Sunday, November 04, 2012

The Coming of the Dark: Beginning of Celtic Winter and All Souls Day

Entry for 2 November 2012:

Clocks went back in Europe last weekend, and with the time change sunset was suddenly at quarter to five in the afternoon.  Here, the closing in of the early dark demarks the psychological boundary between Autumn and Winter, leading to a variety of responses: On the one hand, there is the switching to heavier coats, cocooning, even mourning and the urge to hibernate or hide.  On the other hand, people experience a compensatory seeking out of light, warmth, and company. 

In the middle of this week’s encroaching darkness was the late autumnal triduum of Halloween, All Saints, and All Souls, the inverted image of the vernal passiontide sequence of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter.  Both of these post-equinox festivals mark turnings and times for reflection on death and life, darkness and light. 

In the old Celtic calendar, Halloween marked the end of Autumn, the harvest time of plenty, and the beginning of Winter, the time of shortage and hunger.  As with the other three transition times in the Celtic calendar (31 January, 30 April, 31 July), the ancient Celts believed that at these times there is a thinning of the boundary between the worlds (life and death; everyday existence and the mysterious Otherworld of Magic and Fate). 

On these 4 nights of the year, for many years it was my practice to phone my mother, to wish her well and to reflect with her on the ancient time of turning.  Now that she is gone, however, it’s not clear to me what I should now do to mark these times.  This year I found myself meeting with the team of folks who are taking part in our new EFT for Social Anxiety Training Group, telling them about the day.  As I often do, I had a bag of chocolate pieces with me.  As I offered the chocolate to those assembled, I realized that this was in fact some of the stash of 2 kilograms of Trader Joe’s 52% Belgian chocolate that my mother had given me during one of my last visits to her at Murray Creek.  It was another chocolate communion!  I’d been here before; I’d even written about the ritual sharing of chocolate in the journal poem sequence about the time I spent with my mother during her final weeks.  This at least was something I could do to remember her.

Friday was All Souls Day, so we went to the 7.30pm service at St Mary’s, featuring Faure’s Requiem.  A key part of the service, which I hadn’t seen before, was the ritual reading of the names of the dead.  Alternating in stanzas of 12 at a time, two of the priests, Cedric and Chuks, read the long list of names people had submitted; they read my mom’s name fairly early on.  At the end, the list of names was carried up to the high altar, where it will be kept until next Easter.  This felt like a variation of the Focusing practice of Clearing a Space.

As the choir worked its way through the Faure Requiem, interspersed with the lessons, hymns, and the eucharist, I contemplated the words that the composer had set and how he chose to set them.  The imagery of hellfire and burning lakes doesn’t do anything for me anymore, but the repetition of the metaphors of rest/sleep and light stayed with me:
            “Rest eternal grant them, O Lord.
             And let light perpetual shine upon them.”

Rest: We wish those whom we have loved and who have gone before us relief from the pain they experienced in their lives and in their dying.  We hope that it is like a peaceful, untroubled sleep: healing and restorative.  At the same time, in so doing, we also make our peace with their passing. 

Light: We imagine those who have died to be surrounded by a warm, healing, sustaining light.  In imagining this, we shine the light of our memories on them so that they live again in us, where we keep them safely in our minds, warming them in our hearts.

Thus, we wish that the ones we’ve loved and who have died be soothed; and in doing this we soothe the image of them that we have carried with us, and find ourselves in turn soothed in and by this process.