Tomorrow is the feast of All Saints Day, a holy day of obligation in the church in which I grew up. It is a day when we celebrate the saints both known and unknown to us, on whose intercession with god we depend. This makes tonight, of course, All Hallows Eve—Halloween—during which we keep vigil in preparation for the celebration to come.
Such was the belief of my childhood and earlier adulthood. For reasons that I needn’t rehash here, I moved away from those narratives and the sacraments surrounding them some time ago, but however far I’ve traveled from liturgy, theology, and doctrine, I still feel a space in my life for the function they serve.
To characterize yourself as “spiritual but not religious” has become something of a cliché, and with some justification since it can mean so many different thing, or nothing at all. In my case, it reminds me that there is a stream of existence wider and deeper than me, than humanity, than anything I will ever be able to encompass in my lifetime.
And so, the idea of a vigil to contemplate the saints who have shaped and steered my life makes sense. You see, I think saints come in all shapes and sizes, in all forms. I can recall at a moment’s notice the countless people, forces, experiences that have given me opportunities, encouragement, affirmation, sometimes without even knowing it. Sometimes without even knowing me. Sometimes far removed from me in time and space. Saints whose paths and sacrifices I don’t even know about.
While it may or may not be true that we each die alone, I can say with certainty that we do not live alone. The lives and acts of others populate my imagination and emotions. So often I react not to what the person in front of me just said but to what the person who is no longer physically present said four years ago, or believed four centuries ago, or gave up four decades ago.
In his play Equus, Peter Shaffer writes, “Life is only comprehensible through a thousand local Gods…living Geniuses of Place and Person! Spirits of certain trees, certain curves of brick wall, certain chip shops, if you like, and slate roofs—just as of certain frowns in people and slouches.”
I believe also in local saints, and I believe that we sometimes meet them in the darkness, the darkness of the sky and of our own personal spirits. Strange how we put on masks to induce our personas to fall away, how the visage obscured more easily sees and speaks the truth. Not the truth about the world, but the truth about ourselves. In the darkness of sleep, dreams plumb the depths of our identity: fears and hopes and most secret needs. And there our local and personal saints reside, waiting to greet and sustain us. Perhaps that’s what vigils are for.
So tonight I keep watch in gratitude for the souls of all my saints, known and unknown, and their presence in my life. In me.