While the Lowcountry would never make it as a tour stop on the "colors of fall," the season is creeping in. Granted, it's a good two months after our Yankee friend's Facebook statuses about "getting a pumpkin spice latte to celebrate the first cold day of September," but with the start of November we finally begin to experience a change of seasons.
This past week we celebrated Halloween with candy, jack-o'-lanterns and trick-or-treating. You're probably aware that the origins of Halloween is the Celtic celebration of "All Hallow's Eve." People believed the souls of the dead would wander, and legend (and Wikipedia) has it that costumes were originally worn to scare away the evil ones. With the introduction of Christianity to Europe, the superstition faded but the practice of remembering the dead remained. In 835 AD, the Church declared Nov. 1 to be a special feast day to honor the early martyrs of Christianity, knowing that there were too many to give each one their own day (just think of all those Christians who were eaten by lions in the Colosseum, for example).
To this day, Nov. 1 is observed as the "Feast of All Saints"-- a day when many Christians honor the witness of those whose lives inspire us. They are, as St. Paul explained in his letter to the Hebrews, make up the "cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12:1). Recounting the examples from the time of Abel to Abraham to the martyrs of the early Church, St. Paul gets personal and reminds us that if we're reading this then, "in your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood" (Hebrews 12:4). Among Catholics, the rest of November is devoted to the memory of all those who have died.
As a college student, I stayed in a former Carthusian monastery (renovated for our semester abroad program). As rambunctious sophomores, our RAs can testify that we did not continue this tradition. However, the monks who occupied the cells from the 1300s to the 1700s observed long periods of silence. When they did speak, they greeted each other with, "Frater, rerum mortem"-- Latin for "Brother, remember your death".
This struck me, initially, as awfully morbid. However, as I visited different places in Europe where "new" meant "built in the last 200 years," the reality of just how short life is began to sink into my 19-year-old brain. I realized that those Carthusian monks weren't being morbid -- they were being realistic.
The falling leaves and shorter days of the month of November are a gentle reminder of a greater reality -- that our lives on earth don't last forever. It's OK if you find this unsettling, but the challenge of this season is to reflect on the reality of our own death and how we are preparing for it. The material preparations -- such as a will or life insurance -- are unpleasant but can be neatly done after a few hours in an office. The spiritual reality of preparing for death is a daily challenge.
Remembering all saints -- all the witnesses of faith St. Paul reminds us of in his letter to the Hebrews, as well as the countless holy people who have lived since then -- gives us the courage to not just resist sin, but aspire to holiness. While following Christ no longer puts one at risk of the colosseum, life holds many opportunities to put our faith into action. Speaking kindly, supporting those in need and reconciling with those we've wronged are a good start as the seasons change and we are reminded of our death.
Follow columnist Alison Griswold at twitter.com/alisongriz. Read her blog at www.teamcatholic.blogspot.com.