Hallowtide

Call up “All Saints” in Google, at least from up here in the High Doganate, & one will get at the top the offer of a catalogue for the winter collection of an Anglo-American clothing emporium that appears to specialize in mildly risqué unisexual knitwear. The top Wiki search result yields an article on a British-Canadian pop-music girl group, founded in 1993 but since liquidated. Go for “All Hallows” instead, & one will learn that it was the title of a successful album by an American punk rock band. In the way that every economic transaction, no matter how sordid, adds to GDP, all three of these links increased our knowledge.

Search tip: never, ever, hit “Images” … for anything.

It would perhaps be captious to characterize the contemporary religious outlook as “smileyface satanism,” but we have noticed that Hallowe’en is now the most popular survivor of the old Christian festivals. Except, it wasn’t a feast, but the Eve of All Hallows. All Saints Day is in turn eve to All Souls, in a liturgical movement of the Christian calendar that remains startling after a thousand years. From Heaven the Saints have looked down, into Purgatory; & with them, for our own, we pray.

All Souls is murkily hallowed in our memory, to anno 1976, when we first hesitantly entered Christian churches, not as tourist but believer. Months had passed since our conversion, we’d become comfortable at last with Trinitarianism. But against church attendance we still chafed. We recall one of our earliest prayers to the personalized Deity: “Please, Lord, don’t make me go in there.” We still find this the hardest part of Christian instruction; we still need nearly to whip ourself to church. And we still go, flinching for what may happen, seeking the Mass & not “Christian society”; still essentially allergic to coffee clatches, & deficient in love for our fellow man; still seeking Christ & almost expecting to find someone else in charge.

Our first thought, after conversion, was to become a Catholic. For in an objective view of twenty centuries, it seemed perfectly obvious that the Roman was the Christian Church, par excellence. A close friend, & beloved old atheist companion from the road in Asia — giant, red-haired, Scottish, & with a mind redolent of Edinburgh, “able to kick a man or an idea down the stairs” — put it most succinctly. “If I’d had your experience,” he said, “I wouldn’t fart about. I’d go straight to Rome.”

But at the time we lived in England, where every glimpse we received of the Roman communion was a fresh source of discouragement. Even before converting, we were outraged aesthetically, by the desecration of Catholic worship that had followed on Vatican II; & by the 1970s we were confronted not only by a liturgy made wilfully & viciously ugly, but by the preaching of ridiculous heresies — plain even from a merely “literary” knowledge of Catholic doctrine. That, in short, was how we became “High Anglican,” & remained so for too many years. It sounded & looked vastly more Catholic; & the music was superb. The priests, too, were seldom “community organizers” from the batty Left; many seemed themselves to be Christian, & they could read & write.

The key was however to be found in a small village church in Suffolk. It was filled with “humble country folk,” cliché to our big city eyes. We had no business there; were only passing from Ipswich to Woodbridge on an idle architectural walking tour. (St Mary’s, Great Bealings, we thought it was; but now looking at the map we’re not sure it wasn’t St Mary’s, Playford.)

The tower bell was ringing, & on a sudden inspiration, entirely out of character, we went in. It was the evening of All Souls. We watched parishioners silently kneel before taking their pews; pray, stand, sit, mutter, listen; sing a hymn. Then they rose & began to stumble about.

Our memory fails, compounded by our confusion at the time. We were awkward, we had no notion what to do. We were ignored, stepped around, & almost through, as if an over-familiar ghost. There were candles, a procession was forming: “What now?” The procession led out, through the arch under the tower, into the churchyard. On clearing the portal it scattered, into small purposeful groups.

And then we realized: the people are carrying their candles to the tombstones; members of each family to their ancestors’ graves. For centuries, perhaps, they had been doing this; from time out of mind — ploughed into the ground, generation by generation, & rising again & again from this earth. “With the Lord, one day is as a thousand years, & a thousand years as one day.”

We had come as a spectator, or voyeur, we suppose; as an intellectual, curious in some anthropological way, always hungry for something to study & analyze. We had come now as a Christian, but from very far away. And now, to our stockpile of Christian teaching, we began to add: “I am one of these people.”