We recently shared a simple meditation as a mark of love and respect for those who have passed, particularly within the last year. I thought long and hard about writing about what was a very personal and emotional experience, and the only answer I could find was that it was meant to be shared. Such a gift was not for me alone…
I never really understood Halloween as a child. In Yorkshire, in my childhood, it was not the pumpkin-laden celebration it has now become… the fun came later with Mischief Night on the fourth of November, where, along with the tradition of giving soul cakes to callers on Halloween, you can see the shared origins with ‘trick or treating’. Mischief Night was a time for playing tricks on neighbours, and every year we were lectured in school about what was and was not acceptable. Tying door handles to metal dustbin lids then knocking on doors and running away was a favourite and considered perfectly acceptable behaviour on that one night of the year.
Mischief night was followed by the flames and fireworks of Bonfire Night. Despite its association with Guy Fawkes and the gunpowder plot of 1605, in truth the bonfires hark back to the old rites of Samhain when the hearthfires were extinguished and ritually rekindled to mark the end of summer and the coming of the winter darkness. That always made sense… it is in darkness that new life is conceived and grown, just as spring is born of winter.
Halloween was different though; I was never really given a good explanation for it. For a child, it was a time of shadows and mystery with a dash of excitement. Even thinking back to that time calls up memories of my mother’s kitchen. There would be brittle bonfire toffee made with black treacle and creamy toffee apples setting on their sticks. Yorkshire parkin, the dark, spiced oatmeal cake, freshly baked in preparation for Bonfire Night and cooling in tins. There would be soul cakes too, marked with a cross, covering the worktops. And old tales would be told as we roasted chestnuts on the open fire… folktales guaranteed to send a shiver down your spine, like that of the Hand of Glory.
The most evocative memory though is the Halloween lantern. Unlike today when the easier-to-carve and more impressive pumpkin is king, our lanterns were made from turnips. Just thinking about those lanterns calls up that pungent and peculiar smell of warm, singed turnip, candleblack and hot wax. A large turnip, about the size, and preferably the shape, of a human head, would be hollowed and carved. There was a knack to the removal of the rock-hard inner flesh and carving the face was so difficult it always looked primitive and menacing, especially once the candle was lit within. The pale orange and purple skin with the flickering flame made it look livid and corpse-like. This would be ceremoniously set on the doorstep… to ward off evil spirits, or so we were told.
I have often wondered just how far back that tradition really goes. The most common legend these days is the Irish tale of Jack who cheated the devil of his death, but with Samhain’s roots going back at least to the Celtic peoples, perhaps it has a deeper meaning in the mysterious cult of the head in which, according to historians, the soul was believed to reside.
But in spite of stories and legends, no-one ever really explained to my satisfaction what Halloween was really about. There was something that intrigued me, something that, even then, held an echo of ancient sacredness. All Hallows Eve was the night of the dead, a festival that seems to have been shared, in one form or another, by most cultures throughout history.
In my childhood, the explanations fell into two main camps. Some took the view that the darkness brought evil spirits out to roam that one night of the year, others told that it was a time when the dead could, and would, return. All seemed to agree that it was a night when the veil between realities was thin enough to allow spirit to cross and, in one way or another, interact with humans. For a child living next door to a graveyard, it was an uneasy night… and I was glad of the lantern on the doorstep.
It was not until I was in my late teens that the night of the dead began to make some kind of sense. I read a fictionalised life of Pythagoras by Jean-Claude Frère, in which he mentioned the festivals in ancient Greece where the dead were invited to return. The way he told it, the departed were invited to taste once more the joys of the flesh by using the bodies of living relatives. I had no idea if that was historically correct, but I could see the reasoning behind such a festival, even though it did not sit right with me. Why should the departed wish to return from the wonders of Elysium to this narrow existence?
I have always believed that what we know as life on this earth is a pale, constricted shadow compared to the life of the soul. Growing up in my rather odd family, there was never any question about whether or not the soul survived death, though there were a number of differing views on both the nature of that soul and the life beyond this one.
In spite of one branch of the family being involved in communication with the departed and their desire to have me trained as a medium, I always had reservations on that score. Something was being contacted, of that I was convinced, but I had my doubts about whether it was really Uncle Jim or Great Aunt Annie on the other end of the line. Was eternity not big enough for them? Did they really need or wish to come back to chat about mundane things? Wouldn’t they need a better reason to pierce the veil than whether or not the cat had given birth to her kittens? And anyway, should we really be pestering them when they had gone? Maybe they had better things to do…
While pestering the dead goes against the grain with me, honouring and remembering those we have loved and feel we have lost is a different thing. For Samhain this year, we shared a simple ritual in which we opened our hearts to those who had passed, inviting them to share the moment in love. In my mind, I was picturing my friends and family, those I have known and loved who have left this world. Had I been asked, I could have named them and would probably have said that the purpose of the ritual was to express our love and respect for them… a moment of remembrance and gratitude for their place in our lives and hearts. Preconceptions are wonderful things.
Some will call it imagination. Others may see only a buried grief and unshed tears unleashed. For me, the value of such an experience is in how it changes a life, not in how it is defined or explained away.
Closing my eyes in meditation, I listened to the music playing softly in the background, but instead of calling up the faces of the departed, it seemed my arms were open wide and filled with children. I had never seen them, and yet I knew them… lost babies who had never reached their birth. Children who had never been held filled grandma’s arms, hugging me as I held them, and although I wept, it was for love and beauty, not for grief.
They appeared as they would have done had they grown and they were beautiful. Without words, I was assured of their wellbeing. They were never lost. They had not needed to be born in order to bring the warmth of love into the world.
At first, I thought they had simply come to be held… and they had, but not in the way I assumed. They had not come to receive but to give. The very human gift of a cuddle was for me, not for them. They, who are love and light, have no need…
Finally, I glimpsed the purpose of the night of the dead. They have no need to return, such need, like the sense of loss, is our own. When the veil between the worlds seems fragile and we invite them in with love and memory, we can lay aside grief and touch again the joy of their presence, knowing that it has never left us, even if it has only ever lived in our hearts. The reality of that presence is in itself an affirmation and it is both a healing and a blessing… and such moments are indeed hallowed.