Every year when my neighborhood of young adults robes up for Halloween, their chosen feast, I find myself reflecting on the Christian experience of the autumnal, the macabre, and the fearful. I was privileged this year to find Anglican hymn writer J.M. Neale’s reflections on the matter in the introduction of his book The Unseen World: Communications with it Real or Imaginary. In an imaginary dialogue, a few Classical and Byzantine figures (I won’t pretend to understand the philosophical perspectives they represent) consider whether the very idea of autumn beauty is appropriate for the Christian imagination.
“do not make perfection where there is none. Autumn beauty is good out of evil; it is the loveliness of disease; it bears its own death-warrant on its face. However, it is beautiful; if decay can be so enchanting, what must undecayingness be?”
“In other words, was there an autumn in the Garden of Eden?”
Reading this wasn’t the first time I’ve paused to consider whether my heart’s and my people’s infatuation with autumn is not a worldly indulgence. The promise of the Kingdom is fullness of life, not pretty death. Halloween just means “the night before the Saints” and all the gruesomeness on display represents the demons coming out one last night before the Saints arrive and drive them all away. A Christian may secretly treasure the festival for that reason, but how can she join in when her place is not with the demons and decay, but with the Saints and salvation? Whence this covert delight in the season’s celebration of fear and death?
This past weekend at our diocese’s annual conference, we were privileged to enjoy a few of our most learned deacons’ reflections on scripture and how we approach it. Barbara Gauthier, whose gifts of learning and teaching inspire me to no end, explained how Soren Kierkegaard remarked that it was a fearful thing to be in a room alone with the New Testament. We ought to heed him because we too believe that the Holy Spirit of God is alive in every word of scripture. “Be careful with it.” She told us. “Handle it gingerly. Too often we try to stand above it, dissecting its words. But it’s actually the other way around. When our church ordains ministers, the Bible is actually placed over the ordinand’s head that it may dissect him with a sharp, double-edged sword, penetrating even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; judging the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Hebrews 4:12)”
Now that’s scary. It’s that “other-way-round-ness” that entrances us about autumn and Halloween. Scripture speaks of two realities: a visible and an invisible one. We content ourselves to suppose the former directs the latter, but it’s disturbing to be reminded that it’s actually the other way around. I was a little unnerved to learn that we stand in our service at the Gospel reading, not out of some antiquated respect for an old book, but to acknowledge that Jesus is quite seriously in the room with us, speaking to us here and now through the gospel words and expecting us to act on them. The scriptures are alive with the voice of God and we never know which words the Holy Spirit will use to speak to us.
Maybe autumn is just that time when that unseen world is hardest to ignore. When the natural world begins to wither and die, we can see plainly that “the things that are seen are transient” (2 Cor. 4:18) and the unseen eternal things press themselves on our immanent awareness. As if that weren’t enough, the Christian understanding of the spirit world is not indifferent to us as individuals, no secret ritual will appease the Spirit to “haunt us no more.” We have to face the uncomfortable fact of a Spirit with a constant and unfading interest in our souls; a jealous God. The Romans used to fear Christians because they thought they drank blood and invoked a spirit to possess them. Perhaps they were not so far off. Whether the Holy Ghost is a happy thing or a fearful thing is not so easy to answer, though it undoubtedly discloses more about our state of mind than the nature of the Spirit. So many scary stories are simply tales of invisible worlds and rules breaking in on quotidian, modern lives and eclipsing them. In the ghost story, the characters must learn to leave behind their ordinary lives and learn to deal on another plane. Their untroubled friends and neighbors write them off as crazy. By the end they are always alone with the apparition. Is it not the same for us when we open our Bibles and pray? Perhaps the constant struggle to find time alone with God doesn’t only have to do with busy schedules or backsliding natures. Maybe sometimes we’re just a little scared.
Ought we fear or love our God? The scriptures speak of both. Perhaps fear of the Lord and joy in the Lord are not so distinct as we might content ourselves with. The glorious and the ghastly are, at the end of the day, both incursions from the higher and greater, disrupting our everyday comforts and habits. Did you know that the English word “guest” and “ghost” derive from the same root? Pause and read these two homonyms out loud twenty or thirty times in a fluid rhythm.
“He will comfort you.”
“He will come for you.”
After a while, is it so easy to tell which one you mean to say? Happy Hallow’s Eve.