Beloved St. John’s community,
Our Episcopal Church is the daughter of the Church of England, one of the many churches that was created during the British Empire’s vast colonial expansion. But the Christian church in England was much older than that. It was established in the early years after the life of Jesus, even before Christianity became the official church of the Roman Empire. In the western parts of the British Isles, where culturally Celtic peoples predominated, Christianity continued uninterrupted from the earliest days of the church. The primary influence on that Christianity was not Roman, but Celtic spirituality. That Celtic spirituality still informs the Episcopal church through deep currents we may not always be aware of, but that I believe the Spirit is drawing to the surface during the profound upheaval of our times. One of the foundational features of Celtic spirituality is the belief and practice that all beings, all life, truly is sacred.1 Perhaps this is one reason Episcopalians have rejected the notion that human beings were born evil or out of “original sin,” although we surely do recognize the brokenness and violence—the sin—that is endemic throughout human experience. Still, we believe the very first thing that God said about life, including human life, in our scriptures: that it was all “very good.”
The ancient Celts honored a “wheel of the year” at eight major festivals, held on the equinoxes and solstices, and also on four “cross quarter days” halfway between the equinoxes and solstices. Halloween is a modern descendant of one of the most important of those days, exactly halfway between the fall equinox and the winter solstice, in which it was believed the veils between the worlds were thin. It was a day in which they imagined the spirits of the dead were more accessible to the living. Christian tradition adapted this ancient festival and made it the Feast of All Saints—always November 1—when we honor those who have gone before us. Christian tradition calls this the “communion of saints”, the imagination that the countless lives of those who have preceded us are still with us, teaching us and helping us to follow Jesus’ Way of Love more closely. Mexico’s “Day of the Dead” shares much in common with this tradition. Jesus also paid attention to his spiritual ancestors, and clearly expressed his experience that they were in some sense alive. In his words to the Sadducees who did not believe in resurrection, he quoted scripture which spoke of the “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” and said that “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are very much mistaken.”2 For Jesus, his spiritual ancestors were alive in God.
In today’s culture, where what happened even last week is old news, it is hard to imagine the vast reaches of time, and of the sacred life that has preceded and will follow us. But indigenous spiritualities from all over the world insist that this is important. The Lakota people insist that we must look forward seven generations, and base our current actions on what will be good not only for our children’s children’s children, but also for the oak trees, Lake Superior, mosquitos, snapping turtles, black eyed susans, and the ancient rock so evident throughout the Boundary Waters. Recovering the Celtic spirituality whose roots are deep within Christian tradition can help us do this.
As we approach Halloween—“All Hallow’s Eve”—and the two sacred days that follow, All Saints and All Souls, let us remember those who have gone before, and think forward to those who will follow us. Let us connect with the sacredness of all life. In our hearts, we recognize this already. If you take time to really gaze at a tree or a mouse or a square inch of grass in which myriad life plays out, you will see how breathtakingly sacred each being is. If you take time to observe your own spouse or child or the cashier at the grocery store without judgment, you will see their profound gifted beauty. What an awe-inspiring thing it is to truly recognize the consciousness of another being. What a gift it is to see the light in them, and to expect light in every creature.
Please take some time to sink into Jesus’ two simple commandments to love God, love our neighbors. We can deeply touch the nature of all things when we observe with humility and compassion. We can stretch our imaginations to include the vast reaches of the past and the cycle of life forward seven generations. We can recognize ourselves in unbroken connection with all that has been and all that will be, and from this place, walk gently on the earth. May it be so.
In Christ’s love,
1 For a wonderful contemporary introduction to Celtic spirituality and its lineage within the Christian tradition, see John Philip Newell, Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul: Celtic Wisdom for Reawakening to What our Souls Know and Healing the World.
2 See Mark 12:18-27