The Christian tradition in Central and Eastern Europe is to ring the church bells at dusk on All Souls’ Eve. Families go to cemeteries bringing bright yellow and orange chrysanthemums and lighting yellow, or orange votive candles to decorate the graves of their beloved departed. Liturgical services are held at the cemetery or at the local church. Families make cookies or pastries to take to the church services to share with the other attendees. According to Eastern Orthodox tradition, the souls of the departed come back on this day and stand at their own gravesites or outside their homes. For this reason, relatives set chairs and food near the home fireplace and set sweets on the hearth. Family members also light candles or lanterns to illuminate the departed’s road to help them find their way back to the Light of Heaven.
All Souls Day also reminds us of our own mortality. For most of us, the night is a time for sleeping. Sleep is a funny thing. On the one hand, it is a functional process. In sleep we process the day’s events, ordering and collating the day’s data. On the other hand, sleep is the “little death”, a rehearsal for that last journey into the great mystery.
I was thinking about this as I went to bed last night and lay there in the dark, hoping my thoughts wouldn’t keep me awake. While we sleep, others are at work, and nocturnal creatures hunt and feed. The raccoons who live near our house, work hard to figure out how to get into our bird feeder again. The night is also the time of dreaming. Whether we remember our dreams or not, we usually spend two to three hours of the night dreaming. Spiritually, while we dream, or during those hypnagogic (half-asleep/half-awake) times, the veil between worlds is thin. According to the Book of Job, “In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falls on people, as they slumber in their beds, God may speak in their ears” (33:15). Songwriters Paul Williams and Kenneth Ascher recognized this when they wrote the lyrics for their song, Rainbow Connection: “Have you been half asleep And have you heard voices? I’ve heard them calling my name… I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it: It’s something that I’m supposed to be.”
Perhaps, after all, there isn’t that much difference between sleep and death. Sleep doesn’t frighten us because we trust that we will wake up in the morning, and life will continue as always. But what about death? I suspect that death is a lot like going to sleep and waking up in a new place with our relatives and ancestors who live there. In the Gospel of Thomas, the disciples ask Jesus, “When will the dead find their place again in unity with God, and when will the new world come? Jesus said to them, ‘What you look forward to has already come, but you do not recognize it” (Saying 51). I want to close with an excerpt from Holidays and Holy Nights by Christopher Hill: “Savor the word fall. At this time, we watch the fall of the reign of summer, a great triumph moves deep into a darkness full of danger, promise, and mystery. We pass through a wild night of apparitions into a quiet that grows deeper until it is infused with the lights of candles and stars. Time narrows down until it comes to its turning point, as all creation holds its breath in the silent night and waits for the entry of something new and unimaginable.” May The Holy One open our eyes, so that we may recognize that death, is an entry into something new and unimaginable in our place in Sacred Unity.
I am a husband, father, grandfather, pastoral counselor, qigong and tai chi practitioner, and a professed and ordained member of the Lindisfarne Community, who seeks to follow the Way of Jesus and of the Tao.