If you’re a Gentle Reader who comes for the political tirades but leaves when I start to rant “Catholic stuff,” here’s your heads-up: It’s time to go, hero. Fran’s boiler is lit once again.
Not many other commentators are likely to mention this. Hallowe’en, which has become one of the most “celebrated” days on the calendar – retailers purely love it, and not just for the boost it gives to candy sales – is a contraction of All Hallows’ Eve. For tomorrow, you see, is All Hallows’ Day, or in more contemporary terms, All Saints’ Day. It’s one of the six feast days significant enough for the Church to designate it a holy day of obligation.
Today, October 31, tomorrow, November 1, and Thursday, November 2, constitute a triduum: a three-day commemoration called Allhallowtide. It’s a period for remembrance of the dead. We’re called to be particularly mindful of them, and not just for purposes of lawn décor, costumery, and mass consumption of sweets.
Death is every man’s destiny. We all have to go sooner or later. But what then?
If you’ve never pondered that question, perhaps the time has come for you to do so.
Much of our enterprise in life is devoted to attempts to defeat death, or at least postpone it awhile. It’s the first hill a civilization must climb: the imperative of survival, which precedes all other imperatives under the veil of Time. The impetus for it is obvious; the drive to survive is hard-wired into our bodies. Yet the goal is foredoomed. Each and every one of us will meet his end someday.
The secular world’s offerings are all about prolonging, and as far as possible enjoying, the period between the cradle and the grave. There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to live, and to live well. Yet we know that life must end. Therefore it behooves us to think about the end of our mortal lives. If there is more to follow the death of our bodies – and you know that I believe that there is – what will it be like?
That question is the impetus for much of religion.
Philosophers high, middle, and low have vented on the possibility that human consciousness will persist after the death of the body. Here’s William James on the subject:
The Soul, however, when closely scrutinized, guarantees no immortality of a sort we care for. The enjoyment of the atom-like simplicity of their substance in saecula saeculorum would not to most people seem a consummation devoutly to be wished. The substance must give rise to a stream of consciousness continuous with the present stream, in order to arouse our hope, but of this the mere persistence of the substance per se offers no guarantee. Moreover, in the general advance of our moral ideas, there has come to be something ridiculous in the way our forefathers had of grounding their hopes of immortality on the simplicity of their substance. The demand for immortality is nowadays essentially teleological. We believe ourselves immortal because we believe ourselves fit for immortality. A “Substance” ought surely to perish, we think, if not worthy to survive, and an insubstantial “stream” to prolong itself, provided it be worthy, if the nature of things is organized in the rational way in which we trust it is.
The dismissive tone is not a figment of your imagination, Gentle Reader. That’s William James in a nutshell. If an idea lacks practical consequences to be sought or avoided – i.e., if it has no “cash value” – James regards it as unworthy of sustained contemplation. That was the core conception of the school of philosophy called Pragmatism, of which James was a founding member.
I remember first encountering William James in my teenage years, specifically through his essay The Will to Believe. I remember thinking, after reading that essay, that “this man is very sick and he needs help.” How odd that he was later to found a school of psychology.
The reality, or unreality, of the soul is a question of fact. Does it exist? The answer must be either yes or no; not “Well, it depends.” If it does, the consequences flow from the fact, not from its “cash value.” That there are consequences from our beliefs about the soul is an entirely different matter.
To return to the point of all this word-mincing: The Allhallowtide triduum is a day for remembrance of our dead…and for reflecting on the inevitability of our own deaths. Today, Hallowe’en, is a day of anticipation, which is our part as still-living men. Tomorrow, All Saints’ Day, we commemorate and honor the dead whose souls have reached their ultimate reward: eternal bliss in the transtemporal realm we call Heaven. Thursday, All Souls’ Day, we remember and pray for the souls of those destined for Heaven but who still have a cleansing to endure: those immured in Purgatory. Few of us can be certain which of our beloved dead are in either Heaven or Purgatory. (We can only hope they managed to avoid Hell.)
So by all means, enjoy your Hallowe’en festivities. Enjoy the parties, the costuming, the sweets. Life is meant to be lived, and as far as possible to be lived happily and well. (That’s a good part of the significance of Christ’s miracle at the wedding feast in Cana.) But spare a thought or two for the basis of this occasion: the certainty of eventual death. The longevity researchers might succeed in prolonging our Earthly span, but they cannot render it eternal. The universe itself is not eternal.
Tomorrow, honor those of your forebears whom you have reason to believe have reached Heaven. No, it’s not for their sake; it’s for yours: to keep you aware of the most desirable of the alternatives that await your soul once your body has expired. If you believe yourself, in William James’s haughty terms, “fit for immortality,” that’s the destiny you must strive to attain.
And on Thursday, pray for the souls of those whom you loved in life who might yet endure a time of trial in Purgatory. My conviction is that nearly everyone who will eventually reach Heaven will spend some time there, for are we not sinners, one and all? Haven’t we all strayed from the straight and narrow now and then? I know I have. And I hope that when my time on Earth is done, those who have loved me in life will pray for me, that my time in Purgatory will be shortened thereby. Assuming I manage to avoid Hell, of course.
May God bless and keep you all.