to a rehab facility. He was young, 34 years old, raising a family while serving the Highway Patrol.

BFF called. She couldn’t speak. Her wife spoke on her behalf. BFF was focused on driving like a bat out of hell to get to her brother. I believe he was already dead by the time the nurse had called.

“Do not come. There is nothing to be done.”

Most times when BFF tells you something, you should do what she says. Otherwise there may be wrath to pay. I paced in my room — for about five minutes then I said, “Well, screw it. If she gets mad and yells at me, that will just be what happens.”

I knew I was supposed to get in the car and go.

Being a pastor and being a friend are two different things. But when you are a pastor, it is impossible to completely separate that from the very core of your being. I didn’t get in the car as a pastor, but once I walked into the hospital room where his parents stood over him in tears and BFF stood to the side trying to remember all her own chaplaincy training and realizing that it all flies out the window when it is your brother’s body you are standing over, it was a familiar scene. It is one of the most amazing things to me about being a pastor — that I am allowed to share such sacred moments, to be in the room as families say their goodbyes, sometimes in the room at the last breath. I do not take this lightly. It is a gift. I simply tried to be present, to be a witness to the sacred moment that was happening, to be quiet and still, to hold space and breath deeply while they could not find their breath.

It has been two months and there is one moment that feels like it will stay with me until I take my final breath. These are not dramatic people. They are country folk who work hard and love their family. There were tears, but it was quiet. Mostly his mom and dad stood over him rubbing his arms or straightening his hair. They couldn’t take their eyes off of him. I wonder if they were thinking about his birth, the ways they couldn’t stop touching him or looking at him then either. I wondered how any parent can endure such a loss. It must feel like your heart is being ripped in two. His dad, a big burly kind of guy, a retired police officer, held his son’s hand. I sat quietly in the corner. His dad looked over at each of us in the room, made a motion with this hands like he was attempting to scoop something from the air and put it back into his son’s body, and said,

“I just want to grab his soul and put it back in there.”

Sometimes it is difficult to remember that death has already been defeated and won’t get the last laugh. On weeks like this, it is important to remember, to enter into what the Celts would call “thin places” to remind ourselves that we aren’t really separated at all.

I absolutely love the metaphor from scripture that says we “are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” We are basically told that they are cheering us on, rooting for us as we work our way through this life before we become a part of that cloud too. Today I celebrate my friend’s brother who became a part way too soon. I celebrate my father and grandmother and friends. I thank God for the ways God reminds us that we are not alone, that we are not separated really. I thank the Christ for creating everything, loving everything, and making everything new again.

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T. H. McClung, she/her(s)

T. H. McClung, she/her(s)

In no particular order: Writer, pastor, Mama Bear, LGBTQ+ ally, wife, preacher, watcher of TV, seeker, mystic want-to-be